Empowering the People: Using Democracy to Fight Climate Change

This is Part 3 in the Sustainable America series.

It’s the people that are in peril.

Every time I read a headline about some animal threatened by climate change, I’m always reminded of those words. The people are in peril.

Oh, the polar bears are starving because the sea ice is melting? The people are in peril. Trees are dying because of some invasive beetle caused by warmer temperatures? But the people are in peril. The coral reefs will be extinct by midcentury? The people are still in peril.

In plainer terms: it’s the people, stupid.

Climate change has always been a human threat, and while using charismatic animals like penguins and rhinos can elicit sympathy in people, it doesn’t offer much in terms of empathy. When people read about all the creatures threatened by global warming, they often fail to realize that they themselves belong to one such threatened species.

It’s no secret that humanity is in store for a nightmare in dealing with the climate impacts projected over the course of the next century. What this means is that the issue has ascended from mere scientific debate to one of real and immediate consequences for people everywhere. There is now a dire conflict playing out between the fossil fuel polluters that destroy the climate, and the billions who stand to lose everything as a result. Fortunately, the tools already exist to combat this very threat: it’s called democracy, and it’s America’s shining achievement. History has shown that when empowered with the right skills and information, people will act in their collective self-interest to face any challenge. The easiest way to save the climate, therefore, is to empower the people that are invested in it, which is everyone.

Solving climate change will require collective action, and democracy is very good at leveraging collective action to oppose small but powerful interest groups. So why then is America doing so little to reduce carbon emissions? The issue is that democracy has been hijacked by a polluter-industrial complex whose ultimate goal is profit over peace. The fossil fuel industry is now so wealthy and powerful that it can bend the laws of politics to suit its own needs. This is why, even though 70% of Americans are concerned about climate change, only 47% of Congress feels the same. This is why this current Congress is one of the most anti-science in its history. This is why nothing is getting done, even though most of us want to see progress.

In order to restore power to the people, a radical reorientation of American political and economic structures must take form. Money currently sabotages the voice of the American people, with whole industries represented in politics by bought lobbyists acting against the interests of the citizens and the republic. The fossil fuel industry is one of the largest such offenders, with a total of $82 million flowing to 180 members of Congress between 2011 and 2016 to undermine the people’s representation. Given that fossil fuel companies literally power the nation, it’s hard for them to not have a large share of the say, despite the compromise to democracy this breach of protocol represents.

Exxon-Mobil is one of the most valuable American companies, and their internal documents show that Exxon’s scientists knew about climate change as early as 1977. This means that for 40 years, one of the richest companies on Earth knowingly sold a poisonous product to the American people, lied to them about it, and bought a bunch of lawyers to cover for them in Congress while they reap the profits. This is theft, pure and simple, and it’s an utter betrayal of American democracy and principles. For starters, climate change is an unparalleled threat to this country, in almost every respect you can think of: economically, strategically, defensively. Unmitigated climate change, caused by unmitigated burning of fossil fuels, will destroy the American way of life. This is more serious a threat than communism was in the Cold War. This is nearly as serious as nuclear war and its associated holocaust. Climate change is the ultimate problem, and we know exactly who caused it: the oil barons at Exxon and other such companies.

What do we do with traitors? What do we do with the people who sell us out to our enemies? Figureheads of the fossil fuel camp may wear the label “American” — people like the Koch brothers, whose Koch Industries gained its fortune off oil profits — but they are in fact shamelessly betraying the American enterprise through their obstruction of sensible climate policy. If the sea level is rising, which it is, and we had the solution to stop it, which we do, should we keep spending money on what’s causing the problem? That’s what the Koch brothers would have you believe, which is why they’ve spent over $100 million on climate denial over the past two decades. Through their immense coalition of wealthy executives and broader political influence network, the fossil fuel industry has found a way to keep itself in business long after it was clear that its continued existence would undermine the American people in every possible way. By spending money on fossil fuels, we’re investing in a fatal future.

Once carbon pollution enters the atmosphere, it stays there for thousands of years. That’s the scary part about the climate problem: it has a deadline. Once the atmosphere crosses certain thresholds, as it did recently by permanently exceeding 400 ppm CO2, it can’t return to its normal state. So when history looks back on who was responsible for remaking the globe forever, they will look squarely at these fossil fuel corporations and know it was them who changed this Earth, them and everyone who supported their planet-killing enterprise.

As if it wasn’t enough that fossil fuels are getting a free pass to pollute America and destroy her people, they also receive subsidies from the government to stay in business. Not only are they stealing our future, but they’re making us pay for it. It isn’t cheap, either — $37 billion annually as of 2014. The international outlook is even more alarming: at least a trillion dollars a year, which doesn’t even count the associated costs of environmental damage, social strife, and health impacts. If taken into account, the unpaid costs of fossil fuels amount to $5 trillion a year. When considered from this vantage, paying for this pollution hardly seems worth it. Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice; our compromised democracy has locked us out of decision-making.

Nations of the world are now making progress toward eliminating what are known as “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, but they are still years away from fruition. But the American people have already spoken — we want to see a transition to clean energy. We don’t want to pollute our home and destroy our world. Eliminating the subsidies would go a long way toward solving the carbon problem, but enabling the people to exercise their voting rights would go even farther, faster. By divorcing money from politics, the fossil fuel industry will be starved of support like fire without oxygen. The people will take back the conversation, and our slavery to carbon fuels will be over.

How do we achieve this democratic resolution? The Founders often looked to education as the cornerstone for a functioning democracy — people cannot govern themselves without knowing the issues at hand and the options to consider. What needs to happen is an education revolution, one that relinquishes the old paradigms of the 19th and 20th century and one that is firmly rooted in the reality of the 21st. The reality is, climate change is going to be a nation-wide, planet-wide undertaking. It will employ every individual in every industry from every corner of every nation. We need to be educated on the problem and how to deal with it if we’re going to succeed.

If the American education system can reshape itself around a climate-focused curriculum, every child and adult in America will understand what global warming is and why it’s so crucial we do something now to stop it. Just as the Sputnik crisis triggered an evolution in American math education to improve science and math skills, so too will the climate crisis spark a new, holistic approach to education that puts climate change front and center. It will be collective action the likes of which America hasn’t seen since the Second World War, when the entire country was engaged in a single effort that consumed all our attention. That was the last time the American people truly had purpose. This will be no different.

Education is only a piece of the picture; empowering Americans will also rely on a makeover of the news media. Climate reporting needs to be more engaging and emotional, and all climate disinformation should be removed from the discourse to prevent public confusion. If effective screening tools can be used to filter out fake news and other unproductive or harmful ideas, similar in form to how countries approach dangerous Islamist propaganda, then people will be able to cut through the noise and focus on the truth. There are many other strategies at our disposal to change the discourse on climate change to produce better results, and all of them should be considered and implemented.

The digital and social media era has created a hostile landscape for facts — on the internet, everyone’s opinion is given equal weight, and reason doesn’t often prevail in the online community. Just a quick browse of the comments and message boards on most sites are filled with inflammatory and high emotion statements. The medium itself is problematic for communicating big ideas like climate change, when there’s always something more interesting to see or read just a click away. The internet is also intransient, illustrated perfectly by the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to erase all references to climate change in its official online media. Recently it was a sentence from a Department of Interior news release that got the axe. A study found that coastal American communities face worse sea level rise impacts than previously thought, but the sentence connecting that phenomenon to climate change, the main driver of sea level rise, was deleted. This is Orwellian censorship, and clearly indicates a hostile attitude this administration harbors toward climate science. This is what happens when democracies get bought by fossil fuels and businessmen, and this is exactly what must end if the climate stalemate is to be broken and meaningful progress made.

Another potentially revolutionary way to empower the American people on a national scale would have the added benefit of being a direct precursor to a clean energy economy: decentralizing the energy grid. For most of the electric age, electricity has been generated at centralized power stations and transmitted long distances to consumers. This infrastructure model is over a hundred years old, and it doesn’t reflect new technologies such as smart grid devices and solar panels. In a distributed generation power grid, households can generate their own electricity using onsite PV cells, microturbines, small wind turbines, and countless other mature technologies just waiting to be integrated into the grid. When energy is plentiful, consumers can even sell their energy back to the grid, helping relieve the stress on an aging infrastructure in desperate need for an overhaul. Not only will this save Americans money, but it will give them control over their energy supply, taking back power from the utilities that have controlled electricity for a century. Perhaps most importantly, it will make people feel good that they’re personally contributing to a clean energy future, and go a long way toward assuring the public that despite the challenge we face in kicking our carbon addiction, it is an investment worth making.

The question is, how do we pay for such a program, a plan so comprehensive as to redesign the American political structure, its school system, and its power grid all at once? With the middle class hollowing out and many families still recovering from the devastation of the Great Recession nearly a decade ago, there is only one place this money could be sourced: the high earners. By putting wealthy Americans in a higher tax bracket, government revenue would increase, and support for a national program like this will be able to fund the necessary changes. There’s a poetic justice to this strategy as well, since the painful irony is that rich countries, and the rich people that live in them, are the primary drivers of climate change with their high carbon emissions. But these heavily-polluting countries won’t face the same level of impacts as poor nations in the Global South, some of which threaten to lose their entire country to sea level rise. Poor and powerless countries bear the brunt of the climate impact, just as American citizens are being denied a future by the wealthy Koch brothers and other rich oil barons seeking to burn carbon past the climatic tipping point. Since the wealthy are the problem, they should be the ones to pay to clean up the mess.

Democracy has always been America’s strongest asset, and in this day and age, that’s truer now than ever. But slowly, over decades, power has been usurped from the citizen, the foundation of the republic, and handed to special interests not concerned with the common man. Remember: the people are in peril. This unraveling of our democracy has led us to this current moment in history, with America’s political identity in question as a choice looms before us. With so much uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear: climate change has come to America. It will be a long, painful struggle dealing with it, and it will hurt every American from coast to coast. The only way to avoid it is to embrace democracy once again, and return the power to those who consented to be governed in the first place: the American citizens.