Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “Campaigns”

Can a Recommended Carbon Limit Do for Carbon what Recommended Daily Allowances Do for Food?

Carbon DietWhat policies can bridge the divide between the public’s concern about the climate crisis and their unwilling-ness to pay additional taxes on energy?

Recent  New York Times polling found that 83% of Americans (including 61% of Republicans) believe that global warming will be a serious world problem if nothing is done about it.    The public’s high level of concern about global warming does not translate into willingness to pay more for carbon.  The poll found 63% of the public opposed to higher gasoline taxes, and 74% opposed to higher electricity taxes.

One low-cost, high-return approach would be for the government to set and promote voluntary guidelines and targets for individual carbon emissions limits similar to the “recommended daily allowances” the FDA sets for calorie and sodium intake.  The Recommended Carbon Limit (RCL) for Americans could be set, for example, at 27,500 pounds (12.5 metric tons) of CO2 emissions per year (30% below the existing U.S. per capita average or more than 50% above the European average), and could be reduced 5% annually from there.   Just as with food’s “nutrition facts” box, the RCL could be paired with a labeling campaign, which could, for example, inform consumers at the gas pump that using a gallon of gas emits 20 lbs of CO2, or state on their electric bills how much CO2 was used to generate their electricity.

The purpose of the RCL would be to raise consumers’ awareness of their carbon emissions and how those emissions contribute to the world’s CO2 problem, and to encourage consumers to set limits on their emissions.

Establishing an RCL would generate enormous controversy and debate about the individual’s duty to conserve carbon, the role of government in setting carbon limits, what the appropriate carbon limits should be, and whether there should be different limits depending upon where one lives.  These debates would highlight the consumer’s role in carbon reduction and raise awareness of key carbon-reduction issues that receive little public attention.  The debates would also highlight key issues hindering carbon reduction efforts, such as many communities’ dependence on coal-generated power, poor mass-transit in suburban and rural area, and the difficulties of financing home weatherization and solar panel installation.

The RCL would likely be more politically popular than carbon taxes.  Americans’ visceral opposition to higher taxes would be avoided.  The limits would be set without regard to personal wealth, and would therefore be more egalitarian than gas taxes, which fall harder on the poor than the wealthy.  The limits would be completely voluntary.

RCLs would bring out into the open the issue that has long been obscured in public debates—whether individuals’ use of carbon should have limits.  Carbon limits should have the imprimatur of government, because of government’s unparalleled reach and credibility, and because it is important that the entire population understand that everyone needs to do his or her part in solving the CO2 problem.

We are running out of time to deal with the climate crisis.  A clear message from the government to consumers about their role in addressing their carbon emissions is both critical and long overdue.  Just as the FDA’s recommended daily allowances help people establish a healthy food diet, RCLs are necessary to help us establish a healthy carbon diet.



gas nooseOil companies’ share prices tumbling.  Fracking and oil exploration projects cancelled.   Environmentalist dreams? No, these are today’s headlines caused by falling oil prices.

But what about the demand side?  Will low gas prices cause consumers to use more gas and emit more carbon?    While the supply-and-demand curves of economics textbooks and some survey evidence suggest that they will, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that gasoline demand and usage must increase if gas prices remain low.  For example, bus ridership in King County, Washington is up, despite service cuts and gas prices well below last year’s. Nissan Leaf sales in December 2014 were up nearly 20% over a year earlier.

A fundamental challenge for climate activists is to find a way to continually depress gasoline demand in the face of low prices.   Reducing gasoline demand in a low-price environment represents a different challenge from the one climate activists thought they would be fighting.  For most of the past decade, high carbon prices caused by carbon taxes and/or “peak oil” were viewed as the key motivators for consumers to embrace renewable fuels.  Now, with gas prices around $2 a gallon, carbon taxes politically infeasible, and vast new supplies of fracked oil depressing prices, a new non-price-based strategy is required.

Price is only one of many motivators of consumer decisions. For example, Apple smartphones are both the most costly and the best-selling phones in the market, because Apple’s products represent the person that many of us want to be and the lifestyle we want to have—clean, elegant, and powerful.

