Cooperation on climate change

Aug 16, 2013

There are several ways to talk about cooperation. One way is to repeat the word “together” while at the same time dismissing or making fun of those with differing perspectives. Another is to highlight the need for varied voices in the conversation while calling out bias for what it is.

Both of those polar opposites were on display at a panel discussion on the President’s Climate Action Plan held at Colorado University of Boulder last Wednesday.

Newly-confirmed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy opened the panel with a speech to a receptive crowd. As in her earlier speech at Harvard Law School—covered in WLJ issue no. 44—McCarthy stressed the connection of the environment to the economy and how important cooperative interaction is.

“Climate change really is all about the economy. It is all about our ability to sustain life on the planet in the way we’ve enjoyed it, and to continue to build our economy in the way we want it. And so we just need to start thinking about things differently and about using centers like this [CU Boulder] that bring together different viewpoints.”

McCarthy brought attention to panelist Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, in this vein, saying, “Industry needs to be part of the conversation.”

Specificity was lacking in her discussion of how industry—or any entities besides the federal government and vague mentions of “communities”—need to play a part in dealing with climate change, but the word “together” was a popular one for McCarthy.

She closed her introduction of the panel, saying, “The challenges [of climate change] are still there and we’re still going to work on them together. But the most important thing is that last word: together.”

Unfortunately, these words of togetherness were undercut by some of her statements regarding “some people” and indirect references to those who oppose EPA or its handling of the climate change issue.

After a deluge of statistics and numbers about the lives saved and communities improved by the acts of the EPA, she dismissed concerns about EPA regulations negatively impacting jobs or the economy. She characterized such perspectives as those of people caught up in a false choice and not paying attention to the facts.

Perhaps the most glaring undercut to the call for togetherness came at the end of the panel when panelist Brad Udall—director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment and brother to U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-CO,—jokingly asked McCarthy if her earlier studies of primitive cultures and primates would “prepare you well for your current task,” to which she answered “yes.”

As this jibe came after former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter had mentioned how many supporters she had in the room and how she had a tough job ahead of her, the connection to those opposing EPA was hard to miss.

On the other hand, Schuller, who was a noticeable token representation of the traditional energy industry—or any industry—talked about how the current conversation on climate change is exclusionary and polarizing, and how that needs to change.

“Currently when we talk about climate change… we talk about things being good or bad. ‘We must get off fossil fuels and get on clean energy,’ ‘oil sands are bad,’ ‘Keystone pipeline is bad,’ ‘fracking is bad,’ ‘wind is good,’ ‘solar is good.’ Right?” The audience of mostly Boulderites—Boulder being well known in Colorado for its very liberal, environmentalist personality— agreed with these characterizations of energy types, which Schuller jokingly warned them was playing into her hand.

“The way that we discuss climate change is polarizing. It’s polarizing on epic proportions. So we need a new frame.”

Later on in the panel, following a question on how best to bring more voices to the table, she expanded on the divisiveness which exists in the current climate change conversation.

“A key component of framing is being aware of how much we characterize all important conversations in an ‘us vs. them’ environment. …But those ‘they’ people are part of ‘us’ and we’re going to make a lot more progress when we start approaching this problem as ‘we.’” Schuller had a number of recommendations for improving how climate change is addressed in our country, most of them focusing on inclusiveness of the conversation.

“The thing about polarization in this country right now is no actual work is getting done. The work doesn’t begin until you get to the table, and that’s actually where it’s messy and painful and emotionally draining and you have to make compromises. So first we have to all get to the table, but then we need to empower our policymakers to compromise to find creative solutions. ‘Compromise’ can no longer be a dirty word. It’s preventing us from getting anything done.”

The event concluded with a question and answer section where the panelists answered screened questions from the audience. Despite several questions being submitted on the topic of agriculture, none were answered. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor