The Genesis of Stalemate

Michael Lewyn's picture

Some of my acquaintances believe that climate change may end human life (or at least civilization) and that the only way to save humanity is to massively reduce economic growth and consumption. Other acquaintances believe that climate change is, if not an outright hoax, a minor problem- and that even the slightest attempt to regulate emission-creating industries will itself destroy American civilization.

Most of these people are not scientists (let alone scientists specializing in climate-related science), so I strongly suspect that their opinions come from Al Gore's movie and Rush Limbaugh's talk show, rather than from a comprehensive review of the footnote-filled scientific papers addressing climate change. Nevertheless, they are as certain in their opinions as real scientists are. How come?

A plausible explanation was supplied by a Harvard Law Review article I recently read.* The article links disputes over technical issues to clusters of values that form competing cultural worldviews, most notably "egalitarian" and "individualist" worldviews.

The article asserts that egalitarians are "naturally sensitive to environmental hazards, the abatement of which justifies regulating commercial activities that produce social inequality." In other words, egalitarians are predisposed to be hostile to large-scale capitalism, and will thus naturally believe any theory that supports this predisposition. When capitalism failed to deliver economic growth in the 1930s, some intellectuals supported communism as more likely to do so (and perhaps more likely to enhance the status of intellectuals by dragging down corporate elites that outrun them in the race for wealth and power). And when capitalism has delivered economic growth, modern egalitarians decided that growth wasn't so great after all.

By contrast, the article notes, "individualists" generally "dismiss claims of environmental risk as specious, in line with their commitment to the autonomy of markets." In other words, individualists believe that (1) government should only regulates transactions that cause harm to others, and (2) this no-harm rule justifies a small government that does not interfere with commercial activity except to prohibit force and fraud. But proposition (2) makes sense only if most commercial transactions in fact do not cause significant harm to nonparties (or to use an economic term, "externalities"). But if nearly all commerical transactions do in fact create dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, proposition (2) fails, which means that the entire ideology of individualism is based on a falsehood (the idea that business activity does not generally create externalities justifying regulation). Because climate change appears to threaten the core idea of individualism, individualists will engage in considerable intellectual gymnastics to avoid climate regulation.

In sum, most people (other than a few scientists and economists who actually know what they are talking about)** with strong opinions on climate policy are responding less to objective reality than to their cultural values. As a practical matter, this means that Americans are going to have a great deal of difficulty reaching a popular consensus on climate policy; because the issue is so technical, ill-informed public opinion is likely to be impervious to new scientific evidence. The stalemate can only be broken through policies that appeal to both sides.

Indeed, the climate change stalemate provides a lesson for policy entrepreneurs in other fields (such as planning-related issues). Policies that attract broad popular support will be policies that attract support from both egalitarians and individualists. For example, zoning (despite its many flaws) is popular because it appeals to both egalitarians' desire to bridle developers and to individualist homeowners' desire to protect their property rights (since even individualist homeowners often see their neighborhood as part of their property).

*The cite is 119 Harvard Law Review 1071, and the article is available online at

**I make no claim to be part of this group.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Recipe for doing nothing

A corrollary to this idea of reaching out to all spectrums of people is that it is almost impossible to do anything other than incremental changes. Any kind of significant change is bound to antagonize one group or another, so we content ourselves with limited ideas which we know will not be enough but which might be able to garner sufficient support....

Our modern economic and political systems provide few incentives to plan for the long-term. So why should we?

Part Of The Explanation

This is part of the explanation but not all. There were egalitarians and individualists in the 1950s and before, but they did not talk about climate change. The difference between now and the 1950s is obvious: we have new scientific findings that both the egalitarians and the individualists now must deal with.

In the early 20th century, many egalitarians tended to have great faith in technology and not to worry about environmental issues. Think about all those old communist posters glorifying industry and progrress. Again, the difference is obvious: we now have new empirical findings about environmental issues.

I myself am certain that we should act on global warming, though I am not a scientist, because I reason as follows:

Well over 90% of climate scientists say that global warming is a serious threat. Virtually all the scientists who disagree say that there is no proof yet that human-caused global warming is a threat, meaning that it may be or it may not be.

In this situation, it obviously makes sense to act to reduce the threat, given the seriousness of the possible risks.

Likewise, if nine out of ten doctors said you would die soon unless you took a certain treatment, and if the tenth doctor said he wasn't sure, I think you would take the treatment. You don't have to be a doctor yourself to be certain that this is the best decision.

Charles Siegel

Want policy change? Start with dinner.

I don't see the terms liberal or conservative in this post, but that is what we're really talking about, isn't it? The distinction drawn between egalitarians and individualists seems to be roughly the same.

Regardless, the discussion reminds me of an old article in the New York Times about liberals and conservatives and some interesting psychological/emotional reasons for the two world views. I imagine a lot of it would apply here. If it does, then the solution offered in the times article might be applicable too: the best way to break down ideological barriers is to start fostering more conversations and building relationships between moderates on both sides. If you're a dem, invite a GOP moderate over for dinner. Maybe Obama wasn't so far off with the beer summit...

True with everything?

It seems like this is true of almost anything. Let me know the next time you ask someone for their opinion on something and they say "well, give me a few months to review the research and do some econometric modeling and I'll get back to you". Some psychologists say that just about all people take in data in a filtered way so as to generally reaffirm their preexisting notion or at least what they would like to believe. Climate change, planning issues are no different. One way to slice political notions or world view as you have is what David Brooks has done: 1) those hostile to the "free market" (egalitarian), 2) those trusting of the "free market" (individualists). How those beliefs get engrained I'm not sure (family, SES, race, religion, culture, personal experiences, etc.) My personal, biased opinion is that people who have been more jaded by private enterprise distrust the capitalist system while those more jaded by government agencies loathe big government. I have actually tried to go back in my own life and see where/how my biases have developed and evolved because they have changed somewhat over the years. I think it's a useful exercise.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $16.95 a month
Planetizen Courses image ad

Looking for the perfect last-minute gift?

A one-year subscription to Planetizen Courses is the gift that will continue giving all year long.