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What does the future hold for climate policy?

 May 15, 2024 at 4:54 PM PDT

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. On today's show , we'll explore what the future of bipartisan climate policy could look like. This is Midday Edition , connecting our communities through conversation. Welcome back. You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. November elections are coming , and climate change is one of many issues on the minds of voters. However , Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on how to tackle the crisis or if there even is one in some cases. Benji backer is author of the book The Conservative Environmentalist Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future. Tomorrow , he'll be speaking about the future of bipartisan climate policy at UC San Diego. Benjie , welcome.

S2: Great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

S1: So glad you're here. Also with us is David Victor. He's a professor at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy and will moderate the event. Professor Victor , welcome. Jade.

S3: Jade. It's great to be back.

S1: Glad to have you as well.

S2: This issue used to be something that people across the spectrum worked on together , across differences and united across differences to find solutions that might have meant compromise and working across those those differences. But it really was about finding that common ground. Today , we're seeing a very partisan approach to climate action and environmental protection. I want to end that partisanship. I want to make the environment and climate nonpartisan. Again. That's my that's my goal. And conservatives have to be at the table if we want to solve environmental issues. I'm a passionate conservative. I have been since a very , very young age. And the book and my work founding the American Conservation Coalition has been dedicated to building that political bridge that must be built for us to have a sustainable future.

S1: And this book came after seven years of you traveling around the country as a climate advocate.

S2: However , older generations are much more divided , but they are open to a lot of the same solutions. What I've found in rural communities and conservative communities is , is a hard working group of people who just want their communities to be strong , for their livelihoods to be successful and for their economic growth as a family or as an individual to be prioritized by the climate dialogue. They're open to solar and wind. They're open to nuclear and hydropower , they're open to sustainable agriculture , and they're open to all the different things that we need to solve climate change. However , they view climate change is an incredibly polarizing topic that reminds them of the likes of al Gore and Bernie Sanders and other people that they don't like. So instead of coming up with solutions that work for their communities or having their politicians do that , they've run the other way. And I've found that this is actually one of the most frustrating things , but it's also one of the most hopeful things , is that there's actually not that big of a difference between the way that , uh , conservative communities and liberal communities see the world. It's just a matter of how polarizing this topic is , and how much that they see this issue as political , rather than the solutions as something that will work for them. And we have to make it clear to these communities that want to be a part of the solution , that there there is a capability of making it work for them.

S1: Well , how would you both describe the current discourse around climate change and climate policy ? David , I'll start with you on that one. First.

S4: First. I think right now voters are actually not paying that much attention to it. There's a really big consensus in the middle of American politics that we need to act on climate change. A lot of the solutions look similar to conservatives and to liberals , but voters are paying attention to a lot of other things like the economy , jobs and so on. So I think in that vacuum , frankly , the parties , uh , the Republicans and the Democrats have become more and more polarized. The party leadership has become polarized. And so that's one of the reasons we're hosting this event on Thursday with Benjy is to hear younger voices hear voices across the ideological spectrum. Benji and I sat together on a commission , the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , over the last few years that laid out a vision for a bipartisan , bipartisan action on climate change. How do you put together and hold together action on climate change ? And this is ideologically the most diverse commission I've ever been involved with. And we just struck me is how much agreement there was. Sometimes we need to use different language , but there's a tremendous amount of agreement about the need to act , the need to protect the climate , the need to rebuild American industry in ways that are climate friendly. And that's that's the beginning of a real consensus that I'll hold together even as the parties swing left and swing right , especially in Washington.

S2: I absolutely agree. I think that we've been led to believe that. We are so much more divided on this than we think. But the narrative is green New Deal versus denial , alarmism versus skepticism. And we have to get out of that mindset if we're going to solve the problem. We have so much desire as a society to have clean air , clean water , safer communities , cleaner communities , and America. That is better than it was in days prior. Those are things that happen when you help fight climate change. And , you know , I was at an event recently with a bunch of older conservatives who used to consider themselves environmentalists , and I asked them , who here considers themselves an environmentalist today ? Not a single hand went up , but when I asked who here consider themselves an environmentalist in the 1980s , every single hand went up in the audience. And so the point there is that this divide of alarmism versus denialism has made these conservatives feel like they're not environmentalists anymore. And one of the points of this book and this exciting event that I'm really thrilled to be doing it , David , is to show that it's not that black and white , and that there are a lot of areas of overlap that we can find and that we must find. And I think that that example of the commission is a great one. Let's debate the solutions instead of the problem. And I think that that's where America needs to go.

S1: Well , you mentioned denialism.

S2: They feel like they're rural communities or they're fossil fuel communities , or their farming communities are going to be left behind. So they see climate change as a direct threat to their livelihood. And I'm not talking about the effects of climate change and extreme weather events. I'm talking about the policies around fighting climate change being a direct threat to their livelihoods , in the same way that people on the left work to fight climate change because they're scared of climate change threatening their livelihoods. People on the right are doing the same sort of reaction , but towards the other way due to the policies. And I think what we have to do is help people understand that you don't need to deny climate change or run the other way. There are actually policy approaches that work for conservative communities that wouldn't tear these people's livelihoods away. And that's how you bring those people into the fold. They're not denying the importance of climate change or denying the importance of environmental protection , although it seems that way. They're denying and they're running away from solutions that they fear are going to hurt them. And if they don't put their voice at the table , then those solutions could come to their communities. And that's why we tell them it's so important for them to to kind of change course.


