Banner image: Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., speaks to the audience, alongside moderators Matt Burgess and Renae Marshall. (Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder)
More than 150 people gathered at CU Boulder earlier this month for a lively, moderated discussion between U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, Democrat of Colorado and John Curtis, Republican of Utah (who joined virtually), on how finding common ground in politics could help fight the climate crisis.
The April 14 panel, hosted by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, explored lawmakers' motivations for working on climate change issues, where they see opportunities for building consensus, and their thoughts on reducing political polarization around the issue.
Matt Burgess, assistant professor of environmental studies and economics, and former environmental studies undergraduate honors student Renae Marshall moderated the discussion.
“If we take seriously the idea of society-wide changes in energy and infrastructure sustained over decades, the only way that's going to happen is if we work together,” said Burgess, to kick-off the discussion. “A divided society and government simply won't be up to the challenge.”
Chancellor Phil DiStefano also highlighted the upcoming Right Here Right Now Global Climate Summit to be held on campus Dec. 1-4 and welcomed three CU Regents in attendance: Callie Rennison, Lesley Smith, and Ilana Spiegel.
Here are several key takeaways from the event.
Constituents want climate action
There is a broad and growing bipartisan constituency for addressing climate change, according to Burgess.
In a recent op-ed, Burgess and Marshall note that two-thirds of Americans think the federal government is not doing enough to help reduce effects of climate change and protect water and air quality. And in other Western countries, like the United Kingdom, climate mitigation has become a winning issue for conservative and progressive political parties alike, they note.
“There is still potential to make bipartisan progress on some of these issues, particularly as it relates to climate adaptation and mitigation,” said Neguse.
Bipartisanship passes climate bills
Burgess and Marshall recently co-authored a paper that found more climate bills pass when Democrats and Republicans unite.
It analyzed 418 state-government enacted bills and 450 failed bills aimed at reducing emissions from 2015 to 2020. Their results showed that even though two-thirds of climate-related bills passed in Democrat-controlled legislatures during this time, one-third passed in Republican-controlled legislatures. Additionally, about a third of the bills they analyzed had co-sponsors from both major parties, suggesting there are still opportunities for bipartisanship.
There is also more bipartisanship on climate happening already than many people are aware of, noted Burgess, pointing to the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan caucus of U.S. legislators supported by the Citizens' Climate Lobby, and the climate provisions in the COVID-19 stimulus and infrastructure bills.
Rep. Curtis highlighted the Energy Act of 2020, a bipartisan effort to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—chemical refrigerants that contribute to global warming—by 85% over 15 years. It passed through a Republican Senate, a Democratic House, and was signed by President Trump in December of 2020. While it didn’t receive much media attention at the time, it is one of the most significant energy packages passed in the U.S. in the past decade, said Curtis.
“We don't often tout enough our successes,” said Curtis. “There’s so much work to be done in the climate realm, that rarely do we look back and say, ‘oh good job.’ Usually the comment is more ‘well that wasn’t enough.’”
Politics don’t hinder youth participation
Young people of all stripes are concerned about climate change and want things done, according to Burgess—and there are many opportunities for young people to get involved, regardless of their political views.
This was evident by the number of CU Boulder students who attended the event on a Thursday morning, making up roughly one-third of the in-person attendees. Several students asked questions during the Q&A and afterward, during a separate reception with Neguse.
Blake Lincoln, a political science undergraduate student, asked the lawmakers how we can address the cultural element of climate action—how it affects the economy, jobs and values that our families may have raised us with.
Curtis said addressing climate change requires a global effort, and is not just an issue for the U.S. to address.
“Done right, we don’t need to lose U.S. jobs over this,” he said. “I think we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and actually fuel our economy at the same time.”
Neguse positioned climate action as a matter of preserving our way of life, and if we want to preserve our lands and our enjoyable activities on them, “we ought to get serious about climate change.”
Common values can fuel shared goals
Burgess stressed that the panel discussion was about discussing common ground, not arguing opposing viewpoints.
“This is about consensus; we're not having a debate,” he said, early in the event. “We're trying to understand each other and work together.”
Curtis noted that both Provo City, Utah, where he previously served as mayor, and Boulder, Colorado, are college towns surrounded by mountains and natural beauty, where residents love recreating, sight-seeing and otherwise engaging with their local landscapes.
Neguse echoed Curtis’s sentiments as a proud Coloradan, but also noted the fear that Coloradans and other western residents now face year-round about “what fire may very well develop over the next 12 hours,” referencing several fires burning across the state at the time.
The wildfires we’re experiencing today are more severe, pervasive, and intense than those we’ve experienced previously, Neguse said.
“You all know this in Colorado, we don’t have fire seasons anymore, we have fire years.”
Neguse and Curtis said these common values, and the threats to them, help motivate their shared goals when it comes to climate action.
“We all have an innate desire to protect and preserve this Earth,” said Curtis. “Go to that and start working on a climate dialogue.”
As a global leader in climate, environmental and energy research, the University of Colorado Boulder is partnering with United Nations Human Rights to co-host the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit in fall 2022.