How to Turn Climate Change Skeptics Into Advocates
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. So, as the shape of conservatism remains in flux, some conservatives are trying to redraw the line on climate change policy. Jerry Taylor is the president of the libertarian think tank, the Niskanen Center, which is trying to convert climate change skeptics, not deniers who believe it doesn’t exist but those who believe it won’t be so bad, into climate advocates. So Jerry Taylor is working
Capitol Hill, but he had to be converted first because for 23 years, as vice president of the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, it was his job to do the opposite, cast doubt on the danger posed by climate change.
JERRY TAYLOR: I was arguing the line that was probably best represented recently by Bret Stephens of The New York Times, that climate change is real but there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainties and there’s a lot of reason to think that it would be a relative non-event. And that was the talking point that I had owned over my day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, no more! In an era when your position on climate change helps define your political identity and your value system, what made you change your mind?
JERRY TAYLOR: Well, the very first thing that happened to shake my confidence in the narratives I was offering was that in the course of debating this position I was offering scientific narratives and then I was bring challenged on them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the early 2000s, doing battle on TV, you were on a show with climate activist Joe Romm and you quoted the testimony of climate scientist James Hansen back in 1988.
JERRY TAYLOR: Right, so this is the first leg in the stool of my position.
I’d argue that in 1988 James Hansen had testified in front of the United States Senate and he said if we continued with business as usual, we’d see warming of X within the next decade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: X degrees.
JERRY TAYLOR: Right. And more than a decade has passed and if you look at the warming we’ve seen, it’s only been about a quarter of that. So I’d argue that Hansen clearly overestimated the degree to which the climate is sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions and this is bracing evidence that climate change won’t be as serious as we think.
And so when I got done with the show, Joe Romm asked me in the greenroom if I’d read that testimony recently and I confessed it’s been a while, I was simply reflecting on testimony that some of my colleagues had offered in the Senate themselves some months back. So you’re on TV with me, says Joe, and you make a claim and I've got 20 seconds to answer it, and he says, if you want to keep being a hack, feel free. And he challenged me to go back and read the testimony that Hansen had provided to the Senate. And he said, look, if you do, what you’re going to find is that the reason Hansen was off with his projection isn’t that he overestimated climate sensitivity, Hansen had overpredicted how much greenhouse gases we’d put up there in the following decade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you know why he overpredicted that?
JERRY TAYLOR: Well, that’s very uncertain. I mean, how can you foresee a recession, how can you foresee trade developments, technological innovations? But he had a couple of other scenarios, as well. If you look at those scenarios, with the emissions trajectory that we’ve actually seen, and he also had a temperature projection for that emission scenario, and it was pretty much exactly correct. Then I went to the climate scientists who were offering this story about how James Hansen was off and I asked them what I’m missing here because we shouldn’t be going around arguing that James Hansen is a crackpot. And it turned out that the scientists I had talked to seemed to be fully aware of the problems with their narratives but they didn’t care. Look, I’m not a scientist but I had trusted these scientists to well inform me on the matters, and I can no longer really trust them.
From that point forward, I began to do far more due diligence on the scientific narratives that I was deferring to from the scientists who were in our camp. And I found out that the more you did that due diligence, the more you found variations of that story playing out again and again and again and again.
And so, I put the scientific arguments aside and I migrated more toward economic arguments about climate action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has your message evolved over time, as you've gotten the responses back?
JERRY TAYLOR: Well, it has. I think you can make a very strong argument for a policy response to climate change without getting involved in a hot debate about the science. And the reality is that, whether the Republicans like it or not, there is going to be a unilateral US policy response to climate change that they can’t do anything about. Thirty percent of the US economy has a carbon price through state policy. More than two dozen states have mandates on the electricity sector to produce percentages of renewable energy. So the reality is, is that there will be a response. Would you rather it be market friendly and harnessing capitalism or hostile to market by harnessing regulators? This seems like an easy call.
Well, it turns out that this is akin to telling Southerners that, whether they like it or not, their best course of action is to have Lee go to Appomattox and sign the surrender papers to Ulysses S. Grant.
And so, that’s an evolution in our strategy. We began by sidestepping any hot discussion about science on Capitol Hill, but it became clear that we could not do that. It turns out that it’s very difficult [LAUGHS] to motivate Republicans to act against climate if they’re not convinced that climate change is a significant risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you first have to convince them that their skepticism is on shaky ground and then you bring in the economic argument. And you’ve said that one of the most influential [LAUGHS] people you spoke to with regard to this is a guy named Bob Litterman who was the head of risk management at Goldman Sachs.