The same logic can be brought to bear with respect to gasoline cars and gasoline usage.

As evidence of global warming becomes more pervasive, the use of gasoline becomes more morally questionable and undesirable.   Pope Francis recently said that “man has slapped nature in the face” by causing climate change.  If Francis’ statement can somehow be personalized and internalized—such that we feel each of us are personally giving an unkind “slap in the face” to nature when we buy gasoline-powered cars and use gasoline, then consumers will embrace alternatives.  If climate activists do our job well, the clean, elegant, and powerful person will not want a gas-powered car or to be seen pumping gas.

Translating the moral argument into a consumer argument against the purchase of gasoline-powered cars and gasoline is feasible, but it will require a different moral approach and vocabulary than we presently use.   We need to move away from an analysis of the relative costs of conventional versus green technologies, and instead emphasize an approach to consumer choice based on our personal values.

While a values-based argument to consumers relating to energy choices must be made with subtlety and care, it must nonetheless be made, even if consumer and industry sensibilities are ruffled.  Unnecessary burning of carbon is, as the Pope says, a slap against nature, and such violence should not be condoned or ignored.  This is particularly so as new technologies, such as the long-range electric car, become widely available over the next several years, making the unnecessary burning of carbon all the more indefensible.

There are many forms that a values-based consumer-oriented campaign against gasoline can take.   One nice example is an emerging campaign to put climate-warning stickers on gas pumps.  Messages against gasoline purchase can be spread through social media, places of worship, and ballot measures.  Theater and other arts can undermine our deep psychological dependence on oil.   The main thrust of these campaigns is to confront consumers and convince them that filling their gas tank is antithetical to their own values and unnecessary.

Low gasoline prices are in many respects a consequence of our success in limiting demand for oil. The more success we have in limiting energy demand, the lower we should expect those prices to go.    We need to find new pathways to the consumer’s sense of self and values, and then work with those values to power the transition away from fossil fuels.


Today’s low gas prices (the national average this week is $2.69 a gallon) are another nail in the coffin for the climate movement’s longstanding strategy of reducing gasoline use through imposition of higher motor fuel taxes.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, higher federal gas taxes to disincentivize gas consumption are completely off the table until a new Congress arrives in 2017, and probably long after that.   And even if additional gas taxes were to be miraculously enacted, their effects would be masked by highly volatile gas prices that are presently more than $1 a gallon under their recent averages.

For the next several years, consumers’ rejection of gasoline will not be based on an economic calculation based on price signals, but rather a choice based on their desire not to be throwing 20+ lbs of dangerous garbage into the air on a daily basis.

Is Naomi Klein Right–Do We Have to Take on Capitalism to Address Climate Change?

This Changes EverythingNaomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything that capitalism and the environment are on a collision course and that narrow measures to address climate change will be inadequate if free-market, corporate-dominated structures and political ideologies remain dominant.  She writes that the Right fully grasps the latent threat that climate change poses to the existing capitalist order, and that its need to squelch this threat explains the lavish financing it bestows on the climate denial movement.

Klein says that in the early stages of battling the present corporate-dominated order to address climate change, “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” and that “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Klein would thus set the bar for an effective response to climate change much higher than most climate activists presently do. Rather than simply institute a worldwide climate pricing regime and other measures to favor renewable energy over fossil fuels (a tremendous feat in itself!), she argues that it is necessary to form an alliance with other social movements to tear down much of the capitalist order and replace it with a more centrally-planned, collectivist economy dedicated not only to environmental sustainability but also to income redistribution and equal rights for all.

Is Klein right?   Is working towards an environmentally-oriented socialism the most efficient path to reversing the disastrous carbon-spewing road we are on?  Or can the existing capitalist order be tamed sufficiently with narrowly-tailored regulatory and tax measures to achieve the carbon reductions necessary to preserve the planet in livable form?   The latter road would seemingly be much easier given the status quo of free-market ideology buttressed by vast rivers of unrestricted money in politics, and the antipathy many people feel towards government, socialism, and collectivist solutions.  The significant gains the free-market-oriented, climate-denying Republican Party is poised to make in the 2014 midterm elections is evidence of the continued hostility of the political system towards restraints on corporate dominance.

