A Midterm Lay of the Land: Global Warming in 2019

The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the second in a series of posts over the next several weeks reviewing the threats and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment. (Other posts in this series: 1. Health Care)

When I think about global warming these days, my mind often drifts back to the summer of 1992.

It was an unusually cool summer,[1] which would ordinarily have been a welcome break from New Jersey’s swampy summer heat. Except that I spent that summer building grassroots support among the suburbanites of central Jersey for urgent action against climate change. The cooling haze from a volcanic eruption half a world away made it just a little harder to convey the urgency of a warming planet. 

President George H.W. Bush, who passed away last week, was engaged that summer in a high-profile game of will-he or won’t-he regarding his participation in the Earth Summit in Rio. Bush, who came into office four years earlier pledging to fight the greenhouse effect with the “White House effect,” had by 1992 turned solidly against aggressive action on climate change. The New York Times described his role in the summit as that of “global environmental spoilsport.”

1992 was 26 years ago. 26 years from now, it will be 2044. My kids, now teenagers, will be in their mid-forties. And it will be just six years shy of the date by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests we must decarbonize our economy – entirely – if we want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, a threshold beyond which dangerous and irreparable effects from climate change become inevitable.

In 1992, we might still have been under the illusion that an ironclad international agreement was possible that would bring the nations of the world together to address the threat. It might also have been a time when a tax on carbon – low at first, but ramping up over time – could have nudged the world sufficiently toward clean technologies and energy efficiency.

Those days are gone. A carbon tax can still be a useful part of a “full balanced breakfast” of policies to transform our economy, but is insufficient to drive the changes we need. International cooperation is still critical, but it has become clear that the old slogan “think globally, act locally” applies to climate policy as well.

To act on what may be the world’s last chance to prevent dangerous global warming, we need both to win “art of the possible” policies that can move the needle on carbon pollution immediately and to stretch our imaginations to the limit in search of answers that will turn the global economy toward zero-carbon solutions quickly enough to prevent the worst.

The good news is that the universe of what is immediately possible – both technologically and politically – is expanding by the day. I don’t think I had yet seen a solar panel in the wild in the summer of 1992. Today, they are everywhere. Wind turbines, LED light bulbs, electric vehicles, energy storage, ultra-efficient buildings – across the board, we have vastly more tools to reduce fossil fuel use today than we did then, in part because of smart policies adopted over time to push them out into the marketplace.

The adoption of these new technologies has delivered reductions in carbon emissions that would have been difficult to imagine a decade ago. In 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that by 2017, the U.S. would be emitting 7,236 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from energy use, up from 5,751 million metric tons in 2002. Instead, we emitted 5,142 million metric tons – an 11 percent decline since 2002 and 29 percent less than had been projected just a dozen years earlier. USA!

The universe of achievable public policies is expanding as well. In 2018, for example, California adopted SB 100, which commits the state to obtaining 60 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent from zero-carbon sources by 2045. In 2019, you can expect other states to take up the 100 percent banner.

There is also newfound attention to the number one source of carbon pollution in the United States: transportation. Buoyed by the success of the Northeast’s regional cap-and-trade program for electricity, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, states in the region are considering a similar program for transportation fuels through the Transportation and Climate Initiative. 2019 may be a make-or-break year for that effort, as well as a golden opportunity for states to accelerate the push toward electric vehicles (including electric buses).

But no policies likely to be adopted in the next two years – even in leading cities and states – are likely to match the urgency that the climate crisis now demands. And in much of the country – including many of the most fossil fuel-intensive states – little action is happening on climate at all.

The most important work of the next two years, therefore, may have less to do with winning tangible emissions-reducing policies now than with creating the conditions that will enable truly transformative action in the near future. Two changes are particularly urgent.

The first is depolarizing our response to the climate crisis. In 1992, even as George H.W. Bush was throwing a wet blanket on international climate action, there were still bona fide environmental leaders in the Republican party – enough of them to forestall much of the anti-environmental agenda of Newt Gingrich when he ascended to the speakership of the House in 1995.

