Five Ways to Force Washington to Pass Better Climate Policies
A roundup of ideas for how to break fossil fuels’ hold over the country’s dysfunctional political system
The bottom line of the dire new U.N. climate report this week is that our current policies to reduce emissions aren’t enough. The Summary for Policymakers released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasizes that while we have lowered our projected emissions trajectory a bit (here’s a useful graph), we’re still on track for at least three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100—a truly disastrous scenario. Limiting warming to 1.5 or two degrees, which is still globally disruptive, would require major policy changes almost immediately. “Every decision from here on out matters,” Ketan Joshi wrote at TNR in response to the report. And decisions like last week’s approval of the Willow project in Alaska need to stop: “Every next step must be a step where emissions fall.”
That’s going to be tough. As illustrated by the Willow decision and the battle over last year’s big climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, it is really hard to get a majority of lawmakers to take a “no new fossil fuels” position. But there’s no shortage of ideas about how to change that. Here are five that have been proposed at TNR and elsewhere.
Mobilizing nonvoting environmentalists. One of the big reasons often given for American politicians’ lack of ambitious climate policy is that politicians need to get elected, and there just aren’t enough climate-first voters to keep climate-first politicians in power. (This is one of the rationales, presumably, behind Joe Biden’s demonstrable tack to the center ahead of 2024.)
Liza Featherstone, however, spoke last year to members of a nonprofit that thinks all that could change very rapidly. “The polls are right that there are not enough climate-first voters to scare politicians,” Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project told her. But those polls look at likely voters. And EVP’s research has found that “far more nonvoters list climate as their top priority.” Nonvoting environmentalists, Liza reported, “tend to be young, low-income, or people of color. All those groups vote less than other demographics.” And EVP is betting that helping those people get to the polls via registration, reminders, and transport—rather than earlier climate activists’ attempts at persuading skeptics—might be the way to sway elections.
Liza followed up on this topic after the midterms and found that in the 2022 midterms, “more ‘climate voters,’ people whose top issue is the climate crisis, showed up to cast ballots than in any other election in U.S. history.” There’s a lesson here, she concluded: “Climate voters exist, and Democrats should stop campaigning—and governing—as if they do not.”
Getting fossil fuel money out of politics. Joe Manchin’s frequent obstruction of policies that would transition us off fossil fuels isn’t exactly a mystery, as TNR’s Kate Aronoff has pointed out many times. The West Virginia Democrat gets a lot of both his personal income and his political donations from the fossil fuel industry. And while most of the top recipients of such donations are Republicans, Joe Manchin isn’t the only Democrat raking in oil and gas money! Even at the state level, as Meaghan Winter pointed out in 2019, energy companies wield a tremendous amount of power over politics via political donations.
Fixing this starts with increasing awareness. Media organizations should mention whether a politician receives significant fossil fuel donations when reporting on that politician’s positions on climate change. People can also check the OpenSecrets database to see how much their elected representatives are receiving. Then there are pledges that have circulated in recent years, by which politicians can commit to reject such donations. There’s evidence that these pledges make a difference: “Prior to signing the pledge,” The Guardian reported during the 2020 election, “nearly all of the 2020 Democratic candidates took money from fossil fuel executives, other employees and via political action committees.”
To build momentum, Aaron Regunberg argued last year, activists could “start stigmatizing fossil fuel enablers wherever they exist”—not just the politicians who take donations. Or, of course, there’s always Kate Aronoff’s “one quick trick for curbing the fossil fuel industry’s political influence”: nationalization.
Getting fossil fuel money out of policy. The oil and gas industry influences politics in more subtle ways, for instance by funding a lot of the research from which policies get drafted. ExxonMobil has routinely given six-figure sums to Brookings, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and similar D.C. think tanks, Kate Aronoff reported in 2021. That’s something that ought to be disclosed when experts from those think tanks write blog posts denouncing investigative exposés of the company, as happened that year, or get quoted about how increased gas exports could help Ukraine—a frequent occurrence in 2022.
