New Win-Win-Win Issue Position on Climate Change Published
The original impetus for the founding of the Institute for Cultural Evolution in 2012 was to help reduce public resistance to meaningful action on the climate crisis. But after working on this issue for our first two years of operation, in 2014 we shifted our focus to the issue of political polarization because we found that hyperpolarization was the main barrier to building greater political will in the U.S. to address global warming.
Climate change, of course, is more than a political issue. Preserving the health of the biosphere and preventing the disruption of human societies worldwide is a sacred cause which understandably produces a passionate moral commitment among those who recognize the stakes for humanity. This passion, however, has unfortunately become an obstacle1 to forging the comprehensive political agreement required for the U.S. government to be maximally effective in its efforts to combat the problem in the near-term.
Progressive activists argue that, to adequately respond to the climate emergency, the global economy must immediately abandon fossil fuels and significantly reform the energy-intensive lifestyles of people living in the developed world.2 Yet even if this drastic prescription may seem justified by the scale of the crisis, it is currently politically impossible. Despite clear and mounting evidence of the devastating consequences of a rapidly warming planet, the political will required to significantly reduce our energy consumption remains inadequate. And even if we reached a political tipping point in America in the near future—even if we immediately adopted the Green New Deal and implemented every feasible domestic proposal called for by environmentalists—this would not resolve the crisis.
The hard truth is that the U.S. is only responsible for 15% of global carbon emissions. Which means that America cannot arrest global warming unilaterally. Nevertheless, as the nation most responsible for the rise of modernity, we have a moral duty to demonstrate strong leadership on this issue by showing how modern economies can wean themselves from fossil fuel-based energy while retaining their commitment to ongoing economic development and rising living standards. America can accordingly demonstrate pragmatic leadership by:
Overcoming domestic political resistance—building political will—to mobilize the public and private sectors to take more meaningful and significant action than is currently possible within America’s polarized political environment.
Undertaking a comprehensive and coordinated public/private project to rapidly develop technological solutions that can be effectively implemented by the rest of the world. While a host of promising alternative energy projects are now in the works, given the requisite political will, the U.S. government could go well beyond current efforts by establishing the equivalent of the “Manhattan Project” to accelerate the development of exportable technological solutions.
The climate change measures currently being pursued by the Biden administration3 are welcome and worthwhile. But while the U.S. is now beginning to demonstrate leadership on this issue by working to further reduce its own domestic carbon footprint, because 85% of the carbon pollution is coming from foreign countries, the most globally effective way for America to respond on this issue is to focus primarily on exportable technological and engineering solutions.
Specifically, this means more rapidly developing breakthrough technologies such as advanced nuclear energy,4 next generation battery technology, large scale carbon capture, enhanced geothermal systems, cultured meats and lab-grown dairy, and even geo-engineering. This technology-focused strategy for combatting global warming is exemplified by the approach known as ecomodernism (described below).
So what about reduced consumption and renewable energy? The Institute’s climate change policy proposal applauds and encourages the ongoing efforts of the environmental movement to change consumption habits and increase the percentage of renewables in our energy mix. But another hard truth is that renewable energy alone will not be able to meet domestic or international energy demands for a long time, even with anticipated technological improvements. And even significantly reduced consumption, which remains unpopular and unfeasible, cannot fill the gap. Given the rapid onset of global warming, Americans have neither the time nor the political will to pursue an “ecologically pure” strategy.
Preserving the health of our natural environment is crucial for our collective well-being. Which is why we can no longer indulge in the idealistic fantasy that America’s economy and energy systems can be immediately and radically transformed. Totalitarian demands may feel good, but this kind of absolutistic rhetoric serves to block the formation of a larger national consensus around the most timely and realistic near-term approaches. As Ted Nordhaus and Morgan D. Bazilian write: “the climate discourse gyrates between apocalyptic doomsaying and utopian claims that a rapid energy transition over a decade or two is within reach. … [But] the politics of an actual energy transition can only proceed by detaching it from the grandiose demands of the global climate commentariat.”5
Problems to Be Solved
Our Rapidly Changing Climate Is Causing Global Disruptions
The world-wide growth of modernity’s fossil fuel-based energy economy is generating green house gasses that are now causing rapid global warming. Rising temperatures are disrupting human societies and biological ecosystems, and scientists predict that these disruptions will increase in severity and intensity as the climate gets hotter. To ameliorate the disruptions associated with our rapidly changing climate, we need to reduce emissions both domestically and internationally. “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”6
Renewable Energy Sources Cannot Yet Meet Demand
The cost and efficiency of renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, are improving. But without a major technological breakthrough, renewable energy alone cannot meet the world’s current or anticipated future needs for affordable energy.