There is simply no way to imagine societal transformation of the scale required without solid support among people who currently identify themselves as Republicans. This is a truth of political science that is as rock solid as the physical science supporting climate change itself. Some, such as David Roberts at Vox, argue that the way to achieve that level of support is by making climate change such a slam-dunk winning political issue for Democrats that Republicans will have no option but to cave and follow along. Perhaps that’s possible. It is certainly worth trying to put a bold vision of a climate-friendly America at the center of the Democratic party’s agenda.

The other route – and one that is not at all in inherent conflict with convincing Democrats to go big – is for advocates of climate action to reach out intentionally to the majority of Americans who are concerned or cautious about global warming but may not yet be engaged. Or the large share of Americans who feel alienated from both political parties or exhausted by the current political debate. Or the elements of the conservative movement – which have always existed – that genuinely value environmental stewardship.

At a time of wild political swings in which the crowning achievements of one governor or president are immediately undone by the next, moving our response to climate change to the center of American politics is essential to ensuring that whatever bold policies we are able to adopt are built to last. Even at a time when only a small faction of one party is responding adequately to the crisis, the long-term goal of building a transpartisan, majoritarian climate movement has to remain at the center of our thoughts – and inform the way climate advocates speak and act in the world.

The second urgent change is to reconnect the question of how we will address global warming to the question of how we should live. I was struck over Thanksgiving weekend by the front page of the Boston Globe (shown at the top of this post), which juxtaposed the rising need for dramatic shifts to avert dangerous global warming with the natural tendency to go on living our “normal” lives.

The current discourse around the connection between our personal lives and the environment, however, is too often counterproductive. Like so much in our society, we talk about that connection as a binary thing: either the way we choose to live doesn’t matter at all or it is the only thing that matters.

Major environmental groups have often taken the first position, acting on the belief that to talk about the need to simplify our lives would risk breaking the fragile coalitions behind “art of the possible” reforms. You can still live the stereotypical American dream, the promise goes, but in an electric, rather than gasoline-powered car; in a solar, rather than gas-powered house; and with green products substituting for non-green ones.

On the other hand, there are those who see climate change primarily as a morality play acted out through our personal behaviors. It’s a viewpoint that sometimes veers into preachy judgmentalism and “hypocrisy politics” in which only those who demonstrably lead perfect green lifestyles are deemed worthy of speaking out. The alienated, the cautious, the compromised and the conflicted – that is, you know, most people – need not participate. 

The reality is that our response to climate change needs to include both individual and collective action, and to acknowledge that the two feed one another. But it also needs to recognize that the decisions we make as individuals are shaped -- and limited -- by public policy, societal expectations and obligations, ingrained habit, and our own personal weaknesses. Many of us want to be part of the solution, and are even willing to make sacrifices and trade-offs to do so, but have lines beyond which we are deeply fearful to go.

It’s time we said this out loud. For those of us in the public policy space, doing so provides an opportunity to reframe the challenge as follows: How do we make the low- or zero-carbon choice in any conceivable situation as easy, cheap, safe and appealing as possible?

It also allows us to ask how the societal expectations, obligations and habits that so often limit us might be reshaped. And that means talking about values.

A society with materialism at its center is always going to have a difficult time addressing a challenge such as climate change. I mean, it’s axiomatic, isn’t it? By contrast, community, connection, love, joy, and reverence are all truly renewable resources. None of these need be in short supply in a climate-constrained world. All of them have bipartisan appeal. And all of them are a surer portal to happiness than the next percent of growth in GDP in the wealthy countries of the world. 

So, here’s hoping that the last two years of President Trump’s first term represent a time to rebuild climate politics – with unprecedented policy ambition in Congress and in the states, humble and patient coalition-building that includes every American willing to act, and purposeful introspection about what a zero-carbon society requires of each of us and the invitation to transformation it provides.

Twenty-six years from now, let’s hope we can look back and see that it was so.



[1] “Whatever its cause, the recent cooling mostly cancels out, temporarily, the warming of the planet that scientists have observed in the last century.” New York Times, 8/4/1992