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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

In praise of Gordon Gekko
February 3, 2010 - 10:02pm

Today, I got lucky.

It's usually better to be lucky than good (a poker player told me that one). It's always better to be lucky than smart (pure intelligence, if there is such a thing, doesn't correlate particularly well with good outcomes -- luck, if there is such a thing, does). So today must be one of my better days.

I've been pondering the implications of "Global Warming's Six Americas 2009", a report from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. As I mentioned last week, this is an audience segmentation analysis which breaks the American public down into six segments based on their attitudes about climate change -- segments ranging from the Alarmed to the Dismissive.

One of the most obvious conclusions in the report is that the largest category -- those who are Concerned -- contains one in three Americans all by itself. Combine it with those who are Alarmed, and you account for 51 percent of the American public. In a pure democracy, 51% of the population would be enough to decide the issue but, as recent US Senate experience has proven, this isn't a pure democracy and a majority requires more than 60% to be effective. Thus, my focus since my first reading of the report has been on the two categories of individuals who are less than Concerned but still more than Doubtful or Dismissive. The Cautious constitute 19% of the populace, and the Disengaged another 12%. Add that 31% (or even a good portion of it) to the 51% already on board, and you might have enough of a consensus to actually act upon.

The question that's been occupying my mind for the last week, then, has been how to construct a message which would appeal to the Cautious ("Yeah, the climate is probably changing, but let's not rush into this") and the Disengaged ("Climate change? Well yeah, probably. Haven't thought much about it") without alienating the Alarmed or the Concerned. My thoughts had been focusing mainly on the cautionary principle and everyone's hopes and wishes for their grandkids (born or otherwise). I was trying to be good, or at least smart. Then, I got lucky.

This morning, on public radio segment The Environment Report (out of the U of Michigan), I heard the second half of an interview with James Hansen. The mist cleared. Precaution and grandkids aren't bad, but those arguments lack force. The reason the Cautious and the Disengaged are so -- well -- cautious and/or disengaged is that they don't see what's in it for them.

The challenge to those of us concerned with ecological sustainability and minimizing climate change (no one I know is talking about avoiding it any more) is to communicate clearly and simply the reason Americans want their government to take action. The reason can be simple. Gordon Gekko was right. Greed is good.

Hansen was making the point that cap-and-trade is a market-based solution to a societal problem, but it clearly isn't appealling to the very people who preach that market-based solutions cure all ills. There's a disconnect here. And we can't address the disconnect on an intellectual level, because that's not where it exists.

The disconnect exists on an economic level. Established interests are making lots of money the way things are. Those same interests are less likely to make lots of money in a sustainable energy economy. Thus, those interests (with clearly subsidized assistance from Citizens United and presumably unsubsidized assistance from SCOTUS) will continue to spend lots of money to make sure people remain cautious and/or disengaged, so that nothing much changes.

Money is what's keeping this country from addressing climate change. Money is what can cause us to deal with the problem.

One of the issues I've had with most cap-and-trade GHG reduction schemes is that they, in effect, reward the very people and organizations who created the problem in the first place. I can see the political pragmatism that presents, but also the economic pragmatism which says that if you're going to bribe profitable malefactors to change their behavior, you better bring a lot of money.

What Hansen pointed out this morning is that a fossil carbon fee -- imposed at the mine, at the wellhead, and at the port of entry -- could easily generate a whole lot of money. He presumed that it would be implemented gradually, to allow people to modify their behavior and mitigate the impacts. But he estimated that by the time the carbon fee effectively raised the price of a gallon of gasoline by a dollar, it would generate enough money to pay every adult in the US $3000 per year, and every child (up to two children per family) another $1500.

A family of four, then, might spend an additional $1000 a year on gasoline and proportionally more for electricity, heating oil, natural gas, whatever. But they'd be pulling down an additional $9000 per year, some of which should be left over after all the additional costs are paid. And that's without any sort of behavioral change at all.

In fact, a lot of families -- given the opportunity -- will find ways to modify their behaviors, reduce their usage (directly or otherwise) of fossil fuels, and hold on to more of the $9000 annual payout. Corporations would, similarly, adapt. Those which adapted efficiently would make lots of money. Those which didn't, well . . .

But each American family (except, perhaps, the truly richest and most profligate) could come out ahead. Certainly, most of them would expect to. And, in even an impure democracy, financial expectations present powerful political arguments.

Say the prospect of an extra couple thousand a year is enough to sway the Cautious. And it's enough to split the Disengaged right down the middle. That's 25% of the American public, in addition to the 51% who are already on board. Three out of four Americans who would be in favor of doing something about climate change, and who would feel cheated by any government not willing to make that happen.

Now that's a political argument that's so easy to sell you don't have to be lucky. Or good. Or even smart.

 

 

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