S2: When AOC and Bernie Sanders released it a few years ago. That's really what has stoked a lot of the more recent fear. And the reason that is , is because you have such a hyper focus on renewables and electric vehicles , and for a lot of parts of this country , they can't just transition to renewables or electric vehicles overnight , they can't get rid of fossil fuels or get rid of their trucks or their trailers or their tractors. And and you look at the the Green New Deal , over half of it is to EVs and solar and wind alone. A quarter of it is focused on things that don't have to do with the environment at all. And it's about social justice programs and education. And so to those communities , it's basically , okay , these are pet projects for the political left to benefit them , but it will only harm us because I need to farm. I need to use the fossil fuels that I use every single day. And if I'm told that I can't , I'm going to become incredibly poor and not be able to put food on our tables. So we need to be able to shift that narrative. And , and unfortunately , that that did not help.


S4: Um , and so in Washington , we're not seeing this. We're seeing a few folks crossing the aisle here and there , but that that's becoming increasingly , increasingly rare in the rest of the country. We're seeing really a lot of places where there can be , uh , policies that work across the aisle. We know we have to build stuff. We know that we're going to have to expand , make a much bigger electric power grid. That means jobs. That means investment. That's great. We know that we're going to have to reinvigorate American , the American industrial economy. Very large parts of the Inflation Reduction Act are designed that way. Most of the money is actually flowing into the red states. We know we have to rebuild nature and ecosystems , control methane , which is a very strong greenhouse gas. There's a there's a strong bipartisan support for being tough with China , maybe too much support for being tough with China. So when you look across the spectrum. There are lots of places where people agree and where Washington has not been able to channel that agreement. Hmm.

S1: Hmm. Well , Benji , back in December , a large majority of U.S. adults and half of Republicans agreed with Biden's goal to slash climate pollution.

S2: They're not all doing it because of polar bears and ice caps. A lot of them are doing it because the jobs that will be brought to their communities from the clean energy transition are something that's very appealing. They believe in American national security and that fight against China that David was alluding to , and they believe in the government getting out of the way with permitting of of energy projects so that we can build cleaner stuff faster and not be held back by unnecessary regulation that actually arms our climate , but also harms our economy. Those are the sorts of arguments. Not everyone's going to come to the climate conversation with the same exact reasoning and the same exact morals , but if we can all come to the table for different reasons , there's actually a lot of power that can be brought in solving these problems. And that's what we're seeing with conservatives right now.

S1: Like we mentioned before , there is an election coming up in November. How do you each think the administrations will tackle climate policy ? Benji , I'll start with you.

S2: Well , I think we're unsure about what Donald Trump's stance on climate really is. I mean , he said that he denies it , but he doesn't have a depth of knowledge or a history of working on this issue other than the last presidential administration. It's hard to know how far he would go to undo the Inflation Reduction Act or to maybe even add on to it with certain proposals. I wouldn't cast anything aside in terms of a possibility there. And you saw with criminal justice reform and other issues when he was president , that there was a chance for him to work across the aisle to get something done. He did that on national parks as well. So I think it's a little bit too big to be decided in terms of where Trump would stand on this , despite his his harmful rhetoric and maybe some of the harmful policies he promoted during his last administration. He doesn't seem to have much of a concrete stance on it. President Biden , on the other hand , I think his has shown his cards , which is that he is all in on on fighting climate change , but in a way that I think I think is too narrow minded. I think it's it's too focused on electric vehicles and renewables only and not enough on the different other sources of of solutions. But most importantly , he's put his cards on the table that this is going to be a political issue for him to win on , and he's not really willing to work with Republicans on it at this point in time. Like I said , there are 150 Republicans in Congress who want to work on this in a productive way. Not that all of them would see eye to eye with him , but he hasn't really made the inroads to try to find that bipartisanship. So while he's been prioritizing this , and I think he will continue to do that in a future administration , I don't see him willing to work with Republicans or on the different needs that their communities have. And I think that's very shortsighted in a in a world where this country needs policy , that represents both sides to get the best outcome.


S4: I think if if Joe Biden is re-elected , they're going to keep implementing the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation. They've only spent a tiny fraction of the money that's been authorized under the IRA and the bipartisan infrastructure law. They're going to keep doing that , and they're probably going to keep focusing on the partisan discussions that partisan favors that Benjy is talking about. I think the Trump if Trump is , is elected , then they're going to quickly do the things that he did last time , like pull out of Paris and maybe try to pull out of the framework convention on climate Change. Some of that's going to be symbolic , very destructive , destructive. But I think the bigger point here is that you're now starting to see money flow into these communities. So he's going to face a whole lot of resistance , including in the red states , to try to roll back too much of the Inflation Reduction Act. So I think that that's that's now the heart of the American response here. One of the things is going to be very important for us to watch is how fairness and justice plays out , because fairness is really essential. And it's particular essential to the politics that Benjy was talking about earlier , making sure communities don't feel left behind. We have to start demonstrating. Here's what we're going to do in a community , for example , a community that hosts a coal plant that gets shut down. What are we going to do to help them ? What are we going to do in the Navajo Nation ? That's very exposed as one of many examples. And and we have to start demonstrating that so that people really believe that we have an effective solution that doesn't leave important communities behind.

