Clean energy jobs are front and center
Like the Green New Deal, the 2019 congressional resolution that called on the federal government to shift the United States toward clean energy, the new administration’s plan starts with jobs. President Biden proposes to make a large public investment in clean energy and help create 10 million new jobs, including for displaced workers in fossil-fuel-intensive industries. Rather than focusing on the long-term risks of climate change, a strategy favored by earlier climate advocates like Al Gore and his “Inconvenient Truth,” the Biden administration is talking more about the economic and social justice opportunities of climate action.
Indeed, the administration lists these reasons for supporting its plan: creating high-paying, union jobs in the manufacturing sector; protecting “workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution”; contributing to economic growth; improving national security; reducing inequalities in air pollution and climate change risks based on race, gender and class; and making polluters pay for their actions. Although reducing climate risks are part of the pitch, they are no longer the lead message.
How states have used this messaging strategy
In pushing for climate action based on reasons of economic and social justice, the Biden administration is continuing a long-running trend in climate politics and communication. In the early 2000s, many states promoted “stealth” climate policies by focusing on energy independence or economic development. New market-based plans such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — a 10-state pact to reduce utility emissions in the Northeast — California’s emissions trading program and British Columbia’s pathbreaking carbon tax all relied on arguments citing short-term economic and social gains.
My research shows how RGGI advocates, for instance, succeeded by focusing public ownership of the atmosphere and keeping energy costs affordable. In California, political debate continues to center on the importance of protecting disadvantaged communities from disproportionate levels of pollution and associated health risks. And in British Columbia, the emphasis was on economic fairness via a “carbon dividend,” refunding much of the carbon tax revenue to citizens.
Research indicates that emphasizing economic and social issues in this manner is a winning strategy for a wide range of climate policy designs. This approach links additional features like affordable housing or new jobs to a climate change policy and draws upon new arguments about the likely social or economic benefits of the policy changes, rather than the anticipated effect on climate change. In recent years, successful climate policies have paid even greater attention to social justice, both for those living near high-emitting facilities as well as for those whose livelihoods are put at risk from proposals to transition away from fossil-fuel-based energy.
The public wants to hear about environmental justice
The emerging realization is that this type of “justice talk” is politically advantageous as well as ethically important — politicians who neglect these larger impacts may find their climate policies at greater political risk. Environmental justice activism has had a significant influence on state-level climate policy actions in New York, Illinois and many other states in addition to California.
Of course, economic fairness arguments have also driven successful right-wing populist opposition to climate change policies by citing risks to “working class” consumers and jobs, as demonstrated by prominent policy failures in Canada and the United States. By contrast, research indicates that conservatives are more likely to support climate policies they perceive to be consistent with their economic values, such as the carbon tax and “dividend” proposal supported by a number of prominent Republicans.
As the Biden team rolls out its ambitious climate change agenda, expect to see an overdue discussion of potential economic and social justice benefits of specific proposals — and not just warnings about the perils of climate change.
Leigh Raymond is a professor of political science at Purdue University and author of “Reclaiming the Atmospheric Commons: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a New Model of Emissions Trading” (MIT Press, 2016). Find him on Twitter: @ls_raymond.