The merits of policies, trust, and climate compromise

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Sean McElweee has a must-read in The Atlantic on how latent conservative support for climate solutions can be tapped through more effective framing. It’s based on extensive research into the different moral foundations that underpin liberal and conservative support for environmental protection:

One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.

My advisor and dissertation chair Matt Nisbet left an insightful comment to the piece in which he argues that “even if environmentalists were to figure out the most effective framing approach to climate change — and our analysis points to some possible directions — their success will still ultimately hinge on the portfolio of the policies and technologies that are the focus of their advocacy.” He argues that a willingness by environmentalists to allow technologies like nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS) to be part of the debate will help open up a space for political compromise.

This is an important perspective because compromise from both sides of the ideological divide will be a prerequisite to enactment of any meaningful climate action in the U.S. Our recent oligarchical tendencies aside, we still live under a system where far-reaching social and economic legislation requires broad enough political support to pass and endure. Unless climate activists plan to stage a coup my friends in the movement haven’t let me in on yet–which they haven’t, I swear!–and impose a draconian zero-carbon regime sometime soon, significant compromise lies ahead for everyone. This will require both innovative communication strategies that help make climate more salient and lessen political polarization around the issue, and compromises on the nitty-gritty details of policy.

Having said that, I see two challenges with getting a substantial number of environmentalists on board with technologies like nuclear and CCS: The first challenge is policy-based. Many environmentalists–certainly the most influential ones, from what I can tell–oppose these technologies based on what they genuinely believe to be solid policy grounds. Policy-wise, many consider nuclear plants unsafe and too costly. They believe the money would be much better spent elsewhere Many also consider CCS to be an unproven technology that’s highly unlikely to work, as well as unsafe and more expensive than just burning fossil fuels.

The second challenge is lack of political trust. This is completely anecdotal, but my sense from working in the climate movement is that they regard investments in nuclear and CCS as boondoggles to polluters. Particularly with CCS, it can be seen as a stalling tactic so that fossil fuel industries can keep burning those fuels as long as possible. Obviously there’s an ideological component here that is just averse to nuclear and extractive energy sources—even though wind turbines and solar farms require mineral extraction for batteries and other components. Ultimately, they see all these as distractions from the real solution: a 100% clean energy economy.

I am not dismissive of either nuclear or CCS on policy grounds because a) all other problems aside, nuclear objectively is much less carbon emission-intensive than coal, and b) I’ve learned never to rule out any possibilities on what scientists can accomplish. When I worked in the climate movement,  I often heard (and repeated) the line that CCS was a “myth”—but how can we be so sure some scientist can’t make it a reality? The U.S. Navy just turned sea water into gas. Sea water!

It would take genuine progress on challenge #2 to crack challenge #1. If environmentalists and other progressives could be reassured that conservatives take climate seriously as a social problem, and propose nuclear and CCS are serious efforts to solve it, this could make them more receptive to the policy merits of these technologies. Ideally, nuclear and CCS would be recognized as medium-term solutions that play a minor part in a long-term future dominated by clean, renewable, and safer energy sources. EDF already supports nuclear and CCS, so it can be done.

Without that trust, I don’t see how environmentalists can embrace these technologies unilaterally, especially since, absent this trust and good faith ex ante, they couldn’t be reassured that their concerns about these technologies would be addressed, or even taken seriously. Unfortunately, our current, noxious political climate doesn’t bode well for trust-building. The conservative movement’s radical turn against any and all government regulation, regardless of how much it might benefit society, predisposes conservatives to oppose the kinds of assurances that environmentalists would need to accept technologies like nuclear and CCS in good conscience. Just as environmentalists will have to accept certain policy compromises, conservatives will have to soften their stands on government regulation and investment if common ground is to be found.

Luis Hestres

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