So you voted for climate yesterday. Congratulations! You helped flip control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. It is great that the party of climate denial no longer controls both houses of Congress. This is a necessary condition for effective climate policy. By “effective,” I mean climate policy that has some hope of achieving the sorts of reductions in the US (45% reduction by 2030) that IPCC SR15 says are necessary to avoid more than 1.5 degrees C of warming.
But a Democratic House, while necessary, is not sufficient to achieve effective climate policy. The House will be a check on President Trump’s worst instincts, but it can’t stop the Trump administration from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and dismantling the Clean Power Plan. And the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan were not enough, by themselves, to meet the GHG reductions described by IPCC SR15. To establish affirmative climate policy, the House would have to adopt new legislation – which in can only do with the concurrence of the Senate and the President. So flipping the House to the Democrats is really unlikely to lead to any measurable decrease in GHG emissions in the United States.
So as long as a climate denier occupies the White House and the party of climate deniers control the Senate, effective climate policy is impossible in the United States. Democratic control of the Senate and the White House are thus also necessary conditions for effective climate policy (or at least a veto-proof majority in the Senate). That can’t happen until 2020, at the soonest.
But even Democratic control of government, while necessary, is not sufficient for effective climate policy. We had Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches in 2009, and no climate legislation resulted. And while the Obama administration and EPA was the most climate progressive ever seen, it still did not take every possible climate mitigation measure in their power. Take a look at Clean Air Act section 211(c)(1) – it authorizes EPA to ban fossil fuels in transport any time it wants, based on the same endangerment finding that underlies EPA mileage standards and the Clean Power Plan.
Why isn’t Democratic control sufficient for effective climate policy? Because until politicians hear that climate is the number one issue for their base voters, it’s not going to make it to the top of the agenda. And climate is still far from the top issue for democratic voters.
So voting for Democrats, while necessary, is not sufficient for effective climate action. Democratic control of the House will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Want to do something that will have a measurable impact on greenhouse gas emissions? Take a look in the mirror – the carbon mirror. Go to a greenhouse gas calculator that lets you plug in actual numbers for flights, natural gas, electricity, driving and diet, and see how your annual carbon footprint compares to the US average. Carbonfootprint.com and The Nature Conservancy have calculators that are pretty good for this (I have quibbles with both). Aim to reduce your emissions to below the US average this year – if you believe in climate action nationally, you should at least be able to get your own footprint below the average. Look at the four biggest items in your carbon tab (probably flying, driving, utilities, and diet), and aim to reduce each of those by at least 30% next year and 50% within three years.
But wait, IPCC SR15 gives the world 12 years to achieve a 45% reduction – why should anyone have to reduce now? The reason is that if you voted for climate, you are a climate leader (whether you think so or not) because most voters did not vote for climate. Being a leader means doing things first, setting an example that others can follow.
You will be able to measure your own footprint reduction immediately. And that is a measurable reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, it is too small to affect global climate all by itself. But your vote was also too small to effect the result of any election all by itself and you did it anyway. And by leading a great life with a smaller carbon footprint you make your own climate message more powerful – studies have shown that climate action messages are more convincing when the messenger has made changes in their own life. Like voting for climate, it doesn’t make a difference if just one person does it – but if everyone who voted for climate yesterday cut their own fossil fuel emissions by 50% in three years, that would make a sizable dent in US emissions – and help overcome the political resistance to policies that reduce consumption.