With the 2018 National Climate Assessment’s dire forecasts in the news, many people want to know what they personally can do to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and help the world get on a more sustainable footing.
For any single American, the answer is to vote against Republicans.
Vote against the incumbent Republican president who is implementing new, industry-friendly regulations that will increase climate pollution. Vote against the Republican president who has pulled out of global climate agreements and put necessary international climate cooperation out of reach.
Vote against Republican senators who routinely agree to confirm regulators who are in the pockets of industry and who, if a future Democratic administration is put in place, will seek to stymie the confirmation of federal judges who believe in allowing regulators to enforce the law. Vote against House Republicans who seek to defund relevant regulatory agencies and who oppose green energy initiatives.
Vote against Republican governors who veto renewable energy bills that pass Democratic-majority state legislatures. And, of course, vote against Republican state legislators who never pass such bills in the first place. Even further down the ballot, attorneys general matter too. Republican ones mercilessly fight Obama-era efforts to reduce climate pollution, and in the Trump era, Democratic ones have been fighting on the other side.
Now, of course, you might agree with Republicans on other issues like taxes or abortion or gun rights or any number of other topics. Just be aware that if you, as an individual, want to have an impact on climate pollution and the future of the global environment, this is by far the most effective and consequential action you can take. Efforts at ethical consumerism are not only small in scale relative to the overall problem, they in many cases won’t work at all. The problem requires systematic change that only government intervention can make.
The paradox of ethical consumption
Consider meat. Environmentalists have emphasized for years that meat production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and if we all went vegan, we would enjoy lifestyles that are not only healthier (albeit considerably less delicious) in most cases but vastly more sustainable from an ecological point of view.
But suppose you, personally, decide to cut back on your meat consumption.
As demand for meat falls, the price of meat will fall. As we’ve seen in the past, Americans on the whole eat less meat when it’s expensive and more when it’s cheap. That effect will be even more pronounced in poorer countries like China, where meat consumption is clearly constrained by income and has been surging in recent years as the country gets richer.
Gasoline is similar. My wife and I both walk to work and do the vast majority of our errands on foot in our walkable neighborhood. On the rare occasions that we do drive, we drive a Prius. And the aggregate impact of our much-lower-than-average gasoline consumption is to provide a teeny-tiny subsidy via cheaper gasoline to people who do drive gas guzzlers on a daily basis.
Meat is tasty, and gasoline is an incredibly useful fuel, so in both cases, people are willing to pay for them. Both products also create significant harms for third parties, among which are increases in greenhouse gas emissions. But since the consumers of meat and gasoline do not pay a price that is commensurate to those harms, they consume more meat and gasoline relative to what would be socially optimal. You as an individual opting out of that overconsumption fails to address the problem because it pushes the price down, leaving the externality unpriced and continuing the trend of global overconsumption.
The good news is that you as an individual can make a difference — through politics.
The very simple politics of climate change
Climate policy is complicated and multifaceted. But climate politics has actually become quite simple in recent years.
That wasn’t always the case. Back in the mid-aughts, while the Bush administration was firmly resisting any action on climate change, there was also a large contingent of Democrats from coal and oil states who were broadly aligned with inaction, and many Republicans seemed to differ from Bush on this topic. Sen. John McCain had authored climate change legislation, and he sent a key campaign adviser to do a detailed interview with David Roberts for Grist, making the case for the McCain climate vision.
McCain lost, however, and pretty rapidly abandoned his own onetime climate hawkery as part of a broader trend toward the issue becoming straightforward and polarized.
It’s true that there is meaningful disagreement inside the parties about climate policy — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s push to create a Select Committee for a Green New Deal illustrates the frontiers of climate hawkishness inside the Democratic coalition, while the party establishment is much less hawkish. But even a Democrat who is “bad” on climate change like Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) would have voted to put Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court and thus ensured the legal viability of EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
And even a Republican who is “good” on climate change like Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL) would vote to keep a House leadership team in place that would prevent any constructive climate legislation from coming to the floor. Indeed, since the good Republicans like Curbelo tend to represent the districts most vulnerable to flipping, it’s in some ways especially important to work to vote them out of office.
That might feel unfair, and perhaps it is unfair. But leaving behind a world in which the United States is hundreds of billions of dollars poorer (and foreign countries with more low-lying areas and fewer resources available for adaptation are even worse off) is also unfair. At the end of the day, nobody ever promised that making a difference would be all fun, all the time, and one of the non-fun aspects of taking personal action to reduce your carbon footprint is acknowledging that sometimes politics is tedious and partisan and straight-ticket voting is most effective.
Simple actions you can take
Of course, there’s more to life than voting. It’s helpful (genuinely) to make phone calls and even write letters to elected officials explaining why you are voting the way you are voting. And ordinary citizens can make meaningful contributions to elections they can’t vote in by directly contacting acquaintances who live in swing districts, volunteering to phone bank or knock on doors, or even, most basically, by donating money.
Importantly, it’s not necessary (or actually even beneficial) to seek out the candidates and elected officials who are in whatever sense “best” on climate issues.
It’s true that the outcomes of primaries in safe blue territory will make a difference on this issue. But far and away the biggest difference-maker is going to be who controls legislative majorities and who controls the executive branch of the federal government. Democratic control of the House, won in 2018, will on its own do a fair amount to slow the pace at which the Trump administration can roll back hard-won environmental gains. But to make actual progress, you’re going to need a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate too.
If this kind of political engagement seems too remote and abstract to you, and you still feel the urge to personally dissociate yourself from excessive consumption, then just remember that money really does count.
Giving up meat won’t necessarily do much to alter the global agricultural system. But it will save you a bunch of money — money that you can donate to political campaigns. The same goes for bicycle commuting and most other reasonable personal changes you can make. Consume less and donate more, and you’ll make a real difference and get the warm feeling of self-righteousness that comes from changing your personal habits.