Because the task of dismantling corporate dominance of the economy and the urgency to address the climate crisis is so immediate, I wish that Naomi Klein were wrong about the need to aim beyond climate policy fixes. But I fear she isn’t.  People concerned about climate are overwhelming white, highly-educated and middle class, and therefore a group without the numbers to hold sway over the American and world economy.  Climate change is still too remote and abstract an issue to really move large numbers of people.  In a recent Gallup poll, climate change was identified as number 14 of the nation’s 15 most important problems.

The environmental movement must join the fight against our society’s pervasive income and social inequality, not only to broaden the coalition in favor of climate-friendly policies, but also to help redefine how people can live together peacefully in harmony with their fellow human beings and with the Earth and its creatures.   A society built on narrow pursuit of self-interest and the domination of a small number of rich people over vast numbers of poor people will never achieve a healthy equilibrium with Nature.

The environmental movement has yet to forge a durable alliance with the vast numbers of people discontented with and disenfranchised by the present political order, in part because until recently we believed that the political system could and would make the changes necessary to address our pressing environmental issues. But it is now becoming clear that the oil-and-cash-soaked political system is not any more open to effectively addressing climate change than it is to addressing income inequality, racial inequality, or other pressing issues that affect vast numbers of Americans.

The inflexibility of the present political system is allowing social pressures to build that can ultimately overwhelm it.   The question is whether we can channel these pressures peacefully and positively to create a movement capable of building a world we want our children and grandchildren to live in.

Building such a movement will require that we find new ways of getting people out of their homes and activated as citizens. It will require using public spaces such as streets, parks, and sidewalks to gather and educate one another about overcoming obstacles to a better future.  It will require finding artists, performers, and orators to help us honestly reflect on where we truly are as a people, and to inspire us to reach a higher level of consciousness.  It will require us disentangling ourselves from the corporate-fomented consumerism that ensnares us. The Obama Campaign of 2008 and the Occupy Movement of 2011 both provided us with glimmers of the power that such campaigns can have and the speed with which they can develop.  They also provide us with a reminder that such efforts can be fleeting if not supported with long-term planning and resources and a fierce commitment to keep going to the end.

Only by developing, propagating, and implementing a broadly shared vision of how we can live better with one another and with Nature will we achieve a sustainable balance on this Earth. Creating such a movement will require enormous patience, hard work, and creativity, but it is the most noble work we can do and the best hope that we have to preserve our Earth and its creatures.

The Great Climate Movement Miscalculation

homer2At the People’s Climate March, we didn’t hear much about the role of the consumer in reducing emissions. Why? In the mid-2000s, leading organizations in the climate movement such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club made a key decision:  carbon emissions reduction by individuals was to be de-emphasized as a climate reduction strategy.  Rather, organizing efforts would focus on promoting carbon-pricing legislation, blocking development of domestic fossil fuel resources and infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline, and divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Climate movement leaders made the decision to de-emphasize consumer carbon reduction on the assumption that consumer-oriented strategies would achieve less carbon reduction than carbon-pricing legislation, and that focus on consumers would imply that consumers, and not the fossil fuel companies, had agency to reduce the climate problem. Climate leaders also believed that consumers’ willingness to act politically might be reduced if they were “turned off” or “guilt tripped” by activists asking them to cut and offset their carbon usage.

The present climate strategy has achieved little. Entrenched energy interests will block carbon-pricing legislation at least through the 2016 elections, given the Republicans’ (and some Democrats’) staunch opposition to any form of carbon pricing.   The public has generally shown little interest in carbon pricing or taxes, and little belief that anything they do can possibly influence a Congress receiving gobs of oil and coal industry cash.  The movement’s tenuous blocking of the Keystone XL pipeline has thusfar been a success, but meanwhile development of hundreds of other fossil energy projects continue unabated, and gas prices and consumption remain stable.  The divestment campaign, although slowly gathering steam, is still miniscule, and is unlikely to present a significant obstacle to fossil fuel companies for decades.

While the climate movement struggles to gain traction and achieve results, ordinary consumers’ role in the climate problem has been ignored, even though consumers account for more than half of the fossil fuel consumption in the U.S. Consumers still have minimal understanding of their role in polluting the atmosphere with carbon, and no ethic of personal responsibility for curtailing their pollution.

To complement its traditional strategies, the climate movement should embrace a campaign to break the bonds between oil companies and the consumers which sustain them. This campaign should seek to alter the psychology of consumers with respect to fossil fuels, by encouraging them to perceive their use of oil and coal as dirty, polluting, and incompatible with their lifestyle.  This campaign can be achieved through a combination of advertising, educational campaigns, local government action, and other strategies that were used successfully to cleave smokers from tobacco companies. If successful, these campaigns will hurt oil companies where it hurts—in their bottom lines.

If a consumer campaign is successful in making consumers dislike and avoid petroleum products, not only will it reduce fossil fuel consumption, it will smooth the way for achieving the climate movement’s traditional goals of a carbon tax, rolling back carbon supply infrastructure, and divestment from oil companies.

The Democratic Party Has No Phone Number

 The Democratic Party is the premier political organization in America, right?   More people belong to the Democratic Party than any other.  The President and the majority of the Senate belong to it.

But don’t try to call the offices of the Democratic Party organization in Seattle.  You can’t.  The party doesn’t have an office or a phone number.

How about calling the Democratic Party for King County?   Don’t bother.    The King County party organization doesn’t have a phone number either, and doesn’t maintain a staffed office.

The Washington State Democratic Party does have a phone number and office, but has a staff of only 10 people to run operations statewide.   There is no one on the staff tasked with organizing. If you click “get involved” on their website, you are referred to the local party organizations, the ones with no phone number.

The paltry party infrastructure illustrates the weakness of popular political organization in the U.S.   There is no permanent, ongoing effort to establish a sustained and vital connection between ordinary people and the Democratic Party platform of economic equality, social justice, civil rights, and the environment.  Rather, our politics is built around intermittent campaigns for individual candidates focused on expensive media buys and the fundraising required to pay for them.   After Election Day, the campaign infrastructure is dismantled, and lobbyists and vested interests take their usual position linking hands with politicians at center stage of the political process.

Is someone else besides the Democratic Party doing the work of registering voters, educating voters on the issues, building a culture of political involvement, and motivating voters to go to the polls?   Labor unions have long provided most of the organizing muscle for the party, but their strength is a fraction of what is once was.   Unions today represent less than 12% of all workers, compared to more than 20% in 1983, and are generally retrenching amid determined assault from the Right.

Private non-profit organizations once provided some consistent political education and organization.   Acorn, the most prominent of these organizations, claimed to have registered 1.3 new voters before the 2008 election, and were perceived by many Republicans to have been a decisive factor in the election.  After conservative activists released selectively edited videos purporting to show low-level Acorn employees involved in supporting prostitution, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a law signed by President Obama banning Acorn from receiving funding, essentially causing Acorn to go defunct in 2010.  With the possible partial exceptions of the Public Interest Research Groups and the League of Women Voters, grassroots political organizing and educational efforts are scattered, ad hoc, underfunded and ineffectual.

At times, the party briefly morphs into a well-funded and vibrant political organization. Barack Obama built a formidable political organization for the 2008 election, engaging a diverse and committed grass roots political network.  The organizing paid off.   Nearly sixty-four percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in 2008, including a sizable percentage of first-time voters.  Once the election was over, however, Obama’s organization largely disbanded, its once-vibrant membership reduced to names on direct-mail fundraising solicitation lists.  Last-minute efforts to reconstitute remnants of the organization shortly before the 2010 election obviously fell short.

In Western European countries, voting participating rates hover around 85%, about double the U.S. average.  Of 169 countries where voting occurs, the U.S. participation voting rate is ranked 120th, sandwiched between the Dominican Republic and Benin.  Most U.S. voters see little reason to get involved in politics, when the parties are distant from them, and candidates reach out to them only at election time primarily with sleazy attack ads and fundraising appeals.

The results of the party’s weak organizational effort are abundantly evident here in Seattle.

