The Climate Change Trap

The accepted wisdom in Washington holds that energy and the environment are fraught, partisan subjects on which there is little room for compromise. Time and again, Republicans question the existence of climate change, Democrats question the scientific literacy of Republicans—and, inevitably, no progress is made.

But, as Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky use survey data to argue in their compelling new book, Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think About Energy in the Age of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2014), the rest of the country looks at the environment in a somewhat different way. Namely, a more practical one. As the title suggests, the authors posit that, when it comes to energy and the environment, basic matters such as cost and cleanliness—will the water be pure? will the air be clean?—are voters' chief interests. On climate change, by contrast, Americans "express concern about the problem in the abstract," the authors write, "but neither is the risk of climate change high on our list of public priorities, nor is it a problem for which we are willing to pay more than a small amount."

(Steve Moors)This suggests that pro-environment politicians hoping to pass climate-friendly policies may benefit from minimizing talk about global warming and instead focusing on immediate and localized health risks. Indeed, the White House is already using this messaging. In announcing new draft regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency in May, for instance, President Obama didn't emphasize the benefits to the global climate. Instead, he touted what have been termed "ancillary benefits"—that the new rules would prevent 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in just the first year they're implemented.

This rhetoric echoes the strategy that worked for environmentalists during the 1970s, when the movement emphasized  concrete goals like clean air and water. But the authors point out that this approach has succeeded more recently, too. They cite a case study from the 2010 election: California's Proposition 23, which threatened to scrap the state's landmark clean-energy legislation that had  passed several years earlier. In 2010, California was still suffering the effects of a severe recession. During economic downturns, environmental issues—particularly ones with a hefty price tag attached—fare terribly with voters. And yet, by playing up the role of the unpopular oil companies and emphasizing the health risks associated with Prop 23, environmental advocates managed to prevail. "Passing and successfully defending climate legislation turned not on the risks and costs of global warming to future generations," the authors explain, "but on the immediate social costs associated with air and water pollution from the energy sector." Such salesmanship could prove a valuable weapon for environmentalists: The authors argue that "the nation might even ignore the climate issue and make progress on the problem."

To be sure, if Ansolabehere and Konisky's research offers practical advice for environmentalists, it contains downsides for them as well. Americans are, after all, concerned about the cost of energy. And when people are informed of the true costs of wind and solar power, they are less likely to be supportive.

There are no simple answers here for environmental activists, or for politicians on either side of the aisle. Still, the finding that Americans are consistent about what they look for in energy provides an opening for policymakers. Rather than seeking to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the authors recommend emphasizing measures that aim to capture the social cost of carbon, which is to say, the costs in areas such as health and worker productivity. "We pay these costs throughout our economy," the authors note, "but they are not reflected in the price of energy." Perhaps if environmentalists focused less on climate change, they would be able to  address this conundrum.