The divestment campaign at universities is also picking up steam, as people realize just how much climate research at top-tier research institutions is funded by fossil fuels. Recently, Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research calculated that six fossil fuel companies alone had probably spent $700 million funding research at 27 different U.S. universities between 2010 and 2020—something that ought to be taken into account, the authors argued, when considering the research those universities produced favoring things like carbon capture, a questionable climate “solution” that the industry loves because it allows it to continue with its core business model. If you’re interested in a particularly chilling case study in this process, don’t miss Kate Aronoff’s look at Ernest Moniz—the MIT professor emeritus, Obama alum, and former Biden adviser who has built a substantial portion of his career taking fossil fuel money and churning out emissions-heavy “all of the above” energy policies.
The rights-of-nature movement. Climate journalist Amy Westervelt recently wrote about this for Orion magazine. Given that the Inflation Reduction Act is the most ambitious climate policy that the U.S. has ever passed—in fact, it almost didn’t pass—and yet the final form lacked any mechanism for reducing fossil fuels, she writes, there’s a strong case for “rethinking our decision-making framework altogether so that maybe, eventually, we have a shot at not repeating the same damn mistakes over and over for the next century.”
The rights-of-nature movement, she points out—which emerged from Indigenous approaches—offers a way to modify the Western legal system to make more room for the kind of policies we need in the current era. The framework doesn’t just grant “ecosystems the right to survive and thrive” but also “grants the communities surrounding those ecosystems the ability to protect those rights.” And in so doing, she argues, it would fix the “fatal flaw in the U.S. operating system”: the “social contract” theory that, in the end, has assigned vastly more rights to corporations and individuals than to the community or the resources that community needs. “Rights of nature kicks that idea to the curb. No person or entity is more important than its ecosystem, no one gets out of their obligation to protect it.”
Making climate a local issue. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has written extensively about how even some climate skeptics can be won over if you start by talking about local weather patterns. Often, they’ve noticed that weather is getting weirder, and they’re concerned. That’s an underutilized technique when it comes to politics, as well, Liza Featherstone argued ahead of last year’s midterms. Primary challengers who talk about climate not in national terms but in terms more immediately relevant to their potential constituents—hurricanes, water shortages, wildfires—often get more traction than the political establishment might have predicted.
TNR politics reporter Grace Segers also noticed this trend when it came to the general election, when many Democrats shied away from the climate topic in a way that may have cost them winnable votes:
This data suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom that candidates should focus solely on “kitchen table” economic issues, talking about climate change could help boost turnout for Democrats. But given the nuances of individual elections, that rhetoric may be most effective if it is tailored to the particular races they are trying to win and the voters they are hoping to convince.
The European Commission has proposed new rules to crack down on corporate greenwashing in the EU, by making companies substantiate vague claims like “climate neutral” that they might slap on labels to entice customers.
Oil executives are preparing to spend big on new offshore oil projects in the next two years, as new investments rise “to levels not seen in a decade,” Climatewire reports.
Stat of the Week
No, you’re not imagining it if you feel your allergies are lasting longer. The “freeze-free season,” i.e., possible allergy season, has expanded on average by 15 days in the U.S. since 1970, according to recent number crunching from Climate Central. Here in D.C., allergy season has gotten 20 days longer. Oh, and a 2021 paper in the journal Environmental Sciences found that allergy seasons across the U.S. are more intense, with pollen concentrations increasing by 21 percent, “strongly coupled to observed warming.”
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
A “Rocking Chair Rebellion”: Seniors Call on Banks to Dump Big Oil
A series of demonstrations across the country this week staged by environmentalist Bill McKibben’s Third Act group for older activists received a rousing writeup in the Times with plenty of pictures of the demonstrations. Cara Buckley described the scene in D.C.:
Bundled in long johns, puffer coats, layered knit hats and sleeping bags, and fortified by cookies sent by courier from a sympathetic supporter, dozens of graying protesters sat in rocking chairs outside of four banks in downtown Washington for 24 hours, in a nationwide protest billed as the largest climate action ever undertaken by older folks …
Their targets were Chase, the subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America, the biggest investors in fossil fuel projects, according to a 2022 report by the Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups. Collectively, the four banks have poured more than $1 trillion between 2016 and 2021 into oil and gas.
Read Cara Buckley’s Report at The New York Times.
This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.