JERRY TAYLOR: Yeah. Bob came to my office one day and said, look, you have a hot dispute about the most likely outcomes from climate change. You say it’ll be modest and economically manageable, others say it’ll be at the high end of the projections and be a catastrophe. And you argue that you’re right, therefore, climate action shouldn’t occur, and they argue they’re right and, therefore, we need to engage in a very dramatic response.
But that’s the wrong conversation to have. We have a wide range of possible outcomes for climate change. There’s a lot of uncertainty, that is true, but the uncertainty cuts both ways. It may be modest, it may be catastrophic. In risk management, he said, the work that I did at Goldman, we dealt with issues like this all the time. We didn’t worry so much about the most likely outcome. We hedged against risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His point was that if this kind of risk were to arise in any other context in the private markets, people would pay real money to hedge against it.
JERRY TAYLOR: Yeah, I mean, there’s nothing we can invest in that will make us whole if climate change occurs. No such thing exists. So in the financial markets we call these non-diversifiable risks and we know that when people in financial markets deal with non-diversifiable risks they pay huge amounts of money to avoid them. And if we look at climate change as an example of a non-diversifiable risk that we have to jointly entertain, behave in the same fashion when it comes to climate action and it’s an open-and-shut case for policy response.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How are you getting your message out?
JERRY TAYLOR: Mostly in face-to-face meetings. Our objective is to talk directly to the Republicans who are engaged in policymaking, so we spend a tremendous amount of our time on Capitol Hill meeting with elected members of the House and the Senate, meeting with senior staff and meeting with senior committee staff. And we do talk to Democrats, as well. We’re not just the Republican whisperers because the reality is we’re not going to see a unified Republican Party embrace climate action. We’re going to need a bipartisan coalition.
And when you talk to Republicans on Capitol Hill, you find that there are maybe 40 or so, perhaps 50 in the House and maybe 10 or 12 Republicans in the Senate who are deeply uncomfortable being interned in the denialist penitentiary of the Republican Party, and they would like to break out. They would like to have a Republican response to climate change that is meaningful. But they’re not entirely sure what that response ought to look like and they’re not sure there’s a window of opportunity for them politically to forward that idea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is that response?
JERRY TAYLOR: Well, we believe the best response is to simply put a price on greenhouse gas emissions that is robust and allows us to begin the process of decarbonizing the economy and then leave it to people in the marketplace to decide when, where and how to achieve those emissions reductions. Far better to simply turn the market loose to respond to climate change with accurate pricing though than to turn regulators loose and then have an endless technocratic dispute, which is not so easily resolved, about whether wind is better than solar or better than nuclear power and how much of a role should energy efficiency play and what kind of rules and guidelines should we have and then regulate every nook and cranny of the economy so that we have the most energy-efficient light bulbs possible, or what have you. Far better to just unleash the pricing mechanisms to give people incentives through these greenhouse gas emissions and let them discover through profit or loss the best ways to do that.
Now, that’s the consensus position of virtually all the economists who study in this issue. Heck, it’s the position of ExxonMobile. It’s the position of Al Gore. It’s the position of James Hansen. So we think that’s the right approach and it’s one that seems also to be attractive to Republicans. After all, they need to brand a policy response in a fashion that looks Republican.
If you ask Republicans to simply endorse policy ideas that have been endorsed by Al Gore and then concede that Gore was right on climate change and he was right about policy response, you’re never going to win that fight. You need something that looks distinctly Republicans. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggest that maybe there are 40 or 50 Republicans in the House, maybe 10 or 12 in the Senate who feel trapped in the denialist prison and would love a way out. Is this giving them a way out?
JERRY TAYLOR: We’ve found that privately a lot of Republicans are very interested in carbon price and they need to see a political way to get there. However, you need a window of opportunity to appear. We have some windows that will be opening soon. On tax reform, for instance, Republicans are not going to pass a $4 trillion tax cut [LAUGHS] without any offsets. And a carbon tax could provide $2 trillion in 10 years. That’s a pretty big lift. And while that’s unpopular in the Republican Party, so is every other revenue offset.
