Behind the bigotry and antics of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was a basic economic appeal to working class whites. “Elect me,” Trump said, “and I will bring jobs and prosperity back to your community.” The strategy worked: A 2018 study by two Johns Hopkins sociologists confirmed these economic overtures were critical to winning over working-class whites and thus the election.
Trump’s appeal was successful because most working class whites, and working class Americans as a whole, care about their immediate economic situation above all else. Issues which have occupied the national consciousness recently, from healthcare to jobs, are rooted in pressing economic concerns.
Proponents of serious climate change legislation need to take note. Framing climate change as a moral issue isn’t winning anybody over. Climate change is too vague and too distant of a problem for the country to respond with appropriate urgency. In order to win votes and popular support, advocates for climate change solutions must focus on the economic motivations behind these solutions: Climate change is both a potential economic catastrophe and one of the greatest economic opportunities of our time.
The Trump administration's own report from earlier this fall warned that in the absence of significant action, climate change is “expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century.” In 2017, natural disasters racked up at least $300 billion dollars of damages, making it the costliest year on record. Climate scientists believe the disasters were strengthened significantly by our warming atmosphere. Future droughts, wildfires and hurricanes will only get stronger and cause more devastation. Lost harvests, water scarcity and damaged infrastructure will decrease economic stability and increase the cost of living.
But natural disasters don’t affect everyone equally and don’t tell the whole story. A family in Minnesota probably cares less about strengthening hurricanes than a family in Puerto Rico. What everyone should care about is the money a sustainable energy transition would put back in the pockets of working people. Eliminating the harmful pollutants emitted by coal and natural gas plants would reduce healthcare spending by tens of billions of dollars a year. Past environmental regulations have yielded similar results. According to the EPA, the Clean Air Act of 1963 has saved the country tens of trillions of dollars in healthcare costs. Household energy prices will also decrease. A 2017 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency found that most renewable energy is already cheaper for consumers than fossil fuels, especially in developed countries like the United States.
Renewable energy and energy efficient infrastructure will infuse jobs into the American economy. The solar power and wind power sectors require workers at every stage, from manufacturing, installation and maintenance to transportation, logistics and administration. A 2017 report by the Environmental Defense Fund found that every dollar invested in renewable energy yields twice as many jobs as equivalent investment in traditional fossil fuels. This job boom would be particularly prominent in the United States, which is in dire need of an infrastructure facelift. Programs like the Green New Deal would accomplish our infrastructure goals in a sustainable fashion while adding hundreds of thousands of jobs to our economy.
Framing sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy investment as an economic necessity would flip the dominant narrative advanced by conservatives, who almost always dismiss clean energy reform as economic suicide. In October, President Trump defended his inaction on climate change by saying, “I don't want to lose millions and millions of jobs."
The fact that such a bold-faced lie can be effective proves that politics isn’t about who has the best ideas or the most logical policy. In politics, the most compelling narrative wins. It’s time to embrace the power of narrative. Let’s frame the sustainable energy transition as an economic necessity, not just a moral one. Let’s build a broad working class coalition through the economic promise of bold climate change legislation. Let’s follow the lead of the young Democratic congresswomen, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who have already demonstrated the popularity of economically-motivated climate change policies. Let’s fully embrace the infamous words of James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.