  • At Ballard’s Sunday Farmer’s Market on July 2, thousands of people were ambling among the 50+ stalls of people selling fruits, vegetables, fish, and crafts.   There was not a whiff of political activity—not even anyone registering voters or passing out political information, even though the foundations of the welfare state are shaking, and a corporate power grab is picking up steam.
  • I am 45 years old, and have lived in Seattle most of my life.  Not once in my life have I ever been personally contacted by a party representative and asked to get involved.
  • There is no Precinct Committee Officer for my precinct, and only 5 of 14 of the precincts in the area around my house presently have leaders.

Why is the party’s organizational infrastructure so weak and underfunded?   Why is there so little will to create a better-funded, better-trained, more effective party?  Why can’t the local Democrats even keep a phone staffed?  There are several reasons.  The elected officials who control the party are concerned about diversion of political funds and energy to a permanent party bureaucracy.  A dynamic leader atop a vibrant party organization might be threatening to politicians who relate to voters primarily through voting-season television ads and direct mail.   The persistent involvement of an engaged political party is a nuisance for politicians focused on catering to an insider’s network of donors and interest groups.  There is widespread skepticism concerning the ability of voters to maintain interest in politics after an election.  Most important of all, however, is that both major parties have long enjoyed a monopoly on power because of the two-party system.  Shielded from meaningful competitors other than one another, they have not needed to evolve and improve to survive.

What would a revitalized, well-funded Democratic Party do?   The overall goal would be to make every citizen feel connected to the political system, and to believe that he or she can improve his personal situation through maintaining a connection to the party.   Activities which a strengthened party could undertake include:

1)     Hiring professionally trained organizers to recruit, train, and support precinct leaders in all precincts;

2)     Requiring that precinct leaders personally know the people in their districts, and the issues of concern to them;

3)     Providing precinct leaders with a stipend for two weeks of intensive work at election time;

4)     Working with precinct leaders to explain how Democratic Party policies match the needs of the citizens within their precincts;

5)     Support precinct leaders with organizing around and raising the profile of intra-precinct issues (e.g. getting the police to pay more attention to a street corner);

6)     Assuring that party representatives are at all significant gatherings of people;

7)     Working with politicians to give special attention to issues raised by precinct leaders;

8)     Creating programs which create value for constituents such as a “Democratic Job Bank” which matches Democrats looking for jobs with Democrats who are offering them;

9)     Sponsoring housing, legal services, and medical screening clinics with volunteer Democratic lawyers and professionals.

10) Work on burnishing the branding and image of the party (i.e. “The People’s Party”).

A genuine re-engagement with the masses would not only increase the public’s loyalty to the party, it would also reinvigorate the party itself with new spirit, energy and pride generated by the party’s new members.   It might refresh the tired image of a party long branded as the tool of interest groups, lobbyists, and large donors, and provide it with a measure of independence from those groups.  A revitalized party would benefit Democratic candidates at all levels, from state representative to U.S. President, and would therefore be an economically efficient shared platform for candidates.   Even a relatively small increase in political participation, say 5%, would have tremendous impact on elections.

How much would such an organization cost?   In Washington, there are about 6,600 precincts.  If the local Democratic organizations were staffed at the rate of one organizer for every 60 precincts, a budget of roughly $10 million would be sufficient to fund the effort.  Given that more than $70,000,000 will likely be spent on political campaigns in Washington for the 2012 election, such a level of investment would be feasible.

The stakes for the 2012 election could hardly be higher.  Medicare, Social Security and the rest of the social safety net are in jeopardy.   Labor unions are under vigorous and unprecedented assault everywhere.  Four justices on the Supreme Court are in their 70s—a single appointment could dramatically change the Court and the law.

Given that there is so much at stake, how is it possible that there is no organization responsible for communicating with and organizing voters on a persistent, disciplined, and effective basis?  Is our plan to leave everything to the last minute as we have in other elections, and rely on political junk mail between elections?   Is our primary response to the 30 second attack ad at election time going to be a 30 second attack ad at election time?  Are we going to once again write off the half of the population which does not vote?

Can someone please answer the phone?

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