As of Sunday, the national average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the US stood at $5.01, according to the AAA. It seems like in no time the US will exceed the July, 2008 price of $5.37 (adjusted for inflation from $4.14 per gallon). It’s clear that the clean energy transition is overdue. The US ranks fourth, behind Japan, China, and the European Union, on research and development for energy technologies as a share of GDP. A lack of consensus about the power and place of renewables across the political aisle has limited its potential.
There’s no question about it: for the US to play catch-up, the clean energy transition will need the support of conservatives.
The future of clean energy can pivot with the nod of conservative political elites who have — up until recently — promoted policies friendly to fossil fuels and resisted efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. Not everyone is convinced that fossil fuels are the end game. In fact, a new breed of conservatives is slowly taking hold, and a clean energy transition is patiently waiting in the wings.
Evolving Conservative Viewpoints about a Clean Energy Transition
Decarbonization is the process of transitioning from the production and use of fossil fuels to more renewable and sustainable sources of energy. Underlying values, beliefs, and political orientations generally point to attitudes about decarbonization. Decades-long disinformation campaigns from fossil fuel companies linger in the minds of many conservatives. Change in attitudes comes slowly.
What was once climate denial has morphed into climate action delays. We’re seeing more and more conservatives whose perspectives have become somewhat, shall we say, malleable.
That’s partially because new ways of framing have emerged that position the energy transition through positive economic lenses. New questions have arisen. To what degree can conservative leaders continue to promote short-term gains from fossil fuel deep pockets? How long can conservatives avoid the inevitable long-term losses from failure to invest in renewables?
Climate activists have long argued that clean energy innovation needs rapid transitions that push faster than do market forces. Rewiring America, an organization that promotes electrifying everything, argues that the policy mandate is the only way to reach decarbonization climate goals. “The invisible hand of markets is definitely not fast enough; it typically takes decades for a new technology to become dominant by market forces alone as it slowly increases its market share each year,” the Rewiring America handbook states.
Behind the scenes, conservative leaders recognize the cognitive dissonance of speaking positively about two disparate energy solutions — fossil fuels and renewable energy. They’re also more wary than ever of suffering electoral losses due to perceived lack of climate leadership from voters.
How can conservative leaders garner support for a clean energy transition? In what ways can they adjust the cost-risk-reward strategy from the yesterday’s familiar fossil fuel sources to tomorrow’s healthy planet renewables? When will it become the norm to embrace the vision to replace oil and gas jobs with clean technology career training?
Framing an Energy Middle Ground that’s Consistent with Values
Economic conservatism and self-identified conservative/right ideology are strongly associated with opposition to energy transition. Economic conservatism captures support for free enterprise, government intervention in the economy, and wealth redistribution. Economic conservatism structures individuals’ political preferences across many countries.
However, when elite conservative leaders cue their rhetoric toward adopting more climate-friendly stances for the good of the nation, their supporters tend to follow the lead. Additionally, being able to see local forms of renewable energy, such as wind turbines, makes people more likely to support that form of energy, especially in rural areas. Recognizing these patterns, an incremental change is taking place in conservative camps. Conservative leaders are slowly adding rhetorical transparency to their communications about a clean energy future. While they continue to be reluctant to suggest government intervention in the economy, conservatives now discuss “everything possible” energy solutions.
The points where conservatives and progressives coalesce is a collective pride in US innovation — a commonality in celebrating US values of individualism, self-reliance, and wherewithal. Language from conservative clean energy advocates now refers to “market-based” transitions for encouraging energy alternatives that protect national security and protect independence.
A study in Energy Policy identifies factors associated with the most enthusiasm for an energy transition:
- rejections of the future of oil and gas
- support for market conservative values
The Christian Coalition Network says, “Taking responsibility to care for God’s creation and protecting the future of our children and grandchildren is a core family value. Further delays in action will impact our national security, our economic security, and our family security.”
Young Conservatives for Energy Reform want to “create meaningful energy reform focusing on the key concerns of national security and economic growth through home grown energy and clean technology jobs to ensure a prosperous economy now and for future generations of Americans.”
The Conservative Energy Network argues that “put simply, energy independence is energy security—and energy security is national security. When America is energy independent, our economy is more secure and our hand in foreign policy matters is strengthened.” CEN calls subscribers “energy patriots.”
The Military Advisory Board, a group of retired high-level officers from the US Armed Forces, sees getting off foreign oil and getting onto clean energy as a top national security concern — both in terms of the threats that emerge from climate change and the resources the US expends to secure foreign oil interests. “Projected climate change is a complex multi-decade challenge,” the group says, that “makes clear that actions to build resilience against the projected impacts of climate change are required today. We no longer have the option to wait and see.”
Like the GOP, the Tories in the UK have moved somewhat away from their traditional constituencies to embrace working class voters on an anti-internationalist platform. The UK is more committed to climate action among conservatives, however. The Climate Change Act of 2008 was amended in 2019 under a coalition government of the Conservatives and their North Irish allies. Rather than weakening the 2008 law, the amendment set a target of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.
The lesson that US conservatives are absorbing from the Tories is the need to define climate action on their own terms, as a matter of economics. Studies that outline how affordable it can be to replace a fossil fuel like coal with renewable energy are getting notice.
Conservative resistance to climate-friendly initiatives is starting to soften alongside a strong economic case for them. “Done right, we don’t need to lose US jobs over this,” said Senator John Curtis, a Republican from Utah, during a recent panel discussion on climate change and bipartisanship. “I think we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, actually, fuel our economy at the same time.”
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