Last week, a group of elder Republican statesmen issued a call for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. This yielded a frenzy of headlines, hosannas from credulous journalists and environmentalists, and rapid repudiation by conservative groups.
Now that the GOP can repeal all the anti-energy, anti-job regs--the Left offers to trade those regs for a carbon tax.— Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) February 8, 2017
Vox’s Brad Plumer said what needed to be said about this cycle, which has played out about a dozen times over the past decades. Suffice to say, a carbon tax does not have, and has never had, support from any actual Republican officeholders. And trading away existing climate regulations for a revenue-neutral carbon tax is a bad idea anyway.
However! This week did bring a sign of bipartisanship that got much less attention, but might actually matter for climate change some day.
Guvs luv renewables
On Monday, a bipartisan group of governors sent President Trump a letter touting the benefits of renewable energy. Among other things, the letter pointed to the $222 million a year that wind farms pay to rural landowners and the $100 million a year renewable energy businesses invest in low-income areas. It asked Trump to help modernize the grid, support offshore wind development, extend renewable energy tax credits, and increase renewable energy research.
The letter came from the Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition, which boasts 20 state members. It is signed by chair Gina Raimondo (Democratic governor of Rhode Island) and vice chair Sam Brownback (Republican governor of Kansas). Along with the letter to Trump, the duo sent a second letter to all 50 governors, boasting about recent renewable energy wins at the state level and encouraging further investment.
The letters themselves are not that big a deal — the coalition has been around for several years and sent many similar letters to Obama — but they are evidence of a robust, enduring strain of bipartisanship on this issue (one that, unlike the carbon tax, commands support from more-than-zero Republican officeholders).
The difference is simple. Climate change is, to most people, entirely an abstraction, a matter of tribal positioning. Some states and cities are beginning to face practical effects of warming, and of course all of them ought to be planning for it in coming decades, but in practice, very few individuals or elected officials feel it as an immediate concern. There’s little cost to ideological posturing.
Renewable energy is different. It is a burgeoning business, attracting both white collar and manufacturing jobs, channeling investment to parts of these states that haven’t seen much economic development recently, and reducing electricity rates.
For politicians at the state and local level, it’s an immense practical benefit to their constituents. In such matters, ideology tends to fall by the wayside. (For evidence, see the recent bipartisan energy bill in Illinois or Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich defending the state’s clean energy standards.)
No true Randians in state government
There’s no clearer sign of that dynamic than Brownback’s signature on these letters. Brownback is legendary for taking over Kansas (along with a Republican supermajority in the legislature) and making it a showcase for conservative policy. He cut taxes, cut spending, cut services, and cut regulations. It was as close to a laboratory test of supply-side economics as you can get. (As it happens, it left the state in shambles.)
But wind power provides 30 percent of Kansas electricity. It has drawn $7 billion in capital investment to the state and supports, directly or indirectly, between 5,000 and 6,000 jobs there. Kansas landowners receive $10 to 15 million in lease payments every year from the industry. There are five wind manufacturing facilities in the state. (These stats come via the American Wind Energy Association, which has similar factsheets for all 50 states. At this point, solar power remains marginal in these Midwestern states, though it is growing.)
So there’s Brownback, signing on to a request for central federal planning, tax subsidies, supportive regulations, and spending on government research. None of these policies sit easily alongside the small-government ideology he champions. They amount to an explicit request for the feds to “pick winners.”
But, such is politics. Just as no one cares about deficits when their own party is the one doing the spending, no one cares about subsidies when their own interests are the ones being subsidized. There are no atheists in foxholes and no true Randians in state government. (More evidence: Both North and South Dakota, two of the most conservative states in the nation, are also members.)
Why clean energy bipartisanship could help on climate change
The falling cost and steady spread of renewables across the US heartland promises to help in an immediate way, as a political counterbalance to the anti-everything-Obama fervor among DC Republicans. That could keep renewables stronger, and growing faster, than they otherwise might, which will help reduce emissions.
But it’s also worth thinking about the longer term implications of these Midwestern states becoming renewable energy leaders. What will it mean when they begin to see themselves that way?
We often imagine that we form beliefs about the world based on evidence, and then those beliefs drive our actions. But that individualistic account is wildly misleading. In fact, we tend to adopt the values and worldviews of the places, tribes, and cultures in which we are embedded. If anything, our beliefs about matters of fact derive from those worldviews more than vice versa. (See cultural cognition theory for much more on this.)
Another way of putting this is, for the most part, what we believe follows from what we do and our social identity, not the other way around. If we (the tribes in which we are embedded) start doing different things, being different kinds of people, beliefs are likely to shift in a way that justifies and makes sense of those new actions.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that if Midwestern states like Kansas start leading on renewable energy, choosing renewable energy, working in renewable energy jobs, associating their state identity and state pride with renewables — that, more than anything, is likely to shift their opinions on global warming (and openness to serious climate policy).
Right now, many conservatives see climate change as an indictment of their lives and lifestyles. Fossil fuels are how they get around, where they work, what funds their governments. They are the villains of the story.
That is beginning to shift, at least in these Midwestern states. Leadership on renewable energy gives them the chance to be heroes in the climate story.
People are more likely to accept a story in which they are the heroes than one in which they are the villains. In that way, the spread of renewable energy softens the ground for greater acceptance of climate change science.