In My Words: Climate politics is a mess. Political climate solutions are still needed

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Biology Dave Gammon offers suggestions to those on both sides of the political aisle about how to approach climate solutions. The column was published by the Greensboro News & Record, the Fayetteville Observer, the Times-News of Burlington and other media outlets.

By Dave Gammon

Do your eyes ever roll when politicians on either side of the political aisle mention the topic of climate change? Many Democrats talk about climate change as if the world were about to end. Many Republicans either downplay its importance or ignore climate change altogether. A polarized media climate that eagerly blames “those guys” for “our” problems just adds fuel to the fire.

Dave Gammon, professor of biology

I might be a scientist, but this column focuses instead on the much messier topic of climate politics. If you want scientific proof that human-caused climate change is real and relevant, find a good source that strips out the politics – say a high school science textbook or a NASA website.

By nature, I am an optimist, but this will be a pessimistic column. U.S. politics just does not inspire much optimism these days. If my column is successful, however, I will frustrate and perhaps enlighten citizens across the political spectrum.

My main gripe with many Democrats is how they talk about climate change. Loaded terms like ‘crisis’ and ‘existential threat’ evoke an immediacy and a feeling of fear that are not helpful when thinking about climatesolutions. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the onset of the 2008 housing crisis were crises. Climate change is a much different kind of problem. Fear might motivate quick action, but too often it leads to poor decision-making. (Remember the poor decisions our country made in Iraq following the 9/11 attacks?)

My main gripe with many Republicans is when they downplay or ignore the importance of climate change. Just as we need to balance the ballooning federal budget, we also need to balance the buildup of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere. Ignoring an important problem does not make it go away. And just like the debt, delaying solutions only makes the solutions more expensive.

Here are some suggestions for how to have more productive political conversations about climate change:

Democrats: Please don’t treat ‘climate denial’ as synonymous with the Republican Party. If you listen carefully to Republican politicians and conservative media like Fox News, you will hear climate denial only rarely. My hunch is that most conservatives would be willing to entertain climate solutions that align with their values.

Republicans: Please don’t treat wacko climate solutions as synonymous with the Democratic Party. If you listen carefully to Democratic politicians and liberal media like NPR, you will rarely hear support for bizarre ‘solutions’ such as munching on insects or doubling federal spending to cover a Green New Deal. My hunch is that most liberals understand decarbonizing our economy must be balanced with other important needs, such as keeping energy affordable and preserving financial autonomy for ordinary citizens.

Democrats: Please don’t marginalize conservatives when talking about climate solutions. Privileging only climate solutions founded on liberal values is not an inclusive strategy. Plans to assist ‘climate refugees’ or to phase out gas-powered cars might inspire liberals, but they will not motivate conservatives. We instead need climate solutions that work across the political spectrum. Climate change is too important, and it is naïve to pretend our country’s stubbornly-even partisan split will magically disappear.

Republicans: Please don’t ignore climate change. To ensure a stable and prosperous country for your kids and grandkids, climate change must be one of many issues you care about. The best societal outcomes will be achieved only if the table of political solutions includes climate solutions that align with conservative goals like minimizing government spending and preserving a vibrant and innovative private sector.

Regardless of who wins this year’s elections, climate politics will still need resolution. Hoping “our side” will defeat and vanquish the “other side” permanently is just wishful thinking and counterproductive.

More realistically, we must grit our teeth, and expect political tradeoffs, regardless of how, or whether, we respond to climate change. Speaking beyond our political silo takes courage, but it is exactly the approach that will generate lasting climate solutions. Conservatives and liberals already share the same climate. We might as well start sharing political space for climate solutions.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.