Climate change, Vancouver real estate, and the never-ending debate between communitarians and individualists

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      There's a reason my Twitter profile features artist Stefan Sagmeister's giant inflatable monkey beside a banner saying "Everybody thinks they are right".

      It's because human beings, including myself, have a tendency to clutch onto our core beliefs as part of our identity.

      These most basic viewpoints—whether it's about climate change, the root cause of Vancouver's high real-estate prices, gun control, or the overall value of government regulations—are extremely difficult to shed. 

      Daniel Kahan heads the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. And he has written extensively about the differences between "hierarchical individualists" (often political conservatives) and egalitarian communitarians (often more liberally minded voters).

      Hierarchical individualists are most resistant to accepting the scientific consensus that human beings are causing climate change.

      The more extreme individualists sometimes seem hardwired to believe that government regulation is almost always negative, and this affects how they view climate change, regardless of the scientific evidence.

      That's because proposed solutions to global warming invariably revolve around greater government regulation, which offends one of their core beliefs. It's Big Government writ large. Therefore, the scientists can't be trusted.

      One of those hardcore individualists, Donald Trump, is about to be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate.

      "Trump has a history of engaging in conspiracy theories, and in that vein he has described climate change as a 'hoax',' 'mythical', 'nonexistent', a 'con job,' and 'bullshit'," a recent Sierra Club report noted.

      The tweet below shows how out of step Trump is with the vast majority of scientists on this issue.

      If he becomes president, Trump's views on climate change will likely elevate the risk for people around the world. But could Trump's mindset be turned around?

      Kahan was the lead author on a study that looked at a "two-channel science communication strategy". It suggests ways of bridging the divide between hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians around climate change.

      In a recent blog post, Kahan explained that the hierarchical individualists were more likely to become open-minded about climate change when presented with information about geoengineering.

      The National Research Council has defined geoengineering as "deliberate large-scale manipulations of Earth's environment designed to offset some of the harmful effects of climate change".

      This could include seeding the atmosphere with particulates to reflect the sun's rays into space or placing iron pellets in oceans to absorb carbon.

      "The scientific exploration of geoengineering as a policy response, we conclude, could have an important impact on public debate not just because of the factual information it is likely to yield but also because of the cultural message it is likely to express about what it means to regard climate change as a serious problem," Kahan and the other researchers wrote in their paper.

      That's because it shifts the discussion around climate change to individual action to solve a problem. Hardcore individualists are attracted to the idea that human ingenuity, and not governments, can solve society's most complex problems.

      Donald Trump is the new king of climate-change denial.
      Boss Tweed

      Egalitarian communitarians, on the other hand, are apt to be horrified about geoengineering.

      "They are the citizens who bridle at the self-centered acquisitiveness implicit in market institutions and in liberal conceptions of individual rights," Kahan wrote on his blog. "For them, the meanings of boundless individual ingenuity and permanent technological progress that pervade the narrative implicit in the 'geoengineering' condition threatened and denigrate their identity."

      Critics of geoengineering cite concerns about the effect on global precipitation patterns to the impossibility of geoengineering ever addressing ocean acidification. Then there are the problems that would arise if the geoengineering suddenly stopped taking place, causing the Earth's average temperature to suddenly and dramatically increase. 

      (For more information on this topic, Canadian author Naomi Klein's last book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, includes an extensive critique of geoengineering.)

      Author Naomi Klein has shredded arguments in favour of geoengineering the climate.

      The stakes are exceedingly high. As the research paper points out, "cultural meaning conflicts can pose a disproportionately large threat to the health, safety, and prosperity—and even to the deliberative capacity—of self-governing societies".

      "Identifying how to protect the deliberation environment from this distinctive toxin, we submit, is the central mission of the science of science communication in a democratic society," they conclude.

      It raises the question whether egalitarian communitarians should not be so contemptuous of geoengineering if it's the only thing that will get people like Trump to take climate change seriously.

      I believe that evidence is likely to show that geoengineering, which critics say is a business-as-usual approach, is doomed to fail. But simply conducting research may hold out the hope of getting large numbers of global-warming skeptics to recognize the reality of human-induced climate change.

      Without that, humanity's future on Earth could be doomed.

      Egalitarians battle individualists in Vancouver

      What does any of this have to do with Vancouver real estate?

      As we've seen in the debate over rising housing prices, egalitarian communitarians tend to favour much stronger regulatory responses.

      They include new rules around foreign ownership, taxes on owners of empty homes, speculation taxes, a crackdown on Airbnb rentals and shadow flipping, Canada Revenue Agency audits on people with expensive homes and little reported income, et cetera.

      For egalitarian communitarians, it's all about equality. And the status quo, in their minds, is not reinforcing this.

      It's the same reason they become so agitated about government funding of private schools for kids of wealthy parents.

      If anyone suggests there might be racism underlying attitudes around what's happening with regard to real estate, this will deeply offend egalitarian communitarians. So they'll inevitably shout down these voices as being entirely guided by self-interest. 

