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The Role of the Federal Government in Climate Matters: Isn't It Obvious?

image credit: Photo by Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash

At my doctor's the other day we somehow, got into a conversation about climate change. He's a self-professed old-school conservative Republican. I'm not, which probably accounts for our usually staying away from talking politics.

It is not to say we don't agree on some things in the political realm. For example, we both fret for the loss of civility and the nation's future should Donald Trump be re-elected.

Like a lot of people these days, we both voted early. I know it hurt him to vote for Biden. However, sometimes you gotta take one for the team.

I like my doctor. So as a gesture of goodwill, I promised to vote for a Republican sometime in the future. The truth is, it's not much of a  sacrifice. I've voted and worked for Republicans in the past. I suspect I will again in the future—assuming the Party of Trump goes back to being the Party of Lincoln.

Recognizing my well-honed talents to irritate and provoke when speaking "truth" to power, I thought my promise might offer some assurance he wouldn't leave things lying about the next time he opened me up.

Although not surprised, I was glad to learn that he values and accepts what the mainstream climate-science community is saying about the causes and consequences of Earth's warming. His confidence in science naturally enough led him to agree that we need to do something about it.

To that point in our conversation, we were pretty much on the same page—he and I. Then it happened. What do you mean by "we"? He said.

Then I said. What do you mean, what do I mean? The brilliance of my repartee dazzles—I know.

Then I said again, you know, you, me, information technology and energy companies, the federal government, and others--you know, we! It was at that point that he turned to me, and I thought there goes my assurance policy.

For such a little word, we can cause an awful lot of trouble.

As a Reagan-Bush Republican, the good doctor is naturally suspicious of big government. In part, it's that suspicion that helped Trump win in 2016. Ironically, it's his easy dismissal of science and refusal to employ properly the federal government's full force that may lead to his losing the election in 2020.

The two greatest existential threats facing the nation—viral pandemics and climate change—demand a a science-based response. So, it is hardly surprising that the relationship between science and the federal government is being debated in this year of chaos, crisis, and calamity.

Danielle Allen, co-author of Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience, says of the pandemic that:

It is a moment where societies are forced to answer the question of who they are. And I think [the U.S.] didn't answer that question terribly well.

Allen, who leads Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics, goes on to say:

The democracies led by populists—the U.S., the United Kingdom, Brazil—have done poorly, and the democracies led by institutionalists have done well—[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel being a prime example of an institutionalist.

The dismissal of Donald Trump and the election of Joe Biden does not answer the question of what we—the nation—is likely to do about either of the existential threats.

Even if former vice president Biden wins in a landslide, nearly half the nation has said through their actions that they will not respond well to any inconvenience placed upon them by an institutionalist president and administration. I've written before that fully two-thirds of Republicans (65 percent) say that scientists are either no better or worse at making policy decisions on subjects in their field than the average Joe or Jane on the street.

Will the millions of Americans who refuse to wear a simple piece of cloth in front of their face to protect their loved ones, if not themselves, change their minds on November-the-whenever should Biden be elected? Will the thousands who persist in carrying automatic weapons and contemplate holding governors hostage suddenly cease having such thoughts?

Did the tens of thousands of Democrats and Independents who voted for Hillary Clinton—say oh, never mind—and follow along in Trump's trail for the next four years as he gutted federal climate policies and programs? No, they did not.

Politicians like generals make the mistake of fighting the last war. As Tim Alberta writes:

…if we've learned anything about American elections in the post-9/11 era, it's that volatility is a feature, not a bug. George W. Bush's 'mandate' in 2004 was wiped out by a Democratic rout in 2006. Barack Obama's landslide in 2008 invited a Tea Party revolution in 2010. Trump's shocking upset in 2016 was chased by a blue wave in 2018.

So, what are government leaders to do? There's no easy answer to that particular question.

To depoliticize the consequences of climate change and garner broad-based political support for needed answers, government and industry leaders would do well to stand closer together on the same stage, emphasizing how the actions of the public and private sectors work best when harnessed together to solve the same problem(s).

Candidate Trump promised to "end Obama's war" on coal. As almost any coal miner in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio could tell you, President Trump has failed, not for any lack of trying. Even when Trump has tried to put his thumb on the scale, market forces have won.

What about the war on oil and natural gas that's said to be waged by radical progressives like Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D), who wants nothing more than to turn America into a socialist country? Why has the government forced oil companies to leave productive shale areas and into bankruptcy? Why indeed!

It took just weeks of a pandemic-prompted recession to roil the oil and gas industry. As Forbes reports, 36 oil producers have already filed bankruptcy with a strong possibility that between 60 and 70 more producers will file before the end of the year. To this point in 2016 there were more bankruptcies. This time around, however, there's not only more indebtedness. Asset values have tumbled because future demand is dwindling.

Solar and wind have accounted for 76 percent of the US's new electric generation so far this year. According to the US Energy Information Administration, most of the remainder has been supplied by natural gas (22 percent). Beyond the power sector, manufactures are rapidly moving towards electric for light-duty vehicles, and possibly fuel cells run on hydrogen from renewable sources and electric for long-haul trucks and heavy machinery.

Climate change and the inextricable march of technology are the forces behind the budding transition. Notwithstanding anything Trump and the Heritage Foundation have to say, the move towards lower-carbon, sustainable economies is well under-way. Why else is the US Chamber of Commerce now advocating for a government response to the climate crisis—after decades of denying the science?  

Why else have Shell and BP announced they are getting out of the fossil fuel business into the sustainable energy business? Decades of conservative opposition to cleaner alternative energy sources are crumbling more because of market forces than anything Representative Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise movement have to say or has done to date.

It was here the good doctor asked: If there's no putting the genie back into the bottle, why do we need the government? I suggested there are missing pieces to the puzzle that only the federal government can fill. I went to offer suggestions like the free flow of goods between states and the support of high-risk, long-term research that the corporate world is unlikely to undertake. Pieces that are not unlike what the federal government’s response has been to the public health crisis—no matter how effective or ineffective they've been.

As I was walking out the door, I asked two questions of him. How fast do you think ventilators would have been built or a COVID-19 vaccine developed without government intervention? Are you willing to leave the response to climate change up to corporate America?

Have I convinced my him by my arguments? Even more to the point is the question will we continue to discuss the politics of climate change in a civil manner? I'll let you know after my next visit.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, please don’t forget to vote!

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Joel Stronberg's picture

Thank Joel for the Post!

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