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Testing “Go Right” Messaging on Global Warming

October 23, 2011

On Friday, I gave some remarks in Dallas, Texas to a group of young leaders from different professions as part of the Next Generation Project organized by the Strauss Center for International Security and Law. For this diverse  audience, I tested what I described in my last post a “Go Right” messaging strategy on global warming, designed to appeal to partisans and nonpartisans alike.  You be the judge if this effort was successful. I’ve added some hyperlinks of sources I drew upon to write the speech.

It’s great to be here with all of you and to have the opportunity to participate in another Next Generation gathering. I remember distinctly the first of these that was held right here in Dallas back on this date five years ago in 2006. We then went on to do meetings in San Diego, Denver, Chicago, and DC. I participated as part of the leadership team on those events, and know this is a great opportunity to meet people from different fields and perspectives and to talk about issues in ways that get beyond the partisan rancor that we often see in the public arena.

I’m tasked with addressing the issue of the environment and energy, and I come at this as a political scientist with a particular interest in global policy and the international arena. Some years ago, I went to a conference in Sweden on energy security, and it was almost like two separate gatherings, the oil and gas people who were worried about the security of supply and the environmental people who were worried about global warming. And, though it was one conference, you had breakout sessions and the oil and gas people went to workshops talking about new pipelines, Russia’s behavior in its near abroad and so on. The climate people went to their corner to talk about renewables, the low carbon economy, and the impacts of global warming that demand a clean energy transition. So, you essentially had two conferences and the people who should have been talking to each other almost did not. 

You see this kind of separation in policy discussion happen here in the United States, but the argument takes on an even less tempered tone. On one side, you hear arguments such as we must allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be built to bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to Texas because we need the jobs. On the other, you hear we cannot allow the Keystone pipeline to be built or else it is “game over” for climate change or say no to the pipeline because it will contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, Nebraska’s main source of water. 

Some say we must drill more off our shores domestically everywhere including Alaska, and Virginia because we need the oil and we need the jobs. Others say, we cannot drill in new offshore sites because of the risks of more Deep Water Horizons in ecologically sensitive sites. 

In the natural gas field, we hear advocates that support the expansion of fracking make the case that process should remain unregulated, that natural gas is an abundant source of domestic clean energy that will make a lot of people wealthy and help lower our dependence on foreign energy sources. Others look to the experience of expansion of this sector and want to put a halt to it to prevent contamination of drinking water and potentially other problems. 

Listening to the public debate, you might not know it, but there can be more nuanced positions than all or nothing, though when the choice comes down to supporting a pipeline or not, there are tough trade-offs that often have to be made. In other cases, we might say well we’ll support reopening the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling but we still think Florida, California, parts of Alaska may be too environmentally sensitive to open up. We’ll consider some more drilling if you’ll support measures to bring about a long-run transition to a low carbon economy. In other cases, we might say, yes we support fracking technology and generally think natural gas is a cleaner, cost effective domestic energy alternative, but we need some rules to protect the public from unscrupulous operators. 

Unfortunately, such a balanced approach appears to be beyond us at the moment. No more so than the case of global warming which has been elevated to an issue of symbolic partisan identification. One party owns this issue, and the other has increasingly made its contestation of the science a signifier of what it means to be a member.   

The current state of affairs is an absolute disaster for those of us who are convinced that the issue is a real problem. In a political system such as ours, no single party has enough power to pass its agenda without support from the other. 

And it goes beyond global warming. One party is increasingly opposition environmental regulation of all kinds. It used to be different. Conservative and conservation have the same roots. The EPA was created under President Nixon. 

On the issue of global warming, it’s one thing in difficult economic times like we are now living in for a leader to say as Jon Huntsman has, yes, it’s a real problem, but I don’t think we can afford solution X at the moment. I respect that, even though I respectfully disagree. It’s quite another for people to entertain attitudes so at odds with what the scientific community is saying. 

Let me substantiate that a bit. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a review of almost 1400 climate researchers in 2010, finding that 97 to 98 percent of those publishing in the field believe humans are causing global warming. A survey in 2009 found similar percentages. 

Our own state climatologist John Nielson-Gammon parsed other studies and concluded that among earth scientists, 90% to 97% believe that global average surface temperatures have increased over the past century or two.

82% or 84% believe that human activity is significantly contributing to this warming and 85% think that the warming is at least moderately dangerous. 

Yesterday, the final results of a study by a Berkeley research team were released. This team included Richard Muller, a physicist known to be skeptical of the science of global warming, particularly with respect to the degree to which the earth’s warming is correlated with greenhouse gas emissions. He is a MacArthur genius award winner and his team includes a Nobel prize winning scientist. 

They analyzed more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources. They found that the average global land temperature has risen by around 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-1950s.

Here is what Muller said about his findings: 

“Some people lump the properly sceptical in with the deniers and that makes it easy to dismiss them, because the deniers pay no attention to science. But there have been people out there who have raised legitimate issues.” 

“My hope is that this will win over those people who are properly skeptical.” 

People who think this is a hoax perpetrated by scientists who merely want to get research grants fundamentally don’t understand the scientific process. Here is the thing about science. If you fake it, someone will ultimately call you out. Those thousands of scientists do not all simultaneously have an incentive to make things up because in time, falsifying data and conclusions are the surest way to losing your credibility and your livelihood.

Now, how have we gotten to this place? Part of the problem surely lies with activists who with their talk of “green jobs” made it sound like this was an easy problem that wouldn’t involve difficult choices. Walter Russell Mead describes this agenda as “Feeding The Masses On Unicorn Ribs.” Now, I tend to think in time there will ultimately be many good jobs in this sector, but we need to be careful about overselling this as the solution to the economic crisis. 

Moreover, it’s not an easy problem to solve. There are hundreds of millions of people on the planet who lack access to basic electrification so extending access will be hugely important for them. Our energy system is largely reliant on fossil fuels. Moving away from that can’t happen overnight but will require transformation in how we heat and light our homes and how we move ourselves around. Making the transition may be costly but it is also necessary. Fortunately, we have a lot of room for improvement because we don’t use existing energy sources all that efficiently. 

Lubbock October 2011

The current approach is simply unsustainable. In Texas, we’re experiencing the hottest year on record in the history of any state in the nation since records began. This is the worst drought in decades, potentially ever. Most of the Lost Pines of Bastrop burned. Lubbock just experienced an 8,000 foot dust storm. In the Austin area, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are now 38 percent full. At the state level, we’ve just sustained $5.2 billion in damages to the agricultural sector. 

I know this drought is in part the product of an especially strong La Niña effect which the state climatologist last week said could last until 2020. But, we also have strong reasons to believe that this kind of weather will be the new normal with global warming. It’s ultimately going to become necessary to do something to ward off the worst consequences of global warming and prepare for those that are already inevitable.
Going forward, I hope that we can have a conversation about different things we value and how we can best pursue economic growth, jobs, reliable, affordable, and sustainable sources of energy. There will be some difficult trade-offs and a need for priority setting, but maybe a honest dialogue about these multiple ambitions can yield a different policy environment than the one we’ve got. It’s that kind of aspiration that makes me so enthusiastic about gatherings like this one.
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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.