      Former NDP candidate Victor Wong discovered this when he ridiculed Vancouver media outlets for their heavy focus on the impact of Chinese buyers.

      Former NDP candidate Victor Wong has been condemned by egalitarian communitarians for raising the issue of race in the context of Vancouver's housing debate.

      Egalitarian communitarians believe self-interested people inevitably latch onto arguments to advance their selfish objectives because they really don't care about the broader community. To some of them, concerns about racism are a ruse to promote another objective.

      Egalitarian communitarians are also convinced that they are not racist. That's a core belief. Anyone who even obliquely suggests that the charge for more regulation is linked to race had better put on a helmet because the backlash is going to get vicious. To egalitarian communitarians, it's never been about race. It's about where the money comes from and how it's not being regulated.

      Earlier this year, there was a great deal of concern expressed about real-estate agents regulating themselves. This too reflects the egalitarian communitarian viewpoint that it's the role of government to protect people from being ripped off.

      Hierarchical individualists, as exemplified by Finance Minister Mike de Jong and Deputy Premier Rich Coleman, have been forced by egalitarian communitarians' pressure to make some changes. Premier Christy Clark is not as much of a market fundamentalist as the other two, so she's been willing to bend a little bit. She announced that her government will create a new regulatory structure to govern real-estate agents. And she's going to allow the City of Vancouver to tax owners of empty homes. 

      But  de Jong, one of the foremost hierarchical individualists in government, has also fired back with data purporting that there isn't nearly as much foreign buying of homes as the egalitarian communitarians have been alleging.

      Egalitarian communitarians have responded that this data sample cannot be trusted. It's been repeatedly dissected, dismantled, and dismissed for a variety of reasons: the time frame was too short, the participants were self-reporting, and the numbers are so large that even a minor percentage of foreign buying adds up to a whole lot of dough. And besides, they claim, the federal financial agency overseeing money laundering has not been doing its job effectively.

      The hierarchical-individualist finance minister, Mike de Jong, has come under fire for suggesting that foreign buying isn't a huge factor in the Greater Vancouver real-estate market.

      So just as the hierarchical individualists won't trust climate science, the egalitarian communitarians won't trust data from a government that doesn't reflect their world view.

      Many egalitarian communitarians would be quite comfortable describing de Jong's statistics as a "hoax", "mythical", "nonexistent", a "con job", and "bullshit".

      Meanwhile in their hearts, the hierarchical individualists believe that government regulation, not foreign buying, is at the root of the real-estate conundrum.

      They'll maintain that if it weren't for all of those municipal zoning regulations, the market could easily solve the imbalance between supply and demand, resulting in much lower prices.

      Their solution is less regulation, not more. If you scratch deeper, some hierarchical individualists will insist that empty-home taxes won't solve the problem for two reasons. One, there aren't very many empty homes to begin with. Secondly, they believe that once people see there's little revenue being raised, the public will call for harsher measures against newcomers, such as tighter immigration controls.

      The hierarchical individualists also think that proponents of greater regulation are economically ignorant.

      As Premier Christy Clark continues bending to the egalitarian communitarians' arguments, she risks alienating her core constituency: the market fundamentalists. And by focusing so much attention on real-estate regulation, the NDP housing critic, David Eby, has brilliantly created divisions on the government side of the legislature and with its political base. Perhaps it's because Eby's previous job at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association provided him with some deep insights into the libertarian mindset.

      But just as with public discussions on climate change, cultural-meaning conflicts have contaminated the debate over a highly charged topic: the price of housing in Greater Vancouver.

      I argued earlier that if egalitarian communitarians were willing to at least discuss the possibility of geoengineering, they might be able to help bridge the divide over climate change. And perhaps this could save humanity from being incinerated, even though they may think that geoengineering is an idiotic concept.

      Here in B.C., it appears that the hierarchical individualists are finally coming around to the idea of increasing regulation over real estate, even though many think it's not necessary and even counterproductive. They didn't do it willingly, but it's happening nonetheless, partly as a result of Eby's efforts. And that will go some way toward mollifying egalitarian-communitarian voters, who feel that a failure of regulation is at the root of the problem. It might even win the election for the B.C. Liberals.

      Coleman has even come around on a national housing strategy after steadfastly refusing to publicly support this idea for as long as Stephen Harper remained prime minister.

      But are the egalitarian communitarians willing to extend an olive branch in the other direction? Are they prepared to concede that zoning rules, i.e. government regulation, might be also be a factor in the sky-high housing prices? Or will they continue clutching to their core belief that regulation is the solution and the most effective way to drive down prices is to impose even more regulations on the housing sector?

      If they stick to the idea of regulation and not pay attention to the individualists' views, the supply constraints will likely only get worse, which will drive housing prices further into the stratosphere.

      This, in turn, will stimulate even more speculation in condos as a desirable place for rich people to park their money because they know they'll generate high returns. And that isn't going to do a lot of good for young people of modest means who might want to make a life for themselves here in Vancouver.