Reimagining the Economy hosted a talk with Alexander Gazmararian (PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University) and Dustin Tingley (Professor of Government at Harvard University) about their book Uncertain Futures: How to Unlock the Climate Impasse. The event was moderated by Gordon Hanson, Faculty Co-Director of the Reimagining the Economy Project.
Uncertain Futures adopts a ground-up approach to understanding the politics behind the green energy transition in the United States. The authors identify a lack of government and business credibility as the most important barrier to managing this transition and propose solutions to build the credibility of promises to affected communities.
Gazmararian and Tingley combine survey data, personal interviews, and case studies to illustrate the perspectives of people whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels. They find that resistance to green energy policy often isn’t driven by dogmatic disbelief in climate change or ideological opposition to government intervention. People’s concerns are much more practical: they don’t believe the government’s promises to provide compensation, investment, and training during and after the energy transition — especially over the long term. For example, Gazmararian described visiting county fairs to ask people if they trust the government to follow through on promises to make economic investments. More than 70% of respondents did not believe that the federal government would stand by a promise to invest in their community over 10 years. And even if the investments do arrive, they may not benefit locals. People also don’t trust new businesses to hire from the local labor force.
This distrust is rooted in a lack of credible commitment from the government and businesses. When the government makes a promise, it may not fully anticipate how the political environment will change: key leaders may leave office, the party composition of the government may shift, and parties may modify their priorities. Businesses have very few ways to commit to hiring existing residents. On top of that, local actors have little recourse when the federal government or a big company reneges on a promise.
That said, many federal policies are intended to smooth the energy transition: compensation to those who lose their jobs, investment in green businesses to create opportunities, and training for people to work in new industries. So, local opposition to the transition may not only slow down the global reduction of carbon emissions, it may also make the inevitable transition more costly at the local level. Boosting government and business credibility is a pressing issue for policymakers.
Uncertain Futures proposes several ways to increase credibility with affected communities. In the talk, Gazmararian and Tingley focused on transparency. They argued that requiring transparency would reduce the cost of monitoring government and business behavior. This makes it easier for local communities to detect broken promises and act on them, and it functions as a messaging strategy to garner local support. Tingley mentioned an example from Minnesota, where unions believed that green businesses were hiring out-of-state workers rather than displaced local workers. Since no transparency rules were in place, the unions undertook the laborious task of photographing employee parking lots and counting out-of-state license plates. Their findings gave them grounds to lobby the public utility commission to require disclosure of out-of-state hiring. With this disclosure rule, the unions could much more efficiently verify that green businesses were making good on the promise to hire local workers.
Throughout the discussion, Gazmararian and Tingley emphasized the humbling experience of conducting boots-on-the-ground research in affected communities. They described the need for coordination and participation from all involved parties in the energy transition, including federal, state, and local governments, as well as organizations like community colleges and community councils. Gazmararian pointed out that forcing green energy onto these communities will only result in resistance, but bringing them into the conversation can build the political will to advance the energy transition.
This report was authored by Emily Marsh, Predoctoral Research Fellow at the Reimagining the Economy Project