The politics of climate change - Activate World

The politics of climate change

The New York Times Magazine recently published its Climate Issue titled The Problem with Putting a Price on the End of The World. The Time’s op-ed columnist, David Leonhardt, makes the case that economists have workable policy ideas for addressing climate change. A United Nations panel of scientists recently concluded that avoiding horrific damage will require changes in human behavior that have “no documented historic precedent.”

Lunchtime Conversations:

  • Should more states try implementing performance standards in their climate initiatives? California was able to reduce its carbon emissions to their 1990 level by 2016, four years ahead of the 2020 goal, without hurting the state’s economy. 
  • The Green New Deal and the recent clean-energy ballot initiatives emphasize the benefits of clean energy and minimize the downsides. Could climate actions based on tangible economic benefits have better chances of voter approval?
  • As demonstrated by the Minnesota Green New Deal, can youth activists at the state level compensate for the lack of national progress on climate action? 


  • William Nordhaus, Nobel Prize recipient in Economics, believes that people use too much dirty energy because they don’t have to pay the true cost it imposes on the world: pollution-related health problems in the short-term and climate change in the long-term.  
  • On April 10, a coalition of youth activists in Minnesota introduced the Minnesota Green New Deal, the first statewide bill of its kind to emerge after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presented the national resolution to Congress.
  • While a number of states are advancing policies that track with components of the national Green New Deal, Minnesota is the first to propose a comprehensive green policy package in the legislature.


Americans typically reject policies that directly increase the price of energy, like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs. But polls indicate that most Americans are in favor of policies that promote clean energy even if those policies indirectly increase the cost of energy. Examples include mandates requiring utility companies to use more clean energy. Another example is federal spending to subsidize clean energy — or, programs like a Green New Deal.

Clean energy programs don’t eliminate the costs of moving away from dirty energy, but they can change the political equation. When a policy focuses on the costs of the transition, as a carbon tax does, people are wary. When a policy highlights the benefits, people often are more favorable and willing to accept slightly higher costs.

According to Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a climate policy expert, “It makes sense to set a goal.” When people understand the goal — like a clean-energy economy — they are much more open to solutions than when the policy discussion focuses on mechanisms for reaching that goal. Even if the U.S. adopted a sensible climate policy today, it’s too late to avoid some of climate change’s terrible damage, but it’s not too late to make a big difference.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party now opposes once-bipartisan ideas as a matter of course including virtually any effort to slow climate change. The G.O.P.’s radical turn means that climate activists can no longer find a compromise between the two parties, in the hope that their leaders will try to sell it to skeptical voters. Republicans have made clear that they will instead use the public’s skepticism for their own ends. Doing so pleases the oil and coal industries, which are generous campaign donors and It also helps win elections. 

Sources: Fast CompanyThe New York Times Magazine

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash