CLIMATE POLITICS BLOCKED BUT CONSUMER CONSCIOUSNESS OPEN
The 2014 midterm results assure that legislative progress won’t be made on key climate issues until 2017 at the earliest. Republican majorities hostile to carbon pricing and other carbon-control legislation will be firmly in control of both houses of Congress. Climate-denier Sen. James Inhofe will be the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. President Obama and the Democrats in Congress will be fighting desperate rearguard battles simply to maintain regulations on coal-fired power plants, block development of the Keystone XL pipeline, and defend other important climate-related laws and regulations. So what are Americans deeply concerned about the climate crisis to do? Obviously, biding time for two years and hoping that a new pro-climate president and Congress take control in 2017 is not an option. Rather, the climate crisis requires that we push ahead with even greater urgency the movement to decrease CO2 emissions, despite conventional political channels being blocked. One area where enormous progress can be made now is changing consumer perception of gasoline and other fossil fuels. Consumers have not been pushed to change their carbon habits—habits that by some estimates account for 71% of all carbon burned in the U.S. Buying gas, using fossil fuel-powered electricity, and other environmentally destructive routines of daily life are poorly understood and go unchallenged and unquestioned by both consumers and the broader society. The environmental movement has been tip-toeing around asking consumers to hold themselves responsible for their carbon usage, fearing a backlash or “paralyzing guilt.” We need to abandon the fears of backlash and paralyzing guilt, and put focus back on consumer perception and behavior relating to carbon usage. We can and should use the next two years to hold a mirror up to the habits of consumers’ daily lives, and cajole, inspire, and perhaps even shame them to take personal responsibility for their carbon footprint. Consumers must understand that using a tank of gasoline will dump 300 pounds of CO2 in the air. They need to understand that unnecessarily burning gasoline and using electricity is the moral and practical equivalent of littering. Consumers’ lack of familiarity with these concepts explains in part the tepid support behind carbon taxes and the slow adoption of solar panels and electric cars. There are many forms that a consumer campaign can take. One form would be an advertising campaign informing consumers of the simple equation—one gallon of gas they burn equals 20 pounds of CO2 permanently in the air. Another approach, one that I am working on, is to organize televised street theater at gas stations that will (hopefully) be broadly viewed on social media and emulated across the nation. Regardless of the approach, the core concept is to drive a wedge between consumers and their bad carbon habits. A well-executed consumer-oriented campaign has two benefits. First, it will cause consumers to use less carbon, and to instead seek alternative technologies such as electric cars, bicycles and solar panels. Second, it will politicize consumers unhappy with their present sources of energy. If consumers are confronted on a frequent basis with the destructive environmental impact of their daily lives, they will demand that the political system provide them with options to reduce their carbon footprint. These pressures will energize legislative efforts to control carbon, and may set the stage for a breakthrough in 2017 for robust carbon pricing and other necessary changes in laws affecting climate. Sen. Inhofe, the Koch Brothers, and the oil and coal companies are masters of the political process right now, and are in a position to block climate legislation. What is much more difficult for them to control, however, is what is in the minds of the consumer. It is in this field, the consciousness and perception of consumers, that we have a lot of room to run. If we can turn consumers’ hearts, minds, and pocketbooks away from fossil energy products, we will make tremendous progress on Climate in the coming decade.