How to Get Climate Policy Enacted Now
Cross the aisle, listen, seek common ground (even in a time of hyper-polarization)
We are facing an enormous challenge with devastating consequences that is only getting worse. The majority of the population knows this to be a huge problem and supports regulation. But thus far, policy progress has been mostly intractable. Sound familiar? Of course it does.
But this time, I’m not talking about the environment (although I could be).
I’m talking about gun violence.
And this time, some policy progress has actually been achieved.
This week Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. It's a landmark, bipartisan package of “modest gun safety measures” that aims to keep guns out of the hands of the most dangerous members of society. It certainly doesn’t come close to satisfying the sweeping demands the Democrats have long articulated. But it's not the zero action that many Republicans have insisted on either.
In hammering out a deal and maintaining a solid, if fragile coalition, the bill’s lead negotiators, Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Senators John Cornyn and Thom Tillis expressed something like this: “This bill might not be perfect. But some progress is much better than no progress.”
Their initiative doesn’t come out of nowhere of course. Advocates have worked hard on the challenge for a long time. The private sector has led too. Walmart, Kroger’s, and a host of other retailers banned “open carry” in their stores; Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped carrying assault and certain semi-automatic rifles; L.L. Bean stopped selling guns to anyone under the age of 21; Bank of America stopped lending capital to manufacturers of military-style firearms for civilian use; and so on.
Still, some people may be surprised that Republicans such as Cornyn were willing to take such a big chance. After all, he almost got booed off the stage last week at the Texas GOP Convention.
But Cornyn is not politically foolish. He sees the tides are turning and the advantage in leading. He rightfully notes that a majority of people want progress. And – together with his colleagues and counterparts – chose legislative actions strategically. The negotiating group sought opportunities for smaller wins, where there might be a viable political path forward, and then worked to forge that path.
For the past two weeks the group engaged in respectful dialogue that crossed party lines with the goal of getting things done. It actually worked. I hope we can build on that. It should provide a path to gain momentum.
I don’t know about you, but I think this very concrete evidence that we actually can break the logjam is enough to give us a sense of palpable relief and propel us forward, especially this week when we face extraordinary divisiveness and polarizing Supreme Court decisions.
The gun bill is also instructive on how we might go forward on the environmental front. Climate policy does not need to be a hopelessly partisan matter
Just like the devastating effects of gun violence, climate change will continue to wreak havoc in the months immediately ahead. We should expect more of the floods, droughts, lethal heat waves, and fires that have become scarily commonplace. These calamities will cause what could and should have been avoidable harm. The only silver lining is that these events could also pressure the U.S., the world, and our leaders to think more pragmatically about policies to address the crisis.
What might that look like?
Following the example of the gun regulators, the game plan would call for reaching across the proverbial aisle and figuring out where there are opportunities for no-regret climate policies around which a majority coalition can be built. It seems doable to me and easier than the gun challenge. Most climate policies can be designed not only to reduce emissions, but also to boost the economy and jobs, while achieving co-benefits like better health outcomes and/or environmental justice. Examples include:
clean energy standards
extensions of tax incentives for solar and wind
initiatives to accelerate green hydrogen
maybe even a price on carbon
and so on.
Done right, such policies would merit bipartisan support.
And, as with guns, we have momentum we can draw from. We have lots of movement in the private sector. Media coverage of the climate crisis has improved. Politicians know young voters care about climate.
So the task before us now is to start listening better to one another, find a way to narrow the divides, and get some things done.
Could critics of business shift gears a bit and credit the private sector for the climate leadership they are showing?
Could business leaders acknowledge that there’s only so far they can get on a voluntary basis and join with environmentalists in pushing for the policies we so badly need?
Can NGOs do more to build a broad majority coalition?
Personally, I like watching the way Fred Guttenberg, the father of Parkland shooting victim Jaime Guttenberg, and former GOP Congressman Joe Walsh interact together on television. They probably only agree at the lowest common denominator but that doesn’t stop them from being unwaveringly respectful toward one another in service of that common purpose.
Let’s follow their example and focus less on where differences are greatest and instead emphasize areas where we can find common ground. Let’s work to build some respect and trust. If necessary, we can start with smaller wins and build from there. That would be bold action in my book.
Paradoxically, as the country is becoming more divided, we seem to be reaching a minimalist baseline of bipartisanship in climate change and gun safety. What Chris Murphy achieved is remarkable, even though it’s equally remarkable that it took so many tragedies and so many decades just to get the small step forward represented by the new law. And in climate change I’ve noticed the denial side’s position has evolved from: “it’s a hoax” to “the climate is changing but it’s not man made” to “what is a transition strategy to clean energy that doesn’t wreck the economy.” This is progress (although it’s glacial, pun intended).