We’re Fiddling as the Climate Burns

We’re Fiddling as the Climate Burns

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USA TODAY 04/19/16
By Michael Shank and US Congressman Michael Honda

The elites are aflutter about the climate crisis. Here’s how to get more people alarmed and engaged.

The latest frightening climate study, predicting a devastating rise in sea levels in the lifetimes of babies born today, isn’t generating the sense of urgency that it should. Many more people need to be alarmed and engaged, and there are ways to make that happen.

The rates of sea level rise have increased rapidly over the last century and are projected to consume many American cities’ infrastructure by mid-century. We won’t be able to adapt through engineering. Nor can we rely on the power of the Paris climate talks in December, particular policies in America, or the proof behind climate science and data.

International diplomats, government officials, Supreme Court justices and New York-based newspaper editorial boards are often the ones having these conversations. And it’s often assumed that this will move the dial — that the fight is mostly about securing voluntary carbon-cutting contributions from each country, the Obama administration winning a court battle over its Clean Power Plan, or persuading the few remaining media holdouts to report accurately on climate science.

But a conversation among a select few won’t bring the change we desperately need to slow those rapidly rising seas. There are at least six other ways the climate community could ramp up its engagement and make things start happening.

Let’s deal with the money factor first. It’s no secret that the fossil fuel industry heavily lobbies Congress with well over $150 million. Renewable industries are spending less than one-seventh of what fossil fuel is forking out. This equation has to change if the sustainable fuel sector wants to make itself heard.

Second, we need more “me” time. There’s much to be done on a personal level, such as moving off meat to more plant-based diets (since one unit of meat protein uses 150 times the greenhouse gas emissions that one unit of soy protein uses) and off heavily polluting and petroleum-dependent “fast fashion” that speeds up production and marketing of clothing. Environmentalists need to lead by example and others will follow, especially when they see that carbon-light lifestyles — such as veggie-based diets — also make you a healthier human.

Third, it’s time to engage the moderate majority which, by every polling measure, is on board with the idea that humans contribute to climate change but hasn’t meaningfully changed behavior. This middle of America isn’t tracking Paris talks enough to know about the signing ceremony at the United Nations on April 22, isn’t following the legal battles enough to know about the Supreme Court’s stay on Obama’s plan to clean up coal-fired power plants, and isn’t reading the financial pages. We need to go to them. The conversation about climate action has to take place on and in mass media and in multiple languages. We know where Americans are overwhelmingly getting their news — on outlets such as CBS, NBC and ABC News. If we’re not on those airwaves, we’re not being heard.

Fourth, Americans across the political spectrum want policies that make both common sense and fiscal sense. So the primary climate message going forward should be: There’s money to be made and saved in this energy transition. Energy efficiency makes economic sense, which is why it was one of the only climate-related bills to pass the Senate. Renewables make economic sense. Health benefits from climate action make economic sense. So the primary climate message going forward should be: There’s money to be made and saved in this energy transition. Let’s do it.

Fifth, we need more charismatic messengers and evangelists in order to build this movement. Various mayors and governors have impressive 2050 targets and timelines, and financier Tom Steyer’s commitment is well known. Other non-governmental leaders like General Mills CEO Ken Powell and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady have also made climate change a priority and should be more visible. Hopefully, they will see the dire circumstances and become the campaigners the climate community needs.

Sixth, we need a different way to tell our story. “Energy independence” was once touted as the go-to narrative for many climate advocates. The idea was simple: let’s get off petrol state dependence and reliance as it’s too volatile and comes with too much security and market risk. While America is achieving energy independence, we’re now producing more oil and gas than ever before, all under the “energy independence” rubric. Instead, we should promote the “democratization of energy” — our right to harness the sun and the wind and to be free of utility control. Even libertarians might like that idea.

Going forward, we can’t continue to rely primarily on Paris, discreet policy and scientific evidence. We need money, messengers, mainstream approaches and more. And we need them now.

Michael Honda represents California’s 17th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2001. Follow him on Twitter: @RepMikeHonda. Michael Shank, on Twitter @Michael_Shank, is head of communications for the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network and teaches at New York University and George Mason University. The views expressed here are his own.

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