The Republican-controlled House has passed a defense policy bill asserting that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. While climate-change policy over the past decade seems irreparably divided along partisan lines, the schism has never been as deep as it appears, and now a bipartisan coalition in the House, the Climate Solutions Caucus, is bridging the gap. When it comes to climate change, much of the perceived distance between Democrats and Republicans is a distortion caused by the polarized lenses through which we’ve become accustomed to viewing political issues and politicians themselves.
Take public opinion on climate change. For all the vitriol in the comments sections of online articles, Americans agree climate change is a serious issue. Yale Climate Opinion data demonstrate that 70 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, compared to only 11 percent who think the opposite, and an overwhelming majority think it is a problem the U.S. government should be working to address. Yet only about one in three voters is optimistic that “the American people can convince Congress to pass ambitious legislation to reduce global warming.”
It’s difficult not to be disillusioned by the gridlock we’ve witnessed in Congress recently. What percentage of voters are optimistic that the American people can convince Congress to pass ambitious legislation on any topic these days? However, the polarized lenses through which we view our elected officials may be making the picture look darker than it is.
Consider our own Sen. Thom Tillis. His desire to connect people to nature through the creation of a bike trail is what first spurred him to enter local politics, and at a recent virtual town hall meeting he asserted the importance of “trying to bend the curve on carbon emissions.” Compare that to his entry on Wikipedia: the only issue highlighted with regard to “positions” is “environment,” namely that he supported withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and received donations from fossil fuel interests.
The polarized view presented in that Wikipedia entry – you either support existing climate regulations or you are anti-environment – not only erases Tillis’s positions and bipartisan efforts in areas like immigration reform, criminal justice reform and veterans’ affairs, but also tempts those determined to bring about positive action on climate change to falsely believe “This is not someone I can talk to.”
But what happens when you do talk to them? Last month, I found out, as I joined 1,000 other volunteers with Citizens’ Climate Lobby to talk to our senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., about bipartisan solutions to secure a livable world. In one day, my fellow volunteers participated in more than 500 meetings with members of Congress – meetings where Democrats and Republicans alike engaged in respectful dialogue about climate solutions, where we listened as much as we spoke, and where everyone left their polarized lenses at home. There is always common ground to be found, no matter how tiny a patch.
One strategy to reduce carbon emissions that finds common ground between liberals and conservatives is to impose a steadily rising fee on fossil fuels at the source and return the dividends evenly to all Americans. The fee sends a clear market signal that accelerates the clean-energy revolution, the dividend protects families from rising energy costs and stimulates the economy, and a border adjustment assures an even playing field internationally. A carbon fee and dividend plan that starts at $15 per of CO2 and rises $10 a year could reduce carbon emissions faster than the Clean Power Plan and surpass Paris targets. Carbon fee and dividend is supported by environmental nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy and by large corporations, including GM, Exxon, Shell and BP, which just last month took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to advocate for this kind of policy.
So how do we move past the partisan divide that has gripped our government for so long? First, we listen. We find solutions that address the concerns of all sides. This is what our meetings in D.C. last month were all about. But to erase the partisan caricatures that have overshadowed our elected officials’ true positions, members of Congress must act affirmatively and forcefully advocate for solutions that can produce meaningful and enduring results.
Lisa Falk is an earth science professor at N.C. State University, mother of a 2-year-old and a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby.