A Fistful of Pragmatism: The Energy Consensus That's Just Sitting There

By Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

When it comes to energy policy, do we really need to agree on the why before we can agree on the what?

That's been the working assumption of lots of people on all sides of the debate so far, and it’s stopped climate change policy dead in its tracks. One of the few things the politicians and advocates seem to agree on is that if you don't agree on whether global warming is real or not, you can't move forward. But that just isn't true.

If you're interested in what people think about global warming, then the latest "Beyond Red and Blue" survey from the Pew Research Center probably underscores what you already knew: there's a sharp partisan divide about whether the planet is really warming and why. The Pew survey was designed to break down the public into a range of groups based on their attitudes. On this issue, views break down like this:


No real surprise there. The left of the political spectrum generally believes global warming is real, the right doesn't. Over all, a modest majority of the public (58 percent) says warming is for real.

But what may be more unexpected is what happens when you ask the exact same sample of Americans what America's most important energy priority should be. All of a sudden, everything's coming up green: almost all the groups favor making alternative energy a priority, and even the conservatives shift in that direction. Only the so-called "staunch conservatives" stick with fossil fuels.

The Pew report doesn't try to explain why this happens, but Public Agenda's Energy Learning Curve suggests a reason. It shows people can come to the same the same fundamental outcome from different ideological starting points. We saw a lot of support for alternative energy, too, but it's the reasons for that support that were most intriguing. The "greens" who were worried about global warming backed alternative energy because they wanted cleaner alternatives. People who were anxious about the price of energy backed alternatives because they figured more supply and more options means lower costs .

The factions on energy and the environment, whatever their views, have seemed really determined to overlook the consensus on solutions that's just sitting there, waiting to be seized. But that's what factions do.

One of the most durable movie plots of the past century has been a small town divided into warring parties who are so obsessed with destroying each other that they'll bring the town down around them. It's the plot of the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, which was borrowed from Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic Yojimbo, which itself was borrowing from a Dashiell Hammett detective novel, Red Harvest. (There's also a Bruce Willis movie, Last Man Standing, and a pretty funny episode of the sitcom Community – the list goes on and on).

In each version, any chance for a peaceful settlement gets thrown away because everybody's too invested in the fight itself. And the mysterious stranger, whether gunslinger, samurai or private eye, ends up playing both factions against each other, until they're both destroyed.

The lesson, of course, is that you don't want The Man with No Name to solve your problems for you. He doesn’t really have your interests at heart. In one scene in A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood demands that a group of gunslingers apologize to his mule, and it becomes clear very quickly that they should have done it while they had the chance .

So on this question, you may well believe the opposition is a bunch of stubborn mules. They probably think the same about you. But maybe we don't need to agree on "why" before we get to a consensus on what to do. Maybe we'd get further if we just apologized to the mules, grab the opportunity that’s sitting there, and make some changes that might work for everybody.

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