As a mediator, I am always interested in unlikely bedfellows snuggling up to solve a problem, particularly in cases where there is no mediator, no third party to make the bed and tuck them in. These bold hookups, generated by the parties themselves, can result in creative solutions that one side or the other would have never considered but that end up meeting the needs of both. So, I read with great interest about a group of college Republicans and Democrats and environmental organizations that have come together (without a mediator) to tackle the mega-issue of carbon emissions and climate change.

Of course people come together to resolve disputes all the time—in the workplace (staff meetings), at home (kitchen table), at play (TV room, ESPN v. Netflix), to name a few. I deal with the bigger, public issues, like water rights, air pollution, waste disposal, public land management, etc. For these complex, multi-party issues a mediator is usually front and center to help get the right people to the table, clarify the goal, establish a timeline, set a respectful and collaborative tone, and all the other services we see as critical to successful resolution of the conflict.

So what brought these adversaries together, what common ground did they identify that held the hope of a mutually supported solution? I read the article carefully and the link to the Baker-Schultz legislation to tax carbon emitters for clues. 

Here are the facts of the carbon dividends plan:

  • Industries that produce carbon emissions will have a choice: either reduce emissions to a certain level, or pay a tax, which would gradually increase over time.
  • The tax that is collected from the emitters would be returned to the American people in dividend checks administered by the Social Security Administration. A family of four is estimated to receive $ 2,000 in the first year.

The bill is silent on who pays the tax, but I imagine the industry passes it on to the consumer, so we do.

Young Republicans, Democrats, and environmental groups have come together to support the Baker-Schultz proposal to reduce carbon emissions. Photo Credit: Shutterstock 

I may have missed something, and would welcome being educated, but this is how it looks to me. A company will weigh its options: which will cost me more—to reduce emissions or pay the tax? If it costs less to pay the tax, then the emissions remain at the same polluting level. There is no benefit to the environment. But the American public is happy with money in their pocket to spend, perhaps on a new carbon-emitting product. The more the taxes go up, the more money comes back to us, and the smokestacks keep belching. At some point I would hope that the tax would get high enough so that producers would choose to spend money on reducing emissions rather than being taxed.

Finally, this sentence from the bill makes no sense to me:  “This [tax] amount would grow over time as the carbon tax rate increases, creating a positive feedback loop: the more the climate is protected, the greater the individual dividend payments to all Americans.”

But I return to my initial curiosity about these diverse interests—young Republicans, Democrats, and environmental groups—getting together to support the Baker-Schultz proposal.

Forgive my dark conclusion: getting more money in our pockets is the common ground, the one “good” that we can all agree on. It reminds me of the recent tax reduction legislation that blinded us to any thoughtful analysis with the promise of an immediate increase in paychecks. Apparently, the quicker that money can reach us—no matter the amount, no matter the long term consequences—the happier we will be. Are we so shallow, so short-sighted, so greedy for immediate gratification that we cannot entertain the greater good that would come from reduced emissions, or a host of other benefits from a more thoughtful, socially responsible use of money?

As a citizen, I am confused and depressed by the message I take from this example. But as a mediator, I congratulate these adversaries for reaching across the boundaries that separate them. I believe that this instinct is a noble one and that, aside whether an agreement is reached, real benefits accrue. Those who may have demonized each other now have a better understanding of the “other.” They may even leave with meaningful relationships that can serve them in the next encounter. These are good things.