Sustainability Thought Leaders on Green-Sports, Part 2: Jerry Taylor, Libertarian Lobbyist who Switched from Climate Change Denier to Fighter

We have conducted a ton of interviews over the 3+ years of GreenSportsBlog’s existence with leading lights from across the Green-Sports spectrum. Thing is, the Green-Sports niche, while growing is still in its infancy, is still very small. How much does the niche have to grow until it reaches critical mass? What will sports look like once that’s achieved? What are the key challenges the sports green movement has to overcome? To get some answers, GreenSportsBlog is going outside of the Green-Sports world to take a look inward. We are talking, in an occasional series that will run over the course of several months, with leaders from various corners of the sustainability world with little or no connection to the sports world to get their takes on the sports-greening movement. I hope some valuable insights will result. Our first interview in the series was with Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group.

For the second installment, I am excited to bring you our conversation with Jerry Taylor, President of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC. What could Taylor’s story possibly have to do with Green-Sports? Well, we talked about the tribal nature of sports and politics–i.e. how being a Steelers fan or a climate change denying libertarian is deeply engrained in us and how difficult it is to switch tribes (Become a Ravens fan? A climate change fighter? No way!) Jerry Taylor made that switch. Here’s his story, as well as his thoughts on the green-sports movement.


GreenSportsBlog: Jerry, your professional life story—going from being a lobbyist at the Cato Institute, one of the leading libertarian think tanks, where climate change denial was largely the rule, to the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank where fighting climate change is core to its DNA—is fascinating in so many ways. But, first, some back story: How did you get to the world of think tanks?

Jerry Taylor: Well, I grew up in Iowa, went to the University of Iowa…

GSB: An Iowa Hawkeye

JT: Indeed. Didn’t graduate. Instead, I came to Washington, DC in the mid 1980s as a young republican with some campaign experience with the idea of becoming a Karl Rove-type operator. Alas, those jobs were harder to come by than I had thought, so I took a position at the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC


Jerry Taylor, President of the Niskanen Center. (Photo credit: Niskanen Center)


GSB: Oh, wow—the trade group that is like Darth Vadar to climate change fighters?

JT: Yes, that would be ALEC. One of the group’s founding members was Terry Brandstad, an Iowan, and I had worked on his first gubernatorial campaign back in 1982. My first position there was as an intern in their energy and environmental arena. I worked on recycling, waste, climate change, and a host of other things. Soon enough I was Staff Director.

GSB: This is not the backstory of the typical GreenSportsBlog interviewee, I gotta tell ya…

JT: …In any event, over time I evolved from a standard republican conservative to a libertarian—I found that I didn’t like politicians much nor did I care for DC nor government. So I moved over to the Cato Institute

GSB:…Which is like the Harvard of libertarian think tanks…

JT: Exactly. So this was 1991. Again I worked on energy and environment.

GSB: What about climate change?

JT: It was just starting to emerge as a major issue at that time. 1988 was a key date, when Dr. James Hansen, then of NASA, testified before Congress about climate change and its perils. But Cato was firmly in the denial-skeptic camp and I was right there with them as Policy Director. Eventually I moved up to be a VP there and then left in 2014 to start the Niskanen Center.



GSB: Why did you leave Cato?

JT: Over time the environment felt uncomfortable for me at Cato. You see, I was hired as a climate skeptic but, as I kept reading and listening and learning about climate change, my views on climate change evolved to where I saw it as a) real, and b) a serious problem that needed to be dealt with seriously. Those views didn’t fit at Cato. So that was a contributing factor for why I left.

GSB: So you were changing tribes, changing teams. I imagine that was really hard to do—I wrote a post not long ago about my own moral quandary: What does a climate change-fighting, bleeding green and white New York Jets fan do when he finds out team owner Woody Johnson is a fundraiser for climate change denier Donald Trump? Become a (gag!) Giants or Patriots fan? NO WAY! I couldn’t switch tribes—I just could not do it, despite almost five decades of mostly awful Jets football since Super Bowl III. So I wrote an open letter to Mr. Johnson, offering to give him a presentation on climate change. So far I haven’t heard from him. So I couldn’t switch. You did. How did you do it?

JT: Well, first of all, I’m a Redskins-Capitals-Nats fan, so I feel your pain. Seriously, “changing tribes” from climate change skeptic to actively supporting climate change action is very difficult to do; very few people in Washington make this kind of change. Forget the science for a second. Our social identities are made up of like folks—and that trend is only increasing. I mean, if you’re in politics, going from something like pro life to pro choice, what do you gain? Or imagine you are a free market economist who nonetheless believes some of the things economist Thomas Picketty^ has to say have some validity? Being right and changing allegiances because of it has serious costs. Friendships and relationships are often lost. It’s much easier to stay with your team, your tribe. And I get that. I’m not always leaving my tribe. I mean, I’m a Caps fan and so I’ll defend Alex Ovechkin no matter how many early round Stanley Cup exits the team suffers.

GSB: I get that about Ovechkin but how did the switch from skeptic to adherent impact your own career, your own life?

JT: Some of my friends and acquaintances dropped me. But I made new friends along the way, and so it goes. And then there are people who—best way to say it is it’s not unlike living in the Soviet Union—a lot of people publicly echo the party line but privately think different.

GSB: You have more courage than I. I just stayed a Jets fan. Let’s turn from switching teams to sports more broadly. What do you think of sports as a platform for environmentalism and the climate change fight? Do you think it can have a significant impact?

JT: I think sports represents our society more than drives it so I don’t see sports driving momentum on climate change. I can see sports as being a forum for athletes and sponsors to communicate environmental messaging. So much of America is reflected by sports. There’s a reason why, going back a hundred years until now, intellectuals become sports writers. As the climate change issue grows in importance, so too will it grow in sports. Sports, at its best and also at its worst, amplifies what is happening in society.

GSB: I have strong hopes that, on climate, sports will amplify the best. One final question, this one not to do with sports: So as a libertarian who sees climate change as a serious global challenge, what do you think will happen, policy-wise in the US, and what do you want to happen?

JT: The US is moving to more carbon restraints and is transitioning to renewables. This is happening but needs to happen much more quickly. Not surprisingly, I favor market-based carbon pricing schemes and this seems to be gaining traction in both parties. I’d say the window to get a real carbon pricing solution is about four years. Otherwise, because the science and the consequences of climate change won’t wait, the policy prescriptions will shift to more government mandates like the “keep it in the ground” campaign.

GSB: Not the ideal libertarian solution…

JT:…But it’s better than nothing. If first-best solutions are unavailable, then we have to look at second-best solutions.


^ Picketty argues that, due to income inequality, redistribution through a progressive global tax on wealth, is a sound policy prescription.
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