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What Can You Do About Climate Change?

It's not all hopeless and overwhelming, but also not easy

· Climate Change,politics

Image Credit: Alejandro Alvarez (Own Work). CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is here. 2016 is well on track to be the warmest year on record since we started recording temperatures. The most expensive wildfire in U.S. history is being fought in California right now. The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing an unprecedented amount of bleaching. One of my friends directed me to this former colleague's tweet, which sparked a conversation:

I responded with a couple of short tweets, but promised a longer post with more material.

What Does It Even Mean to Get Political?

Addressing climate change can only be achieved through a coordinated reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and thereby carbon emissions. Achieving this sort of transformation will necessarily involve some sort of coordinated action at the level of government involvement. If climate change is important to you, you need to vote accordingly. I believe that climate change is as important an issue today as civil rights was back in the 1950s and 1960s, and I said as much to my parents during the last Canadian federal election. They preferred Stephen Harper to Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair based on their impression of him as a competent and experienced executive. I argued Harper stood on the wrong side of history by denying climate change's importance and undermining international climate negotiations, in the same way that George Wallace and Strom Thurmond stood on the wrong side of history on segregation. That alone was enough to disqualify him in my mind as a suitable candidate for prime minister.

If you're a Democrat, that party has long admitted climate change was a reality, and during the primary debates, O'Malley, Sanders, and Clinton each advanced policies to encourage the adoption of renewable electricity generation and constrain emissions from power plants. Some in the environmental movement as frustrated that the Democratic platform did not go far enough, but at least the argument is over how far to go, not whether it is an issue. If Clinton wins tomorrow, it will be up to all of us to continue to put pressure on the White House and Congress to come up with strong carbon emission reduction policy.

If you're a Republican, unfortunately, the party seems committed to denying the existence of climate change. The very few Republicans who admit it is happening, like John Kasich and Ramesh Ponnoru, are unwilling to take any policy action to reduce carbon emissions. So, at least today, there seems to be no way you can both vote Republican and vote for stronger carbon emissions policy. But there are ways to advance the conversation within the Republican party beyond voting. Former Republican Congressperson Bob Inglis founded the organization RepublicEn, which advocates for a revenue neutral carbon tax to constrain carbon emissions. I actually agree with him that having a carbon tax would be the best policy solution, and I really do think we need the Republican Party to be part of this conversation.

Remember, though, that voting is not the only way to express a political opinion or achieve political change, best articulated for me in this On The Media interview with the editor of Current Affairs. If the election does not break in the way that climate activists want tomorrow, we can still influence the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy in public hearings, consultations, and supporting groups that lobby these agencies and Congress for stronger climate action.

Not Just at The Federal Level

Some of the most encouraging and discouraging policy actions that have been taken on carbon emissions have occurred at the state level. Both California and New York have set extremely ambitious renewable energy and carbon emissions reductions targets, going further than what is required of the Clean Power Plan enacted by President Obama. They are the current leaders at the state-level. California's mandate to procure 1 GW of grid-level electricity storage could drive down battery costs in the same way that Germany's renewable energy mandate drove down the cost of solar panels.

On the discouraging side, Nevada's utility commission adopted a policy that destroyed the solar industry in that state by cutting off the incentives for solar installation completely. After Scott Walker was elected, he pushed through policies and fees that made wind and solar development much more difficult. So even if you are pessimistic about the prospects for federal legislation, regulation, or carbon market creation, there is still a great deal of progress, or stagnation, that can be achieved at the state level.

Cities are also very important political actors in the drive to put more renewable generation on the grid. Three counties in the Bay Area (San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma) set up Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) to procure their electricity. Rather than purchase their electricity from the investor-owned utility, PG&E, residents of these counties contract with solar and wind developers directly to generate electricity for their consumption. It still gets transmitted over PG&E's transmission lines, and PG&E still charges for that service, but the residents pay for the electricity generated through the CCA. CCAs allow cities to take greater control over how their electricity is generated, especially if they have ambitious carbon emission reduction goals.

