Roughly three seconds after Greta Thunberg finished speaking to the United Nations, my kids looked at me with a form of hatred and horror I’d never seen before. I don’t entirely blame them: Their lives are going to be much more difficult because of climate change and we, as a society, have ignored the problem for decades.
But as we’ve seen over the past 20 years, saying the right things isn’t enough. We need our government, and governments around the world, to act effectively.
The usual actions that occur to most people concerned about climate change have limited efficacy. Yes, we should all reduce our own carbon footprints. But solving the problem will require transformational policy change, not just quitting Amazon Prime, and using metal straws and canvass tote bags.
The other obvious step is calling your elected officials. The problem is, the elected officials representing most people moved to do something about climate change tend to already agree with them. So other than feeling like you did something, preaching to the choir doesn’t accomplish much either.
Here’s what would: supporting moderate candidates — at all levels of government — from both parties against challengers and incumbents on the left and the right.
Most people reading this are now looking up and saying “I get why we’d take on climate deniers, but why challenge people on the left? Aren’t they the ones who are leading the charge?”
Of course, right-wing candidates and elected officials who refuse to even acknowledge the existence of climate change are a big part of the problem. That’s why it’s so critical to donate to moderate Republican candidates either challenging incumbent climate deniers in primaries or facing primary challenges from far-right candidates who think climate change is a hoax.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or independent or a member of the Green Party or a Socialist: because of gerrymandering, most seats are safe seats, essentially reserved for one of the two major parties. Moderate Republicans need to win more of the seats that have been essentially set aside for the GOP.
But the problem is equally potent on the left. As we’ve seen repeatedly, passing meaningful legislation to address climate change is incredibly difficult. Anything that would truly make a difference like a carbon tax or a much higher gas tax or making trillion-dollar investments in renewable energy and carbon sequestration or mandating much higher emission standards almost never survives the legislative process.
Adding on a litany of controversial, often unpopular, initiatives that have little to do with climate change only makes the job even harder. As Saikat Chakrabarti, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff and author of the Green New Deal, said at an event for Jay Inslee, “It wasn’t originally a climate thing at all...we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”
His ideas may be good. They may not. But either way, they torpedo the odds of passing critical climate change policies that need to happen right now.
Being as partisan and self-righteous as possible often wins elections on both sides of the aisle, but it doesn’t pass legislation. Forcing moderate Democrats to defend themselves in primaries for not being sufficiently woke is a waste of time and money.
Forcing those same moderate Democrats to sign onto bills that have no chance of passing only come at the expense of serious legislation on policies like a carbon tax or emissions standards. It just undermines their credibility and makes them far more vulnerable to the fossil-fuel industry’s campaign attacks.
While I don’t agree with everything Greta Thunberg said to the UN the other day, she’s absolutely right: we spend far too much time patting ourselves on the back and speaking into the echo-chamber of people who already agree with us and far too little time making the sacrifices necessary to effect real, meaningful change.
Politically, that only happens if we empower candidates who can focus on climate solutions without kowtowing to the incumbents opposing change on the right or the activists demanding purity on the left.
Tusk, a political strategist, is founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings