Come Together: Can Climate Be a Bipartisan Issue?

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By Zach Bernstein

The 2016 election is about to get serious. (Considering how the campaign season has gone so far, you may doubt that’s possible, but stick with me.)

The Democrats and Republicans will host their nominating conventions this month. And barring a major shakeup, that’s where we’ll see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump officially earn their respective parties’ backing for the presidency. And from there, the general election officially begins.

If you’ve followed elections long enough, you know basically what to expect — sharply divergent views on everything from trade to taxes to foreign policy.

But what if there were issues where both parties could actually agree on solutions? We don’t think this is too outlandish — in fact, when it comes to the environment, both parties have more in common than they think.

Saving green by being green

If you want to know whether conserving the environment is good for business, just look at what the business community is doing. Look at Newsweek’s list of the top “green companies” of last year. It runs the gamut of industries from health care to IT to consumer staples. And many of these top “green” companies, like Apple and Hershey, are household names earning billions in revenue every year.

Or look at the list of the world’s most admired companies, a list that includes Google, Berkshire Hathaway and Starbucks. It’s no coincidence that many of the most admired companies also have major sustainability programs in place.

Looking closely at policy, more than 200 major firms, including Ikea, Mars and Unilever, publicly announced their support for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in 2014. And as of last year, more than 1,000 companies worldwide — including 18 energy firms — had set an internal carbon price that could help them adapt if governments decided to institute a carbon tax (or in the case of companies like Ben and Jerry’s, actually devote revenue to invest in reducing emissions).

Too much of the political debate still focuses on whether climate change is real, but within the business community, that debate is over. The costs businesses and their markets have already paid for climate-related disasters, losses and unreliable resource supplies have become too high to ignore. Businesses large and small, high-tech or not, need a stable environment in which to operate. They want climate addressed to keep the economy advancing, grow jobs and keep the U.S. globally competitive.

Bridging the debate divide

Okay, but what about the fact that one major party is absolutely dead-set against even admitting that climate change is real?

Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Republican senators including Lindsey Graham have spoken out on the need to address climate change. And a resolution in the House calling for action on climate change has 13 co-sponsors — all Republicans. Even right-leaning think tanks like R Street and RepublicEn have made climate action a primary issue.

In fact, according to at least one survey, most Republican voters believe climate change is real and support efforts to mitigate it – possibly including a carbon tax, depending on what the money is used for.

Sure, there’s resistance within the GOP. But it’s becoming much more acceptable to hold the science-based view — and increasingly, the voters are leading the party, not the other way around.

So what’s the best way to move forward? That question will be debated at an event being held concurrently with the Republican convention in Cleveland; an event featuring a number of conservative thought leaders who are trying to get beyond partisan talking points to solve problems.

Changing the partisan climate

This event, hosted by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) on the campus of Cleveland State University, will explore how sustainability has already become a competitive advantage, as the leading companies mentioned earlier can attest. Further, the event will focus on what kinds of policies can help realize a sustainable economy. (ASBC will host a similar event at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia the following week.)

Agreeing that climate change is a problem is a good first step, and long overdue. Figuring out how to solve climate change will pose its own challenges.

Remember the survey that showed most GOP voters think man-made climate change is real? It also showed that they were highly skeptical of tools like the Clean Power Plan, which also happens to be the most significant climate policy underway today.

Something like a carbon tax, despite the name, could actually be more palatable to conservatives. A carbon tax fits with the economic principle that taxes can be used to dis-incentivize activity America doesn’t want, such as greenhouse gas pollution; and it would not set an arbitrary limit on how much greenhouse gas pollution would be allowed. The market would decide that for itself based on how high the price would be.

Even that market-based approach, however, is more difficult than it sounds. When ASBC hosted former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) at its Fourth Annual Business Summit last year, his remarks made it clear that conservatives would probably demand carbon tax revenues be used to offset other taxes — in other words, swapping a carbon tax for, say, a corporate tax cut. Some progressives might be opposed to that swap, while others might prefer the money be used for projects like infrastructure repair. And it’s also likely conservatives would want any such carbon tax to be used instead of the Clean Power Plan, which would trouble environmentalists.

There will be very real differences in how each side would choose to tackle climate change; differences that won’t be easily bridged. But to even reach that point would mean that both sides agree: We need to face the facts about climate because our economy, safety, and way of life will depend on it.

That’s the reason businesses should make time to join ASBC at the Republican and Democratic conventions, and sign on to ASBC’s campaigns on climate change. The only way to make sure political leaders understand the threat of climate change is to show that the business community is ready to speak out on it. When businesses speak, policymakers listen. And when business tells them climate change can kill jobs in their states or districts, that’s a risk they can’t ignore. We know what the months after the conventions will be like. They’ll be loud, with a lot of voices clamoring to be heard. The debates will be heated and not always focused on the issues. The disagreements will be real. This is, after all, how politics works.

But once the dust has settled and we’ve picked a new president and Congress, those people will have to get down to the business of governing. Whoever takes the power in January will also be taking responsibility for what happens next. Let’s hope those new leaders will take input from the voters, the scientists, the military and all sectors of the business community, including members of the American Sustainable Business Council — and then take on the challenge that is climate change.

Unlike fact-checking a presidential candidate, it may be easier than you’d think.

Image credit: Flickr/NPS Climate Change Response

Zach Bernstein is Manager of Research and Social Media for the American Sustainable Business Council.

Climate & Environment

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American Sustainable Business Council

The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) is a network of companies and business associations. Its column, Policy Points, identifies public policies where a business voice, grounded in principles of innovation, fairness and environmental stewardship, can make an essential difference in the advocacy process. The goal is to arm readers with information and specific actions to take. As business leaders, we can and must support policy change to help make the economy more green and sustainable. The column editor is Richard Eidlin, ASBC's Vice President - Public Policy and Business Engagement.

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