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Populist Environmentalism?

Americans rejected elitism in 2016. Therefore, those who wish to protect the environment must avoid both the reality and the appearance of elitism as they pursue their goals. The findings of an another energy roundtable from resorts in the Alps or the Rockies will not convince the public. The electorate’s rejection of expertise, however, need not condemn the prospects for advancing worthwhile environmental objectives.

Advocates for the environment can draw on a long and close association with populist sentiment. During the depression in 1930s America, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie sang about the benefits of dam irrigation in the Northwest to poor farmers just as they later sang to launch the environmental movement. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon created the EPA in an attempt to appeal to populist sentiment and to recognize the primacy of the individual’s right to clean air and water. Today, this populist approach translates to deploying energy systems in rural areas of India, and to considering the welfare of actual local residents over some larger abstraction like the “national economy” or the “global environment.”

Max Weber distinguishes between a capitalism that wants to organize capital, technology, and labor to maximize national wealth, and a capitalism that emphasizes initiative, arbitrage, and opportunity for businessmen at all levels. The former is the capitalism of Morgan and Rockefeller (and the neoliberals); the latter that of our 45th president. There is now a genuine opportunity to reverse a scenario where all power resides with the bankers and the technocrats. This can be a good thing for the environment.

As sustainable development has advanced over the past few decades, the interests of large multinational businesses like GE, GM, and AT&T have become intertwined with the interests of the environment. From the rhetoric, you would think that there is little divergence between the two.

But would it be heresy to suggest that the interests of the world’s most powerful banks and corporations are not identical to those of the environment or of working people? Would upsetting the parade of corporate-craven environmental NGOs be the worst thing for the environment? In other words, what positive environmental objectives can be advanced that take advantage of the current political climate?

In some instances, the economic forces at play in the current energy transition already favor a lower-carbon energy system. Switching from coal to natural gas for electricity has reduced U.S. CO2 emissions for several years. Left alone, or even with help, coal will continue to fall. Allowing the market to decide with minimal further regulatory interference will continue to reduce CO2 emissions as electricity generation switches to natural gas. The demise of coal as a fuel will also secure the many other environmental benefits the nation obtains from not burning coal for energy. Perhaps coal beds can become valuable as sources of methane and other chemicals.

Also, over the last decade, the proliferation of smaller trees and the accumulation of dead wood in national forests have resulted from caution against new logging and an interest in keeping ecosystems untouched. In fact a more active approach may be beneficial for the national forests. Such action would not only improve the health of the trees remaining in the forest, it would reduce the fuel build-up that has intensified forest fires beginning in the latter decades of the 20th century. Opportunities for abuse by industry will always exist in this area and thus require the supervision, not submission, of the appropriate federal agencies.

Opening the path for nuclear innovation will definitely reduce the amount of carbon emitted into the air and may benefit from both more and less government involvement. Reducing the regulatory burdens associated with obtaining a license will allow for innovation in the nuclear sector. On the other hand, the government can actively offer technical support for nuclear innovation at minimal cost. In the absence of official rhetoric that declares an impending and certain climate disaster, perhaps the national environmental debate can get to the task of how to actually change the national energy system.

It is also important to reduce the funding of ineffective technologies. From ethanol to the electro-chemical storage of electricity, the federal government tries to pick winners even when it is clear that the “winning” technologies cannot fulfill their promise. Similarly, countries in Europe are now assessing whether—after a decade of subsidies, good intentions, and even good design—many kinds of renewables have really provided a panacea for the economy or the environment. The answer will not hurt our national energy policy; it will make it more realistic.

The time is ripe not to be defensive, but to advance environmental goals like lower carbon dioxide emissions, healthier forests, and reduced farmland use for biofuels. Focusing on a positive message that takes advantage of the current political climate can be key to securing long-term gains for people who care about the environment.

Iddo K. Wernick is a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.

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