A conservative climate change activist on poisonous partisanship

June 26, 2020 5:27 am

Like climate change, mask wearing has become caught up in partisan polarization. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

As a former lobbyist and a self-professed State Capitol geek, I used to think divided government promotes bipartisanship, positive civil discourse, and the kind of change I like — the incremental kind. But the rising phenomenon of negative partisanship — defining yourself by what you’re against instead of what you’re for — is upending my assumptions.

We’re the only state in the nation with a divided Legislature, and I fear we’re a microcosm of the nation as a whole: two clans whose entire reason for being is wiping out the other.

Throw together civil unrest caused by systemic discrimination and killings of unarmed Black men and women, economic stress caused by a pandemic and you’re left with a powder keg — and negative partisanship could be the dreaded spark. 

Why should we care about negative partisanship? Because our new reality — while not unprecedented— requires an even greater attention to reason, logic, and science than ever before. As the conservative journal National Review declared, “The battle will be fought over shifting sands as new threats emerge — climate change and pandemics, first of all — as new technologies are developed, and as changes in the global distribution of power erode the existing system.” 

A society that views everything through the lens of negative partisanship is ill-equipped to deal with a slow but steady, long term crisis like climate change. Rather than working through hard problems with rigorous, good-faith inquiry and debate, we unleash personal attacks on the other clan and question the motivations of an opponent’s belief rather than debate the merit of an individual idea or hypothesis. . 

As a conservative working in the clean energy industry, I baffle liberals and conservatives alike.  Liberals accuse me of being a “denialist,” while conservatives cast me as RINO (“Republican in Name Only”). I serve on the board of the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum which the conservative Center for the American Experiment hilariously attacks as fake because we dare to discuss the benefits of market-based energy solutions. Instead of being applauded by CAE for holding true to first principles, we are chided for showing insufficient support for coal-based energy, which has recently proven it cannot even make money in Ruby-Red North Dakota, despite subsidies.

I believe, for example, that modern conservatism can and should still oppose heavy-handed government solutions, even if that means letting go of long-true facts that no longer hold up, like “coal is cheap.”

In an environment that favors negative partisanship, however, you can’t get to that discussion because merely acknowledging the reality of the other side’s position is viewed as betrayal.

Until recently environmental policy escaped bitter partisanship. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt through Richard Nixon and former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, conservatives had a compelling environmental story. Minnesota Gov. Tim  Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide race here, signed an important energy bill in 2007 that began to shift us away from fossil fuels. But that’s all gone now. By 2010, Rep. Bob Inglis lost his race because he acknowledged the reality of climate change. 

Negative partisanship makes it heresy for Republicans to promote market based solutions to support clean energy and solve environmental problems.

On the other side, energy conference attendees — often of the leftward persuasion — hear my business and Republican background and look at me wide-eyed, wondering whether I am lost. As if it’s impossible to share the goal of clean air and water but have different ideas about how to get there. 

The 2020 legislative session featured a classic case of negative partisanship winning the day. The Natural Gas Innovation Act is a bipartisan bill passed the Minnesota Senate 62-4. On the House side,  a politically diverse group of coauthors tried to win passage, but the bill did not even get a committee hearing. 

The opposition seemed to stem from the fact that some fossil fuel companies would benefit because it would allow them to sell renewable natural gas, which is methane produced through organic decomposition such as manure on a dairy farm. Those guys are on the wrong “team,” so the bill died, even though it would benefit the local economy, improve water and air quality and assist with economy wide decarbonization.  

Where does this leave us? I remain hopeful — not because of my naivete, but because of the kids.  By all accounts, young voters’ patience is wearing thin. They will not tolerate this nonsense. 

My hope is that everyone will get out of their social media and/or community echo chamber. Take a walk in a neighborhood that looks different than yours, talk with your neighbor who has the Trump 2020 or Rep. Ilhan Omar yard sign  — whichever offends you. And remember that if your positions are defined simply by what you’re against, you have work to do.

Isaac Orr of the Center of the American Experiment responded:

Mr. Gerber works as the executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System, which tracks the trade of renewable energy certificates used to ensure states are meeting their renewable energy mandates. There is simply no intellectually honest way for Mr. Gerber to argue his support for wind and solar stems from a “principles first” sense of integrity. The more plausible explanation for his position on renewables is simple self-interest.

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Benjamin Gerber
Benjamin Gerber

Benjamin L. Gerber is a former lobbyist for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, an energy attorney, board member of the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum, and believer that we can always do better.