It’s been a tough week for environmentalists, or anyone who cares at all about the environment and living in a world with a stable climate. President Trump unleashed a new round of attacks on regulatory efforts to reverse the certain global warming trends we are witnessing at this very moment. His sweeping executive orders either killed or begin procedures to negate every major climate change policy put in place under President Obama. It was tough to even read the newspapers.
I’ll admit to suffering a bit of despair this week. I’m angry, sad, disappointed, stunned. But here’s the thing: We can’t blame President Trump for this mess; this is on us, the ordinary citizens of the United States. It’s our fault. We have not created the political will to advance the cause for reducing emissions to halt global warming.
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) does excellent work to gauge the opinions of Americans about climate change. Recent studies report that 70% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and most us believe that the changes are primarily human-caused. We believe the science and we can see what’s happening, yet most of us don’t take concrete actions to do anything about the problem. We think of it as affecting someone else, or affecting people in the distant future.
A map created by The New York Times, using data from YPCCC, shows that in many regions of the country, Americans do not believe that climate change will affect them personally. In the states from Maryland to Georgia, almost every congressional district shows less than 50% of the people believe that they will be personally effected by global warming. However, in Western North Carolina, we just experienced a brutal late Fall of extreme drought, which led to forest fires burning 45,000 acres of national forest land, costing the U.S. Forest Service almost $37 million. (It is true that almost all of the fires were set either purposefully or accidentally by people, but the conditions that led to the severity of the fires were present because of the drought.) In addition, areas on the coast are seeing more incidences of “sunny day flooding,” and scientists contend that climate change is leading to more frequent and bigger floods.
My wife handed me this quotation the other day, ascribed to environmentalist Robert Swan: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” I believe Mr. Swan nailed it, and I am at least as guilty as the next person. I’ve known for years about the overwhelming scientific consensus of increasing global surface and ocean temperatures on Earth, and that scientists conclude that human activity is causing it, mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. But for years I did not take a single action to affect change. I did not write or call my members of Congress requesting that they act on climate change, and I did no public outreach, such as writing letters to the editor of local newspapers. Like millions of other Americans, I just assumed that someone else was taking care of this—Congress, President Obama, the EPA, someone.
There has been some progress, most notably the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015, which went into effect on November 4, 2016. The contribution of the United States was to be the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut CO2 emissions from power plants by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. Last week, President Trump began the process to undo the Clean Power Plan, which never went into effect under President Obama, having been held up in courts until now. The problem with using executive power to create policy is that these policies can be relatively easily undone. What we need is bipartisan legislation, which, on the surface, seems terribly unlikely.
It is on this point that I turn optimistic (some could say naïve). There is some momentum on this issue, as some Republicans in Congress have joined the cause for action on climate change. Notably, we have a 34-member Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, made up of 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans, and a House resolution was signed recently by House Republicans requesting conservative action to address climate change. In February of this year, the conservative Climate Leadership Council, led by Republican stalwarts George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Henry Paulson, et. al, issued a proposal to place a fee on carbon, which would lead to reduced carbon emissions over time, transitioning us towards a low-carbon future with renewable energy.
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) also advocates for a revenue-neutral, carbon fee and dividend (CF&D) program, whereby fossil fuel companies pay a fee for the carbon they extract, and then all the revenues collected are returned to American households. I first attended a CCL meeting in December 2015, and I was initially lukewarm on the proposal. After all, President Obama had this climate change thing all taken care of with the Clean Power Plan, I thought. But I now see that a bipartisan CF&D may be America’s only hope to be a positive force, as the rest of the world works towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning towards renewable energy systems and a stable climate.
Now back to you and me—this is where we can play a part. CCL’s tag line is “creating political will for a livable future.” CCL, a non-profit advocacy group, works to create political will through grassroots efforts, such as writing letters to the editor to all newspapers in the country, actively lobbying every member of Congress (Democrat, Independent, or Republican), and public outreach. We must create political will. After all, as CCL Executive Director Mark Reynolds puts it, “Politicians do not create political will; they respond to it.”
Here are some concrete steps you can take to create political will:
- You can simply start talking about climate change with your peers. A YPCCC study shows that only about a third of Americans talk about climate change on a frequent basis.
- You can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, which can be as simple as stating that you support action on climate change, or are concerned about it.
- You can write or call your three Members of Congress and request that they take action. (CCL makes this easy; click here to write a personal email to your representatives in just a couple of minutes, or to find phone numbers to call.)
- You can join thousands of other Americans in Washington, DC for the Peoples’ Climate Movement march on April 29.
Climate change is affecting all of us now, and scientists tell us that it will get much worse. But we have time if we act now. We can’t assume that someone else is taking care of this, because they aren’t. Join thousands of other ordinary citizens to create the political will for positive action, starting today. Let us together preserve all that is precious to each of us for now and for future generations.