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What Stands in the Way of Making the Climate a Priority

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Inertia and vested interest, it seems to me, are the two forces that make changing the system for the better so rare. Once things are as they are, some group benefits from them -- and that group usually has more of a stake in maintaining the status quo than others have in changing it. But, as I wrote last week, moments arise when the zeitgeist is threatened -- when what is considered normal, natural, and obvious seems suddenly up for grabs.

Right now, traditional policing seems less obvious than it did a month ago, and, though the police unions and the administrators will work hard to make that thought disappear, at least for the moment, the discipline and the passion of the people marching and organizing are actually overcoming the tendency for the focus to drift away. And, as a result, all of a sudden the rest of us notice that a few people have been hard at work all along, imagining why it might not make sense to send combat-ready troops into our cities to deal with the slight but inevitable tensions of living together in a society. Here, for instance, is a series of interviews on CNN about how one might deal with speeders or drunk drivers without tickets or arrests. When you first listen, you think, That's different -- would it really work? But that's the good thing about moments like this: our minds are open to new possibilities in ways that they usually aren't.

Inertia and interest are the main reasons our energy systems have been slow to change, even though rapid climate change represents the ultimate in imaginable violence, injustice, and chaos. (Indeed, the evidence shows that, around the world, emissions are "surging" back to typical levels as societies emerge from the post-sheltering phase of the coronavirus pandemic.) Sometimes, the efforts of vested interests are almost comical. Consider, for instance, the fact that many of our homes have a large tank of flammable gas that we burn when we wish to heat our food, resulting not only in global warming but also in levels of indoor air pollution that are often so high they would be illegal were they outside. At some point in our history, this was perhaps an improvement over burning wood or dung. But now we have easy-to-use and more affordable induction cook-tops, which make far more sense (at least in new homes, where there's no sunk investment in cook-tops and ranges). Some jurisdictions have started mandating the installation of such electric appliances in new construction, threatening the power of the incumbent inflammable technology. I've written in this column before of the California gas-workers' union that, as the journalist Sammy Roth discovered, threatened a "no-social-distancing" protest in a town, at the height of the pandemic, in an effort to block such a law. Now Rebecca Leber, writing in Mother Jones, reports that the natural-gas industry is systematically paying Instagram influencers to plug its product with a targeted audience of "hispanic millennials," "design enthusiasts," "promising families," and "young city solos."

But inertia plays as large a role as interest, sometimes. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an excellent account of the effort to make the Empire State Building more energy efficient. Aided by gurus from the Rocky Mountain Institute, who have been working on such projects for decades, the management changed out old lights, added insulating film to the building's sixty-five hundred windows, stuck reflecting foil behind the radiators, and provided "regenerative braking" for the building's 73 elevators, so that, when they slow down, the extra electricity is returned to batteries. These and other changes reduced the building's electricity use not by five or 10 percent but by 40 percent. Forty is a big number, considering that the tenants still get the same use from their offices, which are as well lit, warmed, cooled, and ventilated as before.

We obviously have to install a lot of solar panels and wind turbines in the next decade to meet climate goals, but if we cut electricity use by 40 percent we'd have to install far fewer. That we haven't done so is, I think, mostly a function of that inertia. If you're running a building, you have many jobs: finding tenants, collecting and raising rents, providing basic services and maintenance. And business school might not have taught you about regenerative braking. But now you may have to learn: last week, the Times reported that even institutions as sacred as the 30-year mortgage are under threat, as banks start figuring out they don't want to be left holding properties that are literally underwater. As the great poet James Russell Lowell once observed, "New occasions teach new duties." The past seven years have been the hottest ever recorded, and, on Saturday, a spot on the Siberian coast became the northernmost place on Earth to record a temperature of a hundred degrees Fahrenheit; this is a new occasion.

Passing the Mic

R. L. Miller is a California climate activist who, for some years, has run a PAC called Climate Hawks Vote, which tries to elect candidates who are particularly eager to combat global warming. (I've sat on the board of the group.) She has also served as chair of the climate caucus in the California Democratic Party, and has just been elected by fellow California Party members to the Democratic National Committee, with the goal of making the climate a priority in the campaign.

What's the strategy for the D.N.C.?

Top priority right now is the platform! I ran for the D.N.C. on a platform of transparency and accountability. I was particularly fired up about the D.N.C. leadership's refusal to hold a climate debate.

The D.N.C. Climate Council has released a bold, visionary set of policy recommendations. I helped set up the council, and am on its advisory board, but can't take credit for drafting the recommendations. Check out the platform!

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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