Negotiation is the process by which value is determined by the intensity of the involved parties’ desires. The more that one party wants something the other controls, the greater the leverage of the petitioned party. Often, appearing to want something less is what stands between striking a fair deal and outright failure. This market-derived lesson is one that proponents of a carbon tax must learn, and quickly.
At the Northern California Citizens Climate Lobby conference, a room of more than 300 highly motivated and genuinely passionate people packed a large conference room on a Friday night to listen to a panel discuss what the moderator, Greg Dalton of the Commonwealth Club, referred to as “the end of the world.” Over the course of a two-hour conversation, the panelists considered how a carbon tax would work; what to do with the money that it would collect; and questions of political strategy. All of these issues were approached through the prism of the evening’s prompt: “Pricing Carbon: Can Conservatives and Progressives Agree?”
As one of the panelists, I was struck by the seriousness with which the audience took the panel’s suggestions. Members of CCL believe, rightly, that reconciling the disparate aims of the left and the right is a prerequisite to “creating the political will for a livable world.” Toward that end, members strive to pocket their normative political preferences in the hope that their organization, and its proposal, will attract bipartisan support.
The group’s executive director, a bespectacled and affable gentleman named Mark Reynolds, strives mightily to maintain his group’s rigid message discipline. He deserves credit for doing so; CCL has been astonishingly successful since he took over. The lobby has doubled in size for each of the last five years and now counts more than 16,000 members within its ranks. More importantly, CCL is meeting with elected officials and providing a constructive outlet for a hitherto misdirected potent political force.
Yet like many other groups in the carbon tax and larger climate-change movement, CCL faces an obstacle intrinsic to its effort. Virtually all of its members believe climate change is the single greatest threat that faces the nation, and that the threat is imminent. Why else would anybody sacrifice an unseasonably warm Friday night in San Francisco?
This unspoken assumption was given a voice as the evening wound down and the audience had an opportunity to present the panel with questions. An earnest woman in the front row asked gravely, “how much time do we have left?”
Responses from the panel varied wildly, but two broad themes emerged. The first, articulated by Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, was that action cannot come soon enough and that time is short to avert catastrophe. The loud round of applause that followed his observation suggested that his belief largely jibed with the audience’s.
The second theme, championed in a memorable fashion by Future 500 President Bill Shireman, was that, since he became an environmentalist decades ago, the refrain that “we only have 10 years left to act” has become all too familiar. In other words, that action is necessary but there is some time left to act. The response to Bill’s comment was subdued, suggesting that the very active core of CCL’s membership does not believe delay is tolerable.
If they hope to succeed, those audience members would do well to change their approach, if not their belief. Persuadable elements of the right, though willing to listen and even to deal, do not share their “world is ending” anxiety. Without that urgency, and keen to achieve their public policy gains, an empowered right will be emboldened to seek concessions commensurate to the perceived level of desperation they encounter. A scenario in which conservative support for a carbon tax is predicated upon the end of, for instance, the Affordable Care Act is not unthinkable.
At a certain point, the right’s asks will become so large that allies of convenience on the left (labor or poverty advocates) will be forced to abandon their support of climate-change legislation in favor of their own core priorities. For this reason, the time horizon question will prove dispositive unless carbon tax advocates’ urgency can be tempered.
Ultimately, averting the “end of the world” may well require appearing to care less about the world’s end.