Ameliorating Climate Change Requires Global Cooperation
Because the U.S. is only responsible for 15% of global carbon emissions, its efforts to meaningfully ameliorate global warming will not succeed unless other countries significantly reduce their emissions as well.
Government Actions to Combat Climate Change Are Resisted by Many on the Right
Efforts to combat global warming have become embroiled in America’s culture war wherein peoples’ position on climate change now serves as a proxy for their political identity. Many U.S. voters see the issue as a Trojan Horse for the larger progressive agenda of socialism. Resistance to more meaningful action on climate change is accordingly viewed by many conservatives as necessary to counter the growing power of progressivism.
Wins Sought for Each Major Worldview
As with the other issue positions in our platform, our climate change proposal seeks to build political consensus by finding “win-win-win” solutions that integrate the values of all three major American worldviews: progressive, modern, and traditional. Indeed, significantly increasing our investment in remedial technology will itself require a strong political commitment from the American public, and the Institute’s method of “values integration” can help build this commitment.
A win-win-win policy for ameliorating climate change would ideally achieve the following wins for each worldview:
Political will to combat climate change would be significantly increased.
The U.S. would demonstrate more effective international leadership on the amelioration of global warming.
By pursuing a policy guided by ecomodernist philosophy, “humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth—even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends.”7
A strategy that sees ongoing economic development as an indispensable precondition to preserving the environment would ensure that globalizing modernity continues to bring prosperity, connectivity, and democracy to the developing world.
Increased government funding of technologies and industrial capabilities to address climate change would create a significant market for investment and wealth creation.
By endorsing meaningful increases in our national efforts to ameliorate climate change, modernists would help reduce progressivism’s anti-modernist proclivities and create a more cooperative political environment.
A twenty-first century “Manhattan Project” to transform energy technology would bolster healthy civic nationalism. America could once again become “the indispensable nation” by leading the world on this issue, and by thus passing on a homeland in which our children and grandchildren can flourish.
The stigma of climate denialism would be reduced within conservative politics, making Republican affiliation more acceptable to young people.
The progressive Green New Deal, and similar radical proposals, would be averted.
The Biblical injunction for stewardship of the earth would be followed: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”8
An Example of a Realistic Policy Approach: Ecomodernism
The Institute for Cultural Evolution’s strategy for developing its overall platform of politic positions is to identify existing exemplary approaches for each issue that can potentially deliver wins to all three worldviews. For example, in our position on healthcare reform we pointed to the Swiss healthcare system as a good example of a win-win-win policy solution that could work in the U.S. On the issue of climate change, we believe that an existing policy approach that could similarly garner meaningful support across America’s political spectrum is found in the framework known as ecomodernism.
From Wikipedia: “Ecomodernism is an environmental philosophy which argues that humans should strive to protect nature and improve human wellbeing by developing and deploying technologies that decouple human development from environmental impacts. Ecomodernism emphasizes that intentional innovation and deployment of environmentally beneficial technologies should be a focus of state policy, and that intensification of human activities can reduce harmful human impacts on the natural world.”9
Ecomodernism is not a panacea for climate change, but this approach has the best chance of overcoming the first barrier to more effective action identified in our overview above: domestic political resistance. While additional domestic legislative remedies, such as a carbon fee and dividend law, may be desirable, national legislation aimed at pricing carbon remains politically unattainable. Taxing carbon is less popular than defunding the police. Given the urgency and international scope of the problem, our political efforts should therefore be focused on policy approaches that have a more realistic chance of near-term success.
