Serving Franklin County, WA

Environmental identity overrides data, facts

By virtually all key metrics, Washington’s environmental policies are failing. And yet, when was the last time politicians, environmental activists or the media expressed concern about policy failures?

Speeches and news stories are filled with demands that we save the planet, describing threats to salmon, orca, forests and the climate. And yet, there is a remarkable lack of curiosity when real-world efforts fail to address those problems.

One common thread is that environmental policy generally, and climate policy in particular, is simplistically characterized as a debate between two contrary environmental identities – those who care about the planet and those who care about economic prosperity. Rather than conveying information, news stories and political messaging are designed to signal who is good and who is bad.

Treating facts as tools for political signaling is not only fundamentally dishonest, it is bad for the environment. A failure to honestly address real-world data allows the state to go farther down a failed path, rewarding the politicization of environmental policy that is increasingly anti-science and counterproductive.

The coverage and rhetoric surrounding the state’s new climate policies is rich with examples of how reporting of facts is filtered by climate identity.

Some argue that dishonesty has been a key part of selling some climate policies.

The result of all these rhetorical games is that people come to see public policy as a game, believing all political rhetoric is empty. In that circumstance, why would anyone work on building policy consensus? Why would anyone engage honestly knowing that they can just later break their promises, as occurred with the “grand bargain” to pass the state’s low-carbon fuel standard?

The same people who offered and supported a deal to get the law passed then celebrated when the deal they claimed to support was later broken.

The cumulative impact of treating environmental policy as an identity issue is that demonstrable facts are infused with politics. If you mention that CO2 does, in fact, trap heat and contributes to increasing temperatures, you are obviously a Greta Thunberg-loving climate alarmist.

Mentioning that the purpose of taxes on CO2 emissions is to create economic pain by raising the price of gas demonstrates that you are on the side of the polluters and “big oil” (even though BP lobbied hard for Washington’s tax on CO2 emissions).

To reporters, activists, and politicians, facts (which sometimes are not facts) are not treated as guides to effective policy but as signals about what political side you are on.

People frequently ask me why conservatives won’t engage on climate policy.

Why should they when the people who claim to care about the environment are brazenly dishonest and do nothing when their own policies fail on an issue they claim is an “existential crisis”? When facts are signals – and not facts – saying that CO2 is worth addressing gets conservative politicians branded as apostates with no gains toward compromise as long as they continue to express concern about the cost of climate policies, which brands them by the left as allies of “big oil.”

The lack of accountability and rationalizations by activists, the media, and others, give politicians and activists the permission they need to continue failing and then lying to cover up that failure.

Coverage in a newspaper or on TV is something they can point to and provides the shot of courage they need to continue feeling righteous even as their policies fail and they lie to cover up that failure.

It is not tenable to demand that conservatives take a political risk to address climate change and risk being stabbed in the back by political opponents when the very public voices who say that don’t have the courage to admit the pattern of dishonesty from their own side.

As long as the public narrative of climate and environmental policy is contextualized and measured as a battle of identities, there are strong incentives to treat the planet as a political weapon rather than something to be stewarded. If we truly value environmental improvement, we need to shift the measure of value from identity enhancement to effective results.

Given the history, it is unlikely that the range of public voices will make that switch. The best hope for truly sustainable and effective environmental policy is to put more power in the hands of people.

Until we do that, our environmental policy will continue to fail.

— Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center. Email him at [email protected].


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