"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Yesterday we heard a theory about why and when climate change became a highly partisan issue (in short: when Clinton started championing it). Today we hear mixed feelings from conference participants. Should Democrats simply try to win, and thereby establish a mandate for change? Or should they try to lure Republicans into bipartisan consensus through incremental measures? I know where I come out on this question, but I’m curious to hear what you think.


Strategic Uncertainty: Pursue a Partisan or Bipartisan Approach?

Concerted efforts to reduce the polarization, however, will likely only proceed if there is sufficient agreement among party leaders that doing so is worthwhile. Interestingly, it appears that such agreement may not exist.

A key strategic problem on climate change, then, is not only the partisanship itself, but disagreement about how best to respond to it. At the Conference, we witnessed forceful disagreement between those who prefer to treat climate change as a partisan issue and others who see the path forward as one of bipartisan compromise. Each approach suggests distinct strategies.

The partisan strategy calls for articulating and perhaps expanding the distinction between the parties on climate change, and then harnessing the issue to draw votes, achieve victory, and eventually establish a mandate to assert one’s preferred policy over the objections of the other party.

A bipartisan strategy, on the other hand, would suggest formulating a middle-ground policy approach that compromises enough on both sides to establish a basis for near-term legislative advancements on climate change.

Which is more feasible? Which is more likely to attain meaningful outcomes in terms of actually mitigating climate change? (Unfortunately the answers to these two questions often diverge.)

The proponents of the partisan approach note that this issue has become so intractably aligned with the partisan divide that any concessions are unlikely to be reciprocated, resulting in further marginalization of the climate change issue. Instead, they say the only way to proceed is to exercise raw political power, wake up the public about the urgent nature of the issue, create a major public demand for action comparable to that which stimulated major environmental legislation in the 1970s, pursue outright victory at the polls, and prompt a general realignment in Washington, D.C.

Those favoring a bipartisan approach, on the other hand, prefer to separate the climate change issue from any partisan agenda so that the first and most feasible steps toward meaningful action can be passed into law at the earliest possible date — some call this a "purple" strategy (i.e., blending blue states and red states). The bipartisan roots of environmental progress are seen as favoring this model, and spotlighting that history to the rank-and-file is seen as one way to mobilize bipartisan support today.

While the Conference participants were not asked to reach consensus, the prevailing sentiment seemed to favor the bipartisan model. This became explicit in the case of the "New Vision for Energy" Recommendation (#20), which many thought would attain its goals more readily if bipartisan support for it were cultivated.

But the preference for bipartisanship at the Conference was not unconditional. Pursuit of bipartisan legislation on climate change that is capable of passage in both chambers of the U.S. Congress, perhaps an elusive goal in today’s power configuration, should not be permitted to devolve into a recipe for minimalist or token goals. Rather, any such legislation should be calibrated according to scientific evidence of what emissions reductions are needed, and over what time frame. Ultimately, testing the "bipartisan possible" against the science is the most intellectually honest way to choose between a bipartisan and partisan strategy. If the bipartisan bill that proves feasible is patently inadequate, it might still be pursued as a transient tactical maneuver, but this should not thereby rule out pursuit of a sharper partisan strategy and a robust civic engagement strategy if that is what is ultimately required to generate action that is commensurate with the science.

Spillover Effects Chill the Societal Dialogue

Perhaps the most underrated consequence of partisanship is that the aura of controversy it creates has seeped far beyond Washington D.C. and chilled our society’s overall engagement with the climate change issue, in ways large and small.

This starts at the cocktail-party level. Many people are conflict-averse, and in polite company, they instinctively avoid raising issues that have partisan content because of the risk of damaging relationships between family members or friends. Climate change appears to have fallen into this category of risky issues, which impedes the flow of information and the values-based dialogues that might otherwise occur. A lack of cocktail chatter may seem like a trivial matter, but if one substitutes enough dysfunctional silences where conversation might otherwise have occurred, the vibrancy of our democracy is undermined and our ability to contend with issues like climate change is compromised.

Moving to the workplace, many Americans are prohibited by the tax-exempt status of their organizations (or other dictates of protocol or decorum), from lobbying and, more importantly, are discouraged from saying anything that might even be perceived as such. In this way, also, partisanship and controversy cast a long shadow. School teachers reportedly exhibit reluctance to teach the issue for fear it will provoke the ire of parents. Climate scientists risk character assassination — and possibly their funding — if they enter the public domain and speak out on the public policy implications of their findings.

The politicization of the climate change issue has also reverberated through the business community. We heard at the Conference that some business leaders have been privately told not to take a forthcoming stance on the issue by elected officials who are important to their ability to get things done, such as the issuance of permits for new facilities. Some noted that this begins to sound like a sort of "upside down" democracy, where politicians are lobbying their constituents rather than the other way around.

Defusing Partisanship — At Least on Climate Change

The Conference did not presume to solve the issue of partisanship in America, but did pose several ways to potentially detach the issue of climate change from the larger stalemate.

  • First, it recommended a purple strategy to promote transformation of our nation’s energy system (Recommendation #20). This report has discussed the compelling argument that the ongoing reevaluation of U.S. energy strategy may be the best wagon to which the climate change issue could be hitched, provided the cautions mentioned earlier are heeded.
  • Second, given the problems of taking partisanship head-on, Recommendation #23 calls for a work-around whereby party elders no longer in office would convene to explore and develop areas of common ground on the climate change issue. Then, and only then, they would privately caucus with incumbents in their respective parties to seek to ameliorate the partisan dynamic at play on the climate change issue.
  • Third, two other recommendations viewed religion and morality as pivotal to shaking up the partisan entrenchment on climate change. Recommendation #14 urges that the religious community communicate the urgency of addressing climate change to the nation’s political leadership and Recommendation #21 advises that climate change be "recast" as a "moral and faith issue, not a scientific or environmental one," and that a broader coalition of allies be catalyzed "around this moral common ground."