Bezos’ Earth Fund Should Revitalize The American Rust Belt Instead Of Chasing Technological Solutions

Jeff Bezos is getting plenty of unsolicited advice on how to spend $10billion pledged to his Earth Fund. We join the chorus to offer a somewhat unusual suggestion. If the idea is to make rapid progress on climate change, the Bezos Earth Fund should address political challenges to climate policy.

Technology and innovation already have their patrons. Although venture capital for climate change has not taken off, there are several exciting technologies on the cusp of getting commercialized. Business focus on climate change was evident at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. Even the federal government may step in to fund climate innovation.

But business and the government seem to shy away from addressing the complex political problems that impede climate progress. Climate protection is a global public good that benefits everybody in the long run, but its costs are immediate and concentrated in a few sectors. This is the core political challenge. No wonder there is mobilization against climate regulation. This, by itself, is not problematic, but for the fact that the fossil fuel sectors that will bear the regulatory costs play an important role in swing states of the American rust belt, such as Pennsylvania. Leading blue-collar unions recognize the climate problem but continue to oppose regulatory solutions. Rural voters oppose climate policies even in liberal US states such as Oregon and Washington. This is where the real climate challenge resides.

Why the opposition to climate policy?

One might say climate change will drive the 2020 elections. After all, opinion polls show a rising support for climate action. President Trump and the Republican party are vulnerable on climate issues especially among the younger generation. While this might be true, in the 2018 exit polls, voters did not rank climate policies among top three issues that motivated their vote.

Climate policies suffer from some sort of populist backlash. Drivers of populism are many, but few will disagree that economic hardship provides a fertile ground for populism. As the AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka notes: “So I would ask each of you: does your plan for fighting climate change ask more from sick, retired coal miners than it does from you and your family? If it does, then you need to think again.”

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