Putting The Conservation Back In Conservative: Part II

by Andrew Grandahl

Our neighbors and relatives of different political opinions are not our opponents, but rather our partners in a collaborative process of democracy and societal growth. Though it’s often easy to focus on our differences, most Americans, regardless of their political affiliations, want many of the same things. Environmentally and economically, we are at a pivotal period in time which requires unprecedented cooperation amongst citizens and businesses in order to achieve a better future. In part one of this entry, I laid out the historical precedence for collaboration across party lines to mutual gain, and the benefits of utilizing new talking points to connect with conservative friends. In part two, we’ll delve more deeply into the job numbers and economic advantages behind the renewables revolution, and connect these aspects to Republican ideals.

Here’s an interesting statistic: 69% of wind energy in the U.S. is produced in states that voted for Donald Trump. Many of these states are located in the wind-abundant Midwest, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the citizens of Tornado Alley are capitalizing on one of their local resources. Still, it is heartening to hear that voting for climate change deniers or skeptics does not necessarily equate to a lack of action on renewable energy. Maybe the left has been too quick to assume the right’s lack of desire to move to a greener grid… but is the motivation for renewables in red states the same as in more environmentally-minded blue states?

Two maps, comparing the number of wind projects under construction by state in 2015 (left), and results from the 2016 Presidential Elections showing voting results by county, red for Donald Trump, blue for Hilary Clinton. (Click to enlarge)

Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, recently published figures that paint a new picture of how conservatives feel about energy, and the results may surprise some. According to the poll, a whopping 75% of Trump voters support actions to accelerate the implementation of renewables. 61% of respondents want to see more emphasis on solar energy, 56% want more hydropower, and 52% want more focus on wind power. In terms of coal, only 38% of Trump voters want more of it, while 26% would actually like to see less coal mining developed.

One of the important yet lesser-mentioned attributes of the renewable energy revolution is that in many ways, it is deeply supportive of traditional conservative goals. Renewable energy industries create thousands of local jobs across geographically diverse and disparate locations. And due to the on-site nature of many of these jobs, such as installation and maintenance, they are difficult to ship overseas. Jobs in renewable energy generally pay well, and employ sales, administrative, manufacturing, and maintenance professionals. Additionally, there is a tremendous amount of room for growth in these fields, a key difference when compared to the fossil fuel sector which is limited by finite reserves and increasingly expensive extraction costs. According to a newly published study from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), between 2012 and 2015, renewable energy jobs in the U.S. experienced a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of close to 6%. In stark contrast, jobs in fossil fuel extraction and support services saw a CAGR decline of 4.25% during that same period. In comparison to the growth of the economy as a whole in the past few years, the wind and solar industry are growing 12 times as fast.

The EDF report also included another statistic to give one pause. It states that of the 2.2 million Americans who work in the field of energy efficiency, 70% of them work for companies with ten employees or fewer. This means over 1.5 million energy efficiency employees in the US work for the colloquial 'mom and pop' type businesses, the small companies that conservatives often lament the decline of. These businesses employ locally which helps keep profits in their immediate communities as well, and they are the foundation of any healthy economy. And from what the research is telling us, the fields of renewables and energy efficiency have brought around a huge amount of these local companies. A fast-growing job market, bountiful opportunities for working-class citizens, the growth of small, family-run businesses, in a field which is largely impervious to outsourcing? Sounds like a Republican’s dream come true.

So why don’t progressive Americans talk about this more? Why is the discussion not centered around these resounding and exciting successes? After all, the economic benefits of these new markets are certainly things left-leaning Americans would be happy to see as well, right?

The answer goes back to the different ideologies and values systems espoused by the left and the right. For most liberals, the conversation begins and ends with climate change -- greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, the list of concerns goes on and on. And as incredibly important as all of these issues are, they tend to fall on deaf ears when speaking with most conservatives. The truth is, conservatives often care about other things more. Issues like job growth, low taxes, small government, and national security will spark conservative interest (obviously there is a whole bevy of social issue disagreements, but we’ll set those conversations aside for now).

Take Kansas for example. In 2011, republican governor Sam Brownback gave the opening remarks at the Heartland Transmission Conference in Hutchinson, Kansas. During his speech, Brownback voiced strong support for renewables;

“We export lots of things, and in our future, I want us to export a lot of wind power…We need more of it, and we need more of it now.”
Kansas, a politically conservative-leaning state, is one of the country's largest producers of wind energy.

Kansas, a politically conservative-leaning state, is one of the country's largest producers of wind energy.

A rather bold demand for renewable energy in the state that houses the headquarters of the fossil-fuel magnates the Koch brothers. Six years on from the governor’s remarks, his vision has come true and continues to flourish; Kansas has increased their wind energy production by nearly threefold, and continues to invest. 31% of their electricity comes from wind -- only Iowa boasts more, coming in at an impressive 37% of electricity sourced from wind power.

In 2015, the Koch brothers, through their massive lobbying influence, were able to reduce the renewable energy requirements set up by Kansas to a voluntary goal. Many environmental advocates feared this would represent a major setback to renewables in the state. But to see the wind industry continue to grow despite this political setback is evidence that renewables provide massive economic advantage to states that push for them. As Justin Gillis and Nadja Popovich explained in their June 6th New York Times article, “The clean energy push allows their [Kansas’] utilities to lock in low power prices for decades, creates manufacturing jobs, puts steady money in the hands of farmers who host wind turbines and lures big employers who want renewable power.” For so many reasons that are entirely separate from climate change, political and business leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Kansas, Idaho, Texas, and many other red states have seen massive opportunity for financial growth through renewable energy. They don’t need an appeal to environmentalism; the economic advantages have become abundantly evident, and the market will continue to grow as clean energy becomes increasingly affordable and scaleable.

Hal Harvey, chief executive of Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based think tank, summed up the scenario in rather blunt terms.

“I think the answer is that we don’t need these silly wars. Let’s not even try to agree on climate change…Let’s just get the job done.”

Why hearken on points that don’t resonate with Republicans when there are so many great arguments to be made that do connect with them and will bring us to the same goal? When one approach clearly isn’t working, the only logical route forward is to transition to an approach that does. Rather than continually reiterating the dystopian future that awaits us if we don’t act on climate change, why not lead with the positive message of thriving local economies, increased national security, and energy freedom and independence?

Diversity of thought is one of the things that makes the United States a special place to live. Americans come from a broad variety of backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences, so it makes sense that we clash in our opinions regularly. It’s crucial to remember, as evidenced by the polling numbers in the beginning of this post, that the extreme agendas of some politicians do not necessarily correspond with the desires and opinions of the American people, regardless of their political standing. The overarching truth is that we all share common goals of economic prosperity and opportunity, safe and flourishing communities, and a healthy environment that we can pass on to future generations. Private interests and the politicians they support have injected an unfortunate amount of falsehoods into the public dialogue. Let’s be flexible, capable of circumventing dead-end talking points, and play off of our shared goals. There is a truly bright future awaiting us if we simply reach across the aisle and promote narratives every American can get behind.

As Olympia Snowe, the former Republican senator from Maine put it, “In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good.