How Conservatives Have Duped Us in the Global Warming Fight

This article was originally published by Joe Brewer of the Rockridge Institute on April 1, 2008.  It was also published on Alternet.org.

The movie Field of Dreams had a wild idea — that a person could build his dream in the corn field and others would come from miles around to take part. This attitude is not restricted to Hollywood: It is a common notion in government that if we build a good policy the people will come rally around it. But because most policy solutions are bureaucratic and technical, people are often uninterested. To get people to care and to rally around good policies, we need to advance the ideas from which the policies flow.

When it comes to the climate crisis, there’s been plenty of talk about cap-and-trade, carbon offsets, taxes on fossil fuels, and investment plans for renewable energy. But there is hardly any talk about what all this means to everyday folks or why public understanding matters. What most people are missing is that the solution may well lie in the way people think about and understand the climate crisis.

Recently, my colleague George Lakoff and I released a report called Comparing Climate Proposals: A Case Study in Cognitive Policy. Our goal was to demonstrate the importance of human cognition in the policymaking process. We didn’t set out to create an “ultimate solution” or anything like that. We simply suggested that a good place to start looking for solutions is in our own heads.

The cognitive dimension of climate policy is a big topic that needs to be unpacked carefully. But we can start by discussing two competing ideas. One has been advanced by conservatives for decades through a multimillion-dollar communications campaign. The other has appeared from time to time in discussions of environmental philosophy, especially about the ethics of management practices.

So what are the ideas? You’ll no doubt recognize one of them:

Idea No. 1: Protecting the environment harms the economy

This idea has been promulgated for decades by conservative think tanks like Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute and others. It is based on the foundational claims that (1) the environment and the economy are fundamentally different things, and (2) they compete with one another in a zero-sum manner — meaning that a gain for one amounts to an equivalent loss for the other. This idea takes many forms. Here are a few that we hear all the time:

  • Environmental action will cost us jobs.
  • American companies will be burdened by additional costs.
  • Addressing global warming will put our economy at a competitive disadvantage versus the rest of the world.
  • Renewable energy must compete with traditional energy sources, like coal and oil, before it can be implemented.

The opposition of the environment and the economy is at the heart of the climate debate. It is the starting point of the Lieberman-Warner “Climate Security” bill in Congress now. We see this is in the two stated purposes of Lieberman-Warner:

  1. To avert the long-term catastrophic impacts of global climate change.
  2. To accomplish that purpose while “preserving robust growth in the U.S. economy” and “avoiding the imposition of hardship on U.S. citizens.”

This climate bill has been the one to gain the most traction, partly because its advances are minimal. Many environmentalists are critical of the bill, but they focus on policy mechanisms: it gives away billions to polluters; it doesn’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions enough; it doesn’t address major threats scientists warn us about. All of these things are true, but there is something more fundamentally wrong with it: The Lieberman-Warner is premised on a flawed idea!

Is this a bold claim? Perhaps. Is it being debated? Unfortunately, no it’s not. How might the debate begin? With an alternative idea:

Idea No. 2: A healthy economy depends upon a healthy environment

The well-being of our communities (isn’t that what we mean by a healthy economy?) is intimately bound to the preservation of life-giving qualities from nature. In other words, a thriving economy depends upon protection of the environment. Separation of environment from economy is fictitious, an artifact of a flawed way of thinking.

This begs the question, “what is wealth, and where does it come from?” A progressive response might be that wealth is the well-being of individuals, society, and the earth. Wealth is more than simply material wealth. It comes in many forms — having good relationships with friends and family, maintaining physical health, and yes, living in a community where clean skies, thriving forests, and healthy streams are preserved. Clean air, drinkable water, and fertile soils are inherently valuable because our well-being depends on them — independent of markets. A consequence of this meaning is that resource preservation is wealth creation. The logic works like this:

  • Wealth is anything that increases well-being.
  • Clean air increases well-being, so it is a form of wealth.
  • Dirtying the air reduces well-being, so it is a loss of wealth.
  • Keeping the air clean is preserving wealth.

There is a policy proposal that expresses this second idea, what Peter Barnes calls “cap and dividend.” His idea is to place a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide (the same mechanism used in Lieberman-Warner), but charge polluters off the bat. And here’s the cognitive difference: Distribute the money evenly to everyone to promote the understanding that (1) the air is inherently valuable, and (2) it belongs to all of us.

Of course, there are critics of this proposal, too. And, like opponents of Lieberman-Warner, the concerns are generally focused on policy mechanisms. I don’t know if Barnes’ proposal is the best we can do, but it is a great starting point for debating these ideas.

Naturally, the idea that has won out so far is the result of a concerted effort to change the way people think. Conservatives have done a much better job of this in recent decades than progressives. Progressives spend most of their time debating policies, while conservatives advance ideas.

This should be clear when all the chatter among progressives is about cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policy proposals. It should also be clear when the conservative idea I mentioned is obvious and intuitive while the progressive idea is unfamiliar and likely to seem counterintuitive, because conservatives got their idea out far and wide in public discourse first.

We need to challenge fundamental ideas before debating policies. This debate should openly engage people from all walks of life. It should be explicit that we want to challenge conservative ideas with our own. This will be necessary for building the trust that leads to lasting support. Only by debating ideas will the populace at large be able to see problems with conservative thinking. Only by debating ideas will people know that the problems we face are moral, not technical, that the solutions will therefore depend on what we understand the problems to be in the first place.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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