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7.5.04

Romney Vs. Climate Change

Romney Hedges On Global Warming

As he introduced a new state policy to combat global warming, Governor Mitt Romney had a surprise for the environmentalists gathered along the Charles River Esplanade yesterday: Personally, he's not sure global warming is happening.

During a news conference at which he formally announced the Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan, Romney said he decided not to take sides in the debate about "is there global warming or is there not, and what's causing it."

... "If climate change is happening, the actions we take will help," Romney wrote. "If climate change is largely caused by human action, this will really help. If we learn decades from now that climate change isn't happening, these actions will still help our economy, our quality of life, and the quality of our environment."

Romney said yesterday he considered the new climate plan a "no-regrets" policy. Even if greenhouse gases turn out not to be driving climate change, he said, the state will have improved air quality, stimulated the economy, and saved money by reducing its appetite for energy.

-- via Quark Soup


The story's lead paragraph (whose framing is apparently endorsed by Quark Soup, since quoting it is the entirety of the post there) is the likely, but unfortunate, way that Romney's position will play out. The focus will be on the apparent hypocrisy of proposing a plan to deal with a threat you don't believe in. Environmentalist enthusiasm for the plan will be tempered by the feeling that he's giving aid and comfort to climate change skeptics and the lost opportunity for a "Sister Souljah moment" as a Republican stands up to endorse the idea of human-induced climate change.

The most popular explanation offered for the weird positioning, raised later in the Globe article, will likely be the sort of "strategic positioning" argument that characterizes most political discussion. Romney is unlikely to win over most environmentalists (since they care about other issues as well), while he needs the support of climate skeptics. Thus he gives rhetorical reassurance to them even as his policy undercuts their cause.

But the more important thing that seems to be happening -- or what could be made to happen if the public discourse fixates on the second two paragraphs that I quoted rather than the first two -- is an attempt to move the debate beyond the "economy vs. environment" impasse that dominates most discussions of climate change. It's dangerous, of course, to maintain that the transition to a sustainable society can be made painlessly. But it's also true that environmental and other values are not a zero-sum game.

Romney's framing of his skepticism is in a sense an attempt to achieve an overlapping consensus (a sort of "Sister Souljah moment" on the pragmatic, rather than ideological, level). His affirmation of a shared viewpoint with skeptics is not merely damage-control for a policy that skeptics won't like. It's a positive claim that his policy can be justified with regard to their values. He's saying "even though my policy looks like it's something They would like, I'm still one of Us, and speaking as one of Us, I can say that We ought to support it. We can work with Them without selling out Our values." At the same time, though, I think "They" (and I'm part of Them) need to listen to Romney's case and recognize that They share the relevant values, and that it's worth trying to move forward without achieving agreement on all of Their values.

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