Science says win first, answer questions later.

The prevailing theory of change in the United States has long been that you persuade people to agree with you, and when you get enough people on your side, they vote for representatives, who will enact the policies desired by the majority. It’s something that works in theory, but that has been consistently undermined and sabotaged by the forces of capitalism. Even before the U.S. entered this period of more or less open minoritarian rule, the will of the majority was regularly ignored on things like climate change or a public health insurance option. Despite all of this, a lot of the mainstream rhetoric around political change has remained focused on persuading those who are either apathetic or in opposition to our goals.

Unfortunately, it seems that public opinion tends to follow policy much more than some of us might wish:

“The design of climate mitigation policies relies on economic models. Our research shows that it is possible to improve such models to represent changes in preferences,” says Linus Mattauch, lead author of the paper and researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the University of Oxford. “Preferences represent values and habits, meaning essentially what you as an individual like and not, what you prefer to consume more of and what less. Economists typically assume you are basically born with a fixed set of values and preferences that remain that way throughout your life. It makes calculations easier – but it is a simplification from reality. And, crucially, if you assume preferences will always remain the same, real change like the transition to a decarbonised economy is harder.”

Preference changes are well documented in the past: When the negative health impacts of smoking were raised in education campaigns alongside price interventions and bans, more and more people quit smoking – economics rarely understands this as a change in preferences.

Climate policies can change people’s way of looking at things

“Carbon pricing is indispensable for delivering on climate targets,” says co-author Nicholas Stern, who published the famous 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. “However, if carbon pricing changes people’s preferences – and there is evidence that it does – this has implications. For example, if citizens see carbon prices as indicating purposefulness of policy in directions that they find sensible, then the response to carbon pricing could be enhanced.” They do not simply act as consumers: as citizens, they will develop low-carbon preferences, and more environmental protection could be achieved by a given tax rate.

“Another example is urban redesign,” adds Mattauch. “If a government puts in the money and makes a city’s infrastructure more bike-friendly, citizens will switch from driving to using public transport or cycling. This behaviour will stick, even in different infrastructures – bringing further benefits to the environment and their own health. Taking those benefits into account can lower the threshold for making such big investments worthwhile.”

Reducing demand-side emissions to the benefit of planet and people

One might argue that aiming for preference changes is something policies shouldn’t do. “Our short general answer to this objection is: If society does not debate how preferences are formed, they risk being shaped by and to the benefit of special interest groups rather than in a democratic way. For the enormous challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions drastically in the near-future, recognizing that climate policy instruments modify the preference formation process can produce better climate policies for everyone – and help advance the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent recommendation of using demand-side measures to curb carbon emissions,” Mattauch concludes.

I call this “unfortunate”, because of what’s happening with the Supreme Court right now. That, combined with billionaire-funded propaganda could well result in public opinion swinging to the right on a number of issues. Unfortunately, abortion isn’t close to being the only thing on the table. I also think it’s a bit unfortunate because I don’t share their belief that carbon pricing is the way to go.

That said, I think this is useful information to have. It bolsters what many of us already suspected – if we can actually get the changes we want, it’ll be a lot easier to convince people that their hesitation or opposition was ill-founded. That’s one reason why I think we need to be building collective power – there are times when you need to make change over the objections of those who see everything new as a sign of the coming apocalypse. Trying to persuade someone who sees you as an enemy could well be a lot harder than simply changing the world around them, and demonstrating that it’s better.

That’s basically what the conservatives have been doing, though their definition of “better” is abominable. They don’t care about persuading you, they care about getting their way, and silencing objection. I fear this may be one of those cases where the ends really do justify at least some means. To be clear, I don’t think we need to sacrifice our commitment to the values of life, autonomy, and democracy to win; but I do think that we need to be willing to work outside the system, and to “play dirty”, so to speak. To me, there is no honor in pretending that we’re in a fair fight, while the delay that causes destroys lives. At this point, playing by the rules of this system is conceding defeat before the battle has begun, and I think that includes trying to solve climate change with carbon pricing. Our system is corrupt and it has been from the start, and real change will only ever come from outside it.

So we win first, and answer questions later.

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  1. sonofrojblake says

    Oh so much this. I’ve been saying as much for years: I am and have all my life been of the left, but the one thing I admire about the right is their ability to prioritise WINNING over agreeing with each other over every detail. Win first. This was what purists didn’t like about Tony Blair’s government – the one that achieved peace in Northern Ireland (about to be torn up), minimum wage (about to be made moot by rampant inflation), SureStart centres (mostly gone already), civil partnerships (which became actual marriage equality later).

    Win first – I wish more on the Left would get this memo. Bravo.

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