Our Earth: It’s Not About the Money.
The financial argument for clean energy undermines the moral argument.
For Earth Day
Why is the public debate around the climate crisis NOT focused on the urgency of preserving the delicate conditions necessary for human survival and the moral imperative of all humans to come together to face this challenge? Possibly because we have allowed conservatives to establish the criteria by which we judge the transition to clean energy. That criteria is: “is it good for the economy?”
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Where is our sense of moral urgency?
We need to get people to ask the right questions.
Why is it that, even though we’re right about the financial benefits of the transition to renewable energy, we can’t seem to build up the political will that we need? Maybe the allure of winning a battle on terms of material self-interest has distracted us from winning the war on terms of moral urgency?
Framing is about determining the criteria by which people make judgments in the public debate. We spend too much time trying to convince Republicans that we’re right. Instead, we should focus on getting persuadable observers to see the situation from our perspective and use our criteria to measure what is right or wrong.
“Will it be good for the economy?”
“Transitioning to renewable energy will kill jobs and make energy more expensive.”
“If what you care about is jobs and prices, then you should support the transition to renewable energy, because it will create jobs and lower costs.”
Ours is a defensive argument. Republicans set the terms of the debate. We respond, hoping to win the debate on their terms by presenting them with facts. Every time we do this, we validate the criteria they are using to judge, in this case, “Will it benefit people economically?”
By validating their criteria, we have set up this problem:
If being GOOD for someone’s bottom line is a legitimate argument FOR converting to renewable energy, then being BAD for someone’s bottom line is a legitimate argument AGAINST converting to renewable energy.
This is the justification being put forward by every person arguing against doing their part in the transition process. Every time we make the case for renewable energy about financial benefit, we strengthen their case too.
“What’s in it for me?”
When we make the case in terms of “rational utility” (the assumption that people will make rational decisions to maximize their material benefit) we make people judge the situation in terms of “What’s in it for me?”
First, this is not how people naturally make decisions. They make decisions based on what they feel to be morally right, unless someone comes along and encourages them to do otherwise. Second, people tend to evaluate their self-interest based on emotions, even when their emotions are contradicted by facts.
Change involves risk, and people tend to be risk and loss averse. We are telling people that this will be good for the economy and create jobs. That’s what some of us said about NAFTA, and for millions of people it was a devastating loss. As with NAFTA, we can’t guarantee that the new financial benefits will be distributed the same way the current benefits are. They know some people will end up financially worse off, and we can’t actually promise that it won’t be them.
As we frequently point out, Republicans get people to make choices that are contrary to those people’s material self-interest. This is because Republicans always make a moral case for what’s in their own (and their donors’) financial best interest.
From their perspective, it is morally wrong to deprive people of their unalienable property rights by robbing investors of their right to make money from the production and sale of fossil fuels. To them, it is morally wrong to force our “woke” political opinions on banks and businesses who are just trying to maximize investment returns for retired teachers and firefighters.
We’d be far better off making our own moral case.
“What’s the right thing to do?”
We should be doing everything we can to encourage people to judge the situation in terms of what is morally right. After all, what if converting to renewable energy weren’t financially advantageous? Would we just sit back and do nothing?
“Even if it costs us every penny we have, the human race has to come together and face this challenge: we must preserve the delicate balance of conditions necessary to sustain human life. That is the bare minimum of what each person owes to every other person in this global society.”
“Is it worth the investment?”
Making the complete transition to clean, renewable electricity will require substantial investment, both in money and behavioral change. We need far more than we have already committed. We have to build a whole new electricity grid. There will be eminent domain. Fossil fuel industries will go out of business and investments will be lost. People will have to buy heat pumps and learn how to use induction cooktops, take public transportation and change driving habits.
If you focus on self-interest - the individual material benefits, you can argue all day about risks and who stands to win or lose. But if you make it about what’s morally right - survival, quality of life and the avoidance of catastrophic outcomes, the answer couldn’t be more obvious.
Yes, every penny of investment will be worth it, but money has nothing to do with it.
“There is no way to put a dollar amount on the benefit of having a climate that sustains the healthy survival of ourselves and our children. What is it worth to prevent the human race from being decimated by unpredictable pandemics and unprecedented natural disasters?”
“There is no cost higher than the cost of doing nothing.”
Setting the Agenda
The public debate is always going to be about something debatable. There will always be a question in people’s minds. You can only win by determining which question that will be.
It is our responsibility to use every moment we spend communicating with the public, (whether that is by making an appearance on Meet the Press or by retweeting a tweet) compelling persuadable people to judge what is right or wrong in the transition to renewable energy in terms of the questions that we want them to think about.
When it comes to some action we wish to take in the transition to renewable energy:
We DO NOT want this debate to be about:
Will it be good or bad for the economy?
Will it create more jobs than it kills?
Will it be financially good or bad for me personally?
Do people have the right to earn money from their investments?
Do we have the right to take away the livelihoods of people working in the fossil fuel industry?
We DO want this debate to be about:
What is the right thing to do?
Is there any price too high to pay for preserving the conditions necessary to sustain human life?
Is there anyone on earth who is not obligated to do their part to save all of humanity?
Is the end of the fossil fuel industry a reasonable price to pay to prevent the loss of our only viable human habitat?
Should the right to profit from the use of private property outrank the right to survive or to live free of catastrophic weather events and global pandemics?
Should this be the top priority of our elected officials and governments?
The Bottom Line
Every country has to convert to 100% renewable electricity. We are biologically dependent on this climate. We must do whatever it takes to preserve the delicate conditions necessary for human survival. It is up to all of us.
We’ll have to make investments and take risks. We’ll have to change our behavior. There will be new jobs and benefits in terms of health and quality of life. Some industries will gain and some will lose. And hopefully we will prevent the worst impacts. But even if it cost us every penny we had, it would still be the right thing to do.
Every single one of us has a moral obligation to come together, set aside our differences and rise to meet this challenge. There is no more time. There is no greater priority. There is no alternative.
And there is no cost higher than the cost of doing nothing.
Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing! I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!
Thank you for reading Reframing America! This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts by email please consider becoming a subscriber. All content is free, but some people choose to become paying subscribers to support this important mission!