A value-added tax is not popular. A giant loophole-closing operation is not popular. A border adjustment tax is not popular. So where are the Republicans going to go? So there’s an opportunity there.
There’s an opportunity when it comes to the infrastructure package. Once again, we’re looking at spending, Lord knows how much. We have got no plan here but we’re talking something around a trillion dollars over 10 years. And that would be nice to pay for, and a carbon tax might be a good way of paying for that, as well. Donald Trump has entertained an increase in the federal gasoline tax as a means of paying for it. So that’s a possibility.
And another possibility is if Republicans are looking at 2018 as a exercise in grim death, with the indivisible movement and Democrats threatening to take over the House, they then have to think about the fact that all of the levers and buttons in the EPA cockpit that gave them the Clean Power Plan and the prospect of far more will still be there for a Democratic president after maybe 2020. And if it’s time for them to cut a deal on climate change, now is a really good time to cut one because they won’t have as much political strength now as in the future. So that’s another possibility for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about what sets you apart from your liberal counterparts arguing to get policymakers to take climate change seriously? What are the liberals getting wrong here?
JERRY TAYLOR: The first thing is in American politics oftentimes the messenger is more important than the message and conservatives are simply unlikely to listen seriously to environmentalists simply because of who they are. So that’s human nature. So there’s a messenger problem, which we hope to solve in Niskanen, because we come from the conservative Republican team red community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you’re funded by the liberal Rockefellers, right?
JERRY TAYLOR: We’re funded by a lot of different people but, for the most part, nobody on the Hill really cares one way or the other. Our ideological DNA is fairly obvious to everybody.
The second thing, I think, that liberals often get wrong is that they overstate certain things. And there is a lot of uncertainty, so if you are going to get in the grill of a Republican who’s agnostic or skeptical about climate change and talk about how Westworld is an inevitability 100 years hence, you’re going to get a lot of pushback. And so, talking about this as a risk just like any other, that resonates, but what doesn’t resonate is overstating how much we can be certain about different outcomes. So that’s also been a problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People will remember 40 years ago when the population explosion was the big issue.
JERRY TAYLOR: Yeah, the standard trope from the right and, in fact, that’s one of the things that I used to offer, as well, to Cato donors in my speeches, I would say, well, environmentalists told us that the population bomb was going to devastate mankind, and that bomb never went off. And then we were told in the ‘70s that we were about to run out of oil, gas, coal, tin, aluminum, nickel, copper, everything and we would have a resource-stunted society, and that never came to pass either. And so, it’s easy to point to left of center or environmentalist arguments about doom on the horizon when that horizon never came.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JERRY TAYLOR: So when it became clear that population growth was not going to turn us into Soylent Green eaters, where we were going to move into some Malthusian hell, we moved on, and the medical and economic and scientific community moved on to other matters, the same thing with resource depletion.
But climate change has been with us now as a live concern for more than 30 years, and it gains strength with every single passing year. The science behind it gains strength. The economic case ranking gains strength. It’s not a “here again, gone tomorrow” cry of wolf. It’s been put to the scientific test, and it continues to pass that test and, actually, the case for it continues to get stronger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Opposing climate change policy seems to have become part of the conservative identity. How do you untangle the two?
JERRY TAYLOR: Well, the conservative identity can change fast. Who would have expected two years ago that the Republicans would nominate for president someone who is against free trade, which has been a Republican position for about four decades, someone who was as ferociously hostile to immigration as he was, whereas the Republican Party used to be the party of the shining city on the hill? It’s also easy to forget that less than a decade ago this very same Republican Party nominated for president John McCain, who argued for climate action, which was even more aggressive than what Barack Obama attempted to do in the White House. And the Republicans adopted a platform in 2008 that, when discussing climate change, called for deep de-carbonization using market forces.
Now, the point here is not to make predictions [LAUGHS] about the future but is to say a party’s orthodoxies can change faster than you think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Jerry.
JERRY TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jerry Taylor is the president of the libertarian think tank, the Niskanen Center.
[TOP HAT CLIP/“ISN’T THIS A LOVELY DAY”]:
FRED ASTAIRE SINGING TO GINGER ROGERS:
The weather is frightening.
The thunder and lightning
Seem to be having their way.
But as far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely day.
The turn in the weather
Will keep us together
So I can honestly say,
That as far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely day
And everything's okay.
[SINGING UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Micah Loewinger. We had more help from Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Kate Bakhtiyarova. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.