EPIC’s inaugural policy fellows Jeff Holmstead and Sue Tierney joined the AP’s Jon Fahey for a conversation on the challenges that come with confronting climate change, and what the ideal strategy should look like.
According to a recent poll conducted by EPIC and The AP/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 61 percent of Americans think climate change is a problem that the government should address. Though, while many Americans favor policies like the Clean Power Plan that would help the country lower emissions, half are unwilling to pay even one dollar out of their electric bill to confront climate change. How do we bridge the gap? EPIC’s inaugural policy fellows Jeff Holmstead and Susan Tierney, joined the AP’s global health and science editor Jon Fahey to unpack this issue and more at an event on October 4.
A major challenge Tierney and Holmstead highlighted was that climate change is not salient or a threat to things people care about. Tierney, the former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), said the issue has evolved so that “if you are for coal you cannot buy into climate change…and, Democrats are equally shrill. That deep polarization prevents action.”
Holmstead, the former assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Air and Radiation, agreed. He said that “The people who say we need to do something about climate change seem to be against the industry and against mining, and so the fact that people are attacking the things you care about as the solution to climate change makes you less inclined to believe that climate change is a real problem.”
The other challenge is that climate change seems too distant.
“People care about what is right in front of them,” Tierney said. “Climate change seems like something that’s my grandchildren’s problem. And, that’s the nature of the beast in that way. But I think more and more as we see these horrible events [like the devastation that hit Puerto Rico from hurricane Maria] people will begin to connect the dots.”
Once the dots have been connected, the next step would be to connect how their money goes toward confronting the problem. And, making those connections is also difficult for people, though they are already paying for the cost of adapting, Tierney said.
But Holmstead pointed out that this is rational behavior. “They will pay for sea walls, but if you ask them to pay $20 or whatever the amount is, it’s hard for them to see where that money goes. In some ways you’re asking people to act in a very altruistic way.”
Holmstead does believe we will get there, calling himself an optimist.
“I think the business community would like to have some long-term certainty. They’re willing to pay something for that certainty. They’re not willing to pay any price, but they are willing to pay something,” Holmstead said. “And I think society is moving in a direction where they believe we need to do something about climate change.”
He added, “Political moments happen and you have to be prepared when they do. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s going to happen in the next two years or four years,” Holmstead said, explaining that you do need a White House that’s committed. “But I am pretty confident that it will happen.”
While Holmstead and Tierney agreed that a price on carbon would be a strong step forward, it alone wouldn’t be enough to solve the climate issue. It would need to be paired with a comprehensive R&D program to push clean technologies around the world.
That’s where Tierney believes the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, combined with significant budget cuts for research and development programs, put the country at a competitive disadvantage.
“China is working to drive a lot of the markets that we’re talking about. It gave them a real boost internationally in terms of being a leader,” Tierney said. “That’s a huge opportunity lost for the United States to be in play in pushing technologies into other markets.”