Cities can also contribute to carbon emissions reduction through more efficient energy usage. This can be achieved through more efficient building codes, denser construction, improved public transportation, discouragement of driving through fees, ordinances to reduce plastic usage, waste management that includes compost and recycling programs, and better bicycle infrastructure.

One of the best things about cities is that their agencies and city government are often very accessible to the public. Public hearings and board meetings are usually open, so as a concerned citizen, you should be able to attend and voice your opinion. If you do not have time to do it, you can always support organizations who attend on your behalf. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, for example, will often represent the interests of its members in SF City Hall. The Sierra Club's Ready For 100 campaign is focused on educating city planners about how they can achieve their renewable electricity generation targets.

Personal Actions

Although in the grand scheme of things, I think we need collective action to reduce one's carbon footprint, I should mention the personal actions one could take. While not tangibly meaningful, as Gernot Wagner and Martin Weinstein observed in Climate Shock, it is the right thing to do, and is a natural corollary if acting to solve climate change is part of your value system. I also think there are side benefits to living a lower carbon footprint lifestyle.

One can calculate one's carbon footprint fairly easily using tool's like Berkeley's Cool Climate Carbon Calculator. I found that transportation accounts for the bulk of my carbon emissions, since I do not spend very much on electricity and live in an apartment, so the calculator recommended that I get a an electric or more fuel efficient car. This will also allow you to save a significant amount of money on gas. I also regularly ride my bike and take public transport to work. Being forced to walk or bike more results in a more healthy lifestyle too.

The next biggest behavior change recommended to me was to eat less meat, especially cutting beef out. Cool Climate's Carbon Calculator stipulated that a third of all food emissions come from beef and dairy products. I already try very hard not to buy more food than I absolutely need to avoid wasting it. In the United States, we generate a lot of food waste, which generates a lot of methane if it decomposes in a landfill, a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide. It is also healthier to consume less meat in favor of more fruits, veggies, and nuts.

Flying generates a lot of carbon emissions, so I've been trying to fly a lot less for recreational reasons. This year, all my flights were for one-time things like weddings and a ten-year high school reunion. I'm also flying this year to visit my family for the holidays. Every time I do fly, I purchase an offset using the program selected by the airline.

We often do not think too much about our trash or how recycling works, but it is really quite fascinating! Last year, I toured the recycling center run by Recology SF in Hunter's Point. The machine was an engineering marvel, with advanced metal detectors to find metal cans and objects, air cannons to separate bottles from the stream of "waste", and miles of conveyor belts, all to separate out all the recyclables we throw into our blue bins into useful materials that can be reused. But all this machinery is for naught when people do not follow the guidelines for proper recycling. Plastic bags, in particular, jam the machines, and any material that is not made of a single material will probably have to be pulled off because it is not easily recyclable. When you recycle, think of whether the material you are throwing into the bin could potentially be compressed into a bale of plastic, aluminum, or whatever material it is primarily made of. If you cannot quite figure out how this would happen, or your material is so dirty that you do not think anyone would want to use it again, you probably have to throw it in the trash.

If you care about reducing waste or sustainability, get to know the people who work at your local waste or utility agency. These people are among the most knowledgeable on the subject of sustainability, are motivated to reduce waste and achieve more efficient lifestyles and genuinely want to reach out to more people in the public. I have really enjoyed getting to know the people at SF Environment, the city agency responsible for waste and energy, and SF Water, the one responsible for implementing San Francisco's new CCA, CleanpowerSF. SF Environment's presentation to the Green Team at Twitter, in particular, was a very educational experience for me: I learned a lot more about how to divert materials from landfill to recycling and compost.

Conclusion: Make Climate Change Political

As Bill McKibben, the original climate activist, so eloquently put in this piece, we need to stop thinking just about what each of us can do individually, and need to start thinking about how we can get society as a whole to move towards a more carbon neutral society and economy. Technological change will get us some of the way there, but we also need better incentive structures to encourage that innovation and also need to recognize the true cost that carbon dioxide emissions have on our future society. And we can only get there with political action.

Further Reading

If you can't pick up Climate Shock from your bookstore or local library, the relevant section is more-or-less reproduced here on Gernot Wagner's website.