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Winning the climate fight

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

The politics of climate change can sometimes feel unwinnable.

The oil and coal industries spend large sums of money to spread falsehoods. The leadership of the Republican Party echoes those falsehoods. Many voters, struggling with slow-growing living standards, are hostile to policies that would address climate change — namely, increases in energy prices. And so far the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates haven’t put the issue at the center of their campaigns.

But for all of these challenges, I think there is a more promising political approach than many people realize. In the upcoming issue of The Times Magazine, I’ve written an essay about it, and it is online now.

The brief version: Americans are skeptical of policies that directly raise the cost of energy, such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. But polls show that most Americans are in favor of policies that promote clean energy even if those policies indirectly raise the cost of energy. One example is a mandate requiring utility companies to use more clean energy; most states already have such a mandate, and Michigan and Nevada have recently made theirs tougher. Another example is federal spending to subsidize clean energy — a program, in other words, that looks like a Green New Deal.

Obviously, programs like these don’t eliminate the costs of moving away from dirty energy. But they can change the political calculus. When a policy calls attention to the costs of the transition, as a carbon tax does, people are wary. When a policy calls attention to the benefits, people often have a more favorable attitude and are willing to accept slightly higher costs.

As a result, many climate activists have been changing their political strategy in recent years. “It makes sense to set a goal,” as Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a climate-policy expert, told me while I was reporting the magazine story. When people understand the goal — like a clean-energy economy — they are much more open to solutions than when the policy discussion focuses on mechanisms for reaching that goal.

Even if the country adopted a sensible climate policy today — and it’s inconceivable under President Trump — it is too late to avoid some of climate change’s terrible damage. But it’s not too late to make a big difference.

My article is part of the Magazine’s climate issue, and you can find more of it here. The theme is deliberately scary: “Putting a Price on the End of the World.”

Also, the writer Nathaniel Rich has just released a book based partly on his August 2018 cover story for the Magazine on the history of climate policy. Last night, Nathaniel and I talked about climate change at the Brooklyn Public Library, and you can watch the conversation here.

Related: Thomas Friedman argues that smart climate proposals could well be damaging to a president who has denied climate change at every chance he’s gotten. “If Democrats approach this right,” he writes, “they can win on this issue in 2020 and make Trump the laughingstock.”

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