Ecomodernist solutions focus on accelerating the pace of low-carbon energy innovation, reducing humanity’s footprint by using nature more intensively, and bringing these programs of innovation and intensification within democratic control. Ecomodernism ascribes a central role to publicly funded innovation in steering technological change towards socially desirable objectives. Pursuing an ecomodernist climate change strategy could accordingly begin with the following three steps:
The significant increase in government funding for the research and development of breakthrough energy technologies—a twenty-first century “Manhattan Project.” The federal “Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy” needs more money to help develop battery, carbon capture, next generation nuclear, enhanced geothermal systems, and geo-engineering technologies. These efforts could be supplemented through the creation of a major public/private initiative to share and coordinate R&D around clean energy technologies.
The appointment of a federal “Nuclear Energy Czar” tasked with fast-tracking the construction of next generation nuclear power plants across the U.S. through government-backed financing and regulatory simplification.
The formal signaling of America’s commitment to renew its international leadership in the amelioration of global warming through the substantial funding of R&D described in steps 1 and 2 above, and through a renewal of America’s climate-focused international diplomacy, in which climate change amelioration would be given equal priority with trade and security issues.
Post-Progressive Persuasion Strategies
Argument to progressives: The well-meaning attempts of progressives to use climate change as a justification for larger social and economic reforms have unfortunately contributed to contemporary political resistance on this issue. By supporting a more widely agreeable win-win-win approach, as exemplified by ecomodernism, progressives can increase the political effectiveness of their climate change amelioration advocacy and respond more pragmatically to this urgent problem. Although the rise of modernity has created the climate crisis, even if it were possible, significantly scaling back or abandoning modernity would create global problems equal to, or even greater than, the challenge of a warming world. Given the limited time we have left to prevent the worst scenarios, we must now combat this problem with the most powerful and pragmatic tool we have: American ingenuity.
Argument to modernists: Pursuing an ecomodernist approach will be a boon for American business. And this kind of approach will help preserve economic vitality while meeting the increasing demands of the investor class for environmentally sustainable economic policies and business practices. The United States has a proven historical track record of creating “entirely new technologies and sectors that set the stage for later long-run economic growth (jet engines and radar, medical and agricultural research). … The most fundamental technological advances of the past half century … were funded by government agencies, with private businesses moving into the game only once the returns were in clear sight.”10
Argument to traditionalists: The problem of global warming affects everyone. We can no longer allow meaningful action on this issue to be stymied by America’s culture war. As Jim Rietmulder writes: “We must put aside political differences to make way for American ingenuity, technological power, and manufacturing excellence to secure our children’s future. In addition to boosting the economy, reasserting American leadership in this manner can build young people’s pride in our country.”11
1. See: The Institute for Cultural Evolution’s “Campaign Plan for Climate Change Amelioration” (2013) http://www.culturalevolution.org/docs/ICE-Climate-Plan.pdf
2. See e.g. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2015). https://www.amazon.com/This-Changes-Everything-Capitalism-Climate/dp/1451697392
3. See e.g. “Biden Completing Opening Moves in Climate Strategy,” American Institute of Physics, May 25, 2021. https://www.aip.org/fyi/2021/biden-completing-opening-moves-climate-strategy
4. See the Nuclear Innovation Alliance website for a description of coming nuclear energy technologies. https://nuclearinnovationalliance.org/advanced-nuclear-0
5. Quote from “Biden’s Welcome Hypocrisy on Climate Policy,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 26, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/bidens-welcome-hypocrisy-on-climate-policy-11629993737?st=wgirx509c6dik2n&reflink=desktopwebshare_twitter
6. Quote from “The Fourth National Climate Assessment,” representing the consensus view of 13 U.S. federal agencies and 300 experts. Cited in: Clancy and White, The Ultimate Guide to the 2020 Election (Diversion Books, 2020). https://www.globalchange.gov/nca4
7. Eduardo Porter, “A Call to Look Past Sustainable Development,” New York Times, April 14, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/business/an-environmentalist-call-to-look-past-sustainable-development.html?_r=1
8. Psalm 24:1.
9. Ecomodernism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecomodernism. See also: “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” http://www.ecomodernism.org
10. Symons and Karlsson, “Ecomodernist citizenship: rethinking political obligations in a climate-changed world” in The Journal of Citizenship Studies, 22(8):1-20, August 2018. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326997215_Ecomodernist_citizenship_rethinking_political_obligations_in_a_climate-changed_world
11. Quote from author Jim Rietmulder’s comment on an earlier draft of this position paper.