Sustaining Climate Progress Is True Populism

While fear is a strong motivator, hope is equally powerful.
01/31/2017 05:56 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2017
Climate-smart transit in Nashville
Climate-smart transit in Nashville

The most confounding thing about current proposals to reverse federal climate change efforts is their purported “populist” basis. The new Trump administration and its allies in Congress have repeatedly described previous Obama administration climate change policy as government run amok, yet a January 2017 Quinnipiac poll found that 59% percent of Americans oppose removing regulations to address climate change, compared to just 32% in support of rollbacks. Seeing the Paris climate agreement come into force this November confirmed that this is truly a global populist groundswell, with former holdouts like China now becoming impressive climate leaders.

With so much to gain, and so little to lose, it would be a self-inflicted wound for our country to halt our climate progress now that we are beginning to see success.

So why does the public so clearly and strongly support efforts to fight climate change? This likely starts with the regular drumbeat of climate news that confirms the severe risks of climate change, and the acceleration of climate impacts. For example, NASA and NOAA recently reported that 2016 set yet another record for average worldwide temperature. Another disturbing recent development has been the rapid acceleration of cracks in the Antarctic ice shelves.

But I suspect these news stories have less immediacy for most Americans than the ways they are seeing climate change show up in their everyday lives. These personal connections include things like different plants and animals showing up in our backyards and gardens, melting heat waves that feel worse than before, and shorter snow seasons for winter sports enthusiasts. A person doesn’t need to have lived where giant pieces of glaciers are regularly dropping into the oceans to feel the changing and potentially more dangerous world around us.

While fear is a strong motivator, hope is equally powerful. The recent surge forward on a variety of climate solutions is just as responsible for public readiness to embrace climate action. It has been a remarkable few years, thanks to developments like the clean energy and energy efficiency revolution, exciting shifts in transportation alternatives, and making cities more livable and climate-smart with green infrastructure. Better yet, many of these climate solutions have huge public benefits beyond fighting climate change, such as saving money for consumers, more enjoyable commutes, and new places to get outdoors in cities.

There are other win-win climate solutions at our fingertips, such as investing in our forests and other natural lands.

There are other win-win climate solutions at our fingertips, such as investing in our forests and other natural lands. One of the Obama administration’s final climate actions was publication of a visionary Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization that charted our course to reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. One of the central strategies to hit that target? Using forests, farms, wetlands and other lands to capture carbon naturally, including an increase in forest cover by as much as 50 million acres by 2050. Creating financial incentives to help landowners increase carbon capture on their land while still producing farm and forest products is a win-win for climate and our economy.

With so much to gain, and so little to lose, it would be a self-inflicted wound for our country to halt our climate progress now that we are beginning to see success. First and foremost, this means abandoning much-discussed ideas like cutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff by two-thirds, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, and reversing planned improvements in fuel economy.

But not taking these harmful steps would only maintain the climate progress we have been making. Just as importantly, we need to continue public and private investment in climate solutions, from energy and transportation to forests and agriculture. These “no regrets” investments in our people and our economy present opportunities to address climate change while targeting job creation to rural areas and cities alike that are facing economic challenges. At a time when popular sentiment is strong for action on both climate change and the economy, this is too good an opportunity to miss.

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