S1: Well , you know , obviously this is a worldwide issue.


S4: Think this is one of our biggest problems right now , is because the rest of the world doesn't know what to believe of America. Even when Biden is in charge. And we've got a huge largest in history legislation on a climate change , we're making big promises about our emission reductions that we're not going to meet. If Trump comes in , he's going to withdraw from Paris. The rest of the world is going to go berserk. And so this problem of American credibility is a really , really serious problem. We should be engaging with other countries , in particular the countries that are most willing to act , the Europeans , the Japanese , the Chinese. To some degree. I'm particularly concerned about the US Chinese relationship because China is the largest emitter on the planet , second largest economy , a hugely innovative economy. There are a lot of things we can do together with China despite our differences. And right now , the rhetoric , which is frankly , bipartisan rhetoric that is anti-China , that's that's getting in the way and creating a lot of chaos in global markets.

S2: I completely agree that America's international role is critical. And I do think that Trump , you know , risking , uh , and Trump election that risks pulling out of some of those international conversations is inherently bad for America and something that he should absolutely rethink. And I think that speaks to a broader , uh , concern , which is that America is ceding ground to China and other countries and their leadership on this. And if you care about China-US relations , whether that's because you want it to be stronger and better or because you're fearful of China leaving our seat at the table alone and leaving it idle is not the best way to to solve that problem. It's going to be going and having those tough conversations with the developing countries , with the countries that are being , uh , you know , that are moving in the wrong direction from a climate perspective. But I do think it's not the United States role to tell countries like China or India or others what they can and can't use from an energy source perspective , or how they should and shouldn't develop. I think what America's role should be is exporting good ideas , exporting good technology , exporting things that help lower costs for families in all parts of the world , not just in the United States. And that's the role of entrepreneurship and capitalism and and something that I think conservatives can really get behind. But if we're not at the table , then there's no chance to do that. And I think that that's really shortsighted.

S1: Well , as for us and our house here in the U.S. , what are some solutions ? I know you mentioned some in the book solutions to really get politicians working across party lines.

S2: I think one of the quickest ways that we could make action happen is on two specific topics. One is on permitting reform. We've heard about that for a very long time. We know Joe Manchin is involved , but what does that actually look like ? Well , the Inflation Reduction Act and anything in terms of infrastructure and clean energy is being held back by our unnecessary , burdensome permitting process in the United States. I was on the phone with one of the largest solar developers in the United States , and he was talking about how difficult it is for them to even build the solar in the United States and put it in the communities that they need to because of the permitting processes. So getting that across the finish line would be really , really important for this country and in a bipartisan way. The second is methane , a lot of the methane in the in the United States , 70% of the methane emitted in the United States comes from natural gas. And while natural gas is a net positive in terms of being pro climate compared to coal , a lot of that is offset. If we can't cap the methane emissions from abandoned wells that oil and gas companies have left behind , if we could plug those wells and keep methane in the ground , which is something that the government could help administer , and also just limit the methane in general from natural gas , that's another bipartisan opportunity. You get those across the finish line. They're not going to single handedly reduce emissions in a substantial way , uh , compared to what we want to get to , but they'll help us get some wins under our belt and show politicians that , hey , it's actually going to give you a great thing to talk about in your district and your state to be pro climate. And we can do it in a bipartisan way. Let's let's show that and get some wins.

S1: I've been speaking with Benjie Baker , author of the book The Conservative Environmentalist Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future. Benji , thank you so much.

S2: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

S1: Also , David Victor , UCSD professor David , thank you.

S4: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

S1: All right. Tomorrow you can see Benji and David talk more about the book and the future of bipartisan climate policy at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy. The event starts at 5 p.m..

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Kay Medley protests climate change legislation in front of the Federal Building in Huntington, W.Va.  Opponents of the bill say it will impose taxes and cost millions of Americans their jobs.
Mark Webb
Kay Medley protests climate change legislation in front of the Federal Building in Huntington, West Virginia. Opponents of the bill say it will impose taxes and cost millions of Americans their jobs.

The November presidential election is coming, and climate change is just one of many issues on the minds of voters.

However, Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on how to tackle the crisis, or if there even is one in some cases.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 78% of Democrats described climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being, while 23% of Republicans consider climate change a major threat.

On Midday Edition Wednesday, Jade Hindmon sat down with author and climate advocate Benji Backer and professor David Victor about what it will take to find solutions that transcend party lines.

Backer and Victor will speak about Backer's book, “The Conservative Environmentalist,” at an event at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy on Thursday at 5 p.m.


  • Benji Backer, author of the book, “The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future” and founder of the American Conservation Coalition
  • David Victor, professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy