Climate change: A unique opportunity

 In the words of President Barack Obama, it was a “shellacking.”

November 2, 2010, the day the Republican Party netted a historic 63 seats in the House of Representatives, proved to be a catastrophe for domestic initiatives that would mitigate climate change. The number of seats captured by the GOP, which pledged to oppose all federal measures designed to stave off of the worst effects of global warming, represented the largest swing in over 60 years. A shellacking it was.

Many political observers credit the GOP’s groundbreaking victory in part to the lower chamber’s passage of cap-and-trade legislation the previous year. The bill, had it been enacted, would have established a limit on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from some of the nation’s largest emitters. From the beginning, supporters of the legislation failed to properly inform the public of the initiative’s benefits. We cannot isolate this failure, however, from its context and previous attempts to reduce GHG pollution.

Climate change represents such a politically vexing issue because society will bear its worst impacts decades from now while elected officials must make the needed changes now. In a system of governance that features regular elections, politicians have little incentive to protect the well-being of future voters. Moreover, the free rider problem further disincentives taking action on this issue, as one country or state can do nothing to diminish its own GHG pollution while still benefiting from another’s emissions reductions. All rational voters, then, would oppose proposed laws that would compromise their own interests.

To counter and ultimately nullify this opposition, it is imperative that environmentalists and their political and civic allies communicate to voters the benefits of legislation that would likely raise energy costs, discourage consumption and radically alter the way we live our lives. Until we do so, our political leaders will never lead on this issue.

Author Annie Leonard references this necessity in The Story of Stuff, arguing that the public must properly understand the problems associated with our current economic and social systems to comprehend the sort of society we could collectively create. “We know what the world of today looks like: climate chaos, toxic chemicals in every body on the planet including newborn babies, growing social inequity, disappearing forests and fresh water, increasing social isolation and decreasing happiness,” she writes.

The changes we need to make to prevent catastrophic climate change are radical. But the benefits of these changes are huge. Investing trillions of dollars in public transportation and other infrastructure projects would create millions of high-paying jobs and curtail air pollution. Banning the extraction of fossil fuels on federal lands would ensure that all Americans have the right to enjoy the beauty of nature. Taxing the consumption of goods would lead to a realignment of our values and increase our overall happiness. Climate changes presents us with a unique opportunity – one we must embrace.

The environmental movement has not sufficiently communicated these benefits to voters. Until it does so, we will continue to inch ever closer to the brink of climate chaos.