Where Should You Aim Your Political Effort?

Suppose someone wants to be politically active in addressing climate change — where should he or she focus time and energy? One can work locally with a city, county, or one particular institution, or work to improve state-level policies, or focus on national climate efforts, or even work at the international level.

Psychology plays a role in making this decision. How much time is one willing to invest? How important is it to see change really happen (not just try hard to achieve change), and how quickly should the outcome of one’s efforts become known? Is working with a sizable group agreeable and, if so, must the group members be friends and neighbors or could they be strangers?

It is easier to affect local institutions, whether that means saving energy in a school or workplace, or developing policies and practices to reduce a town’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Most people will probably find it more satisfying to achieve a victory on a small scale than to fight to mitigate climate change in larger arenas where success is usually harder to achieve.

Nonetheless, a majority of Americans say that changing national policies “would do most to make a meaningful impact” on issues they care about. Unfortunately, the current gridlock in Washington, DC means that there will be few if any national climate change-related legislative victories to report in the next two years; many Republicans don’t believe that climate change is caused by human activity or, if they do accept the science, fear taking action lest they lose support from donors or voters.

For some people, states are viewed as just the right size for climate action, not too big and not too small (shades of the Goldilocks story). On the one hand, states can play a significant national role, as Massachusetts did when it became the first state to provide near-universal health care (“Romneycare”), providing a model for the rest of the U.S. On the other hand, most states are not politically gridlocked and thus more state policymakers may take significant climate actions than members of the U.S. Congress. As an example, the Governor of New York State recently banned the practice of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas (fracking), based on an assessment of the likely risks to human health.

These multiple perspectives on the pro’s and con’s of choosing a political target, combined with my own psychology, are leading me to work with groups in Massachusetts that want the state to more quickly rely on wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. Massachusetts is already a climate change leader in several ways. For example, New England has a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that has been successful in reducing emissions; a Massachusetts state law (the Global Warming Solutions Act) requires electricity providers to increase the fraction of energy supplied each year from renewable sources; and Massachusetts uses less energy per capita than most states.

But there is much more to be done. The first state to implement a carbon tax or fee, or to obtain 50% or more of its electrical energy from renewable fuels, will demonstrate to other states what is possible, both politically and technically. Whether that is Massachusetts or another state is less important than that many states move quickly in the right direction.

A smaller number of people are politically active at any level of government than one would want. For example, fewer than 5% of Americans report they “very often” volunteer on political or issue campaigns, and only a little more than a third of eligible voters (36.4%) even voted in the 2014 elections. Americans are alienated from many large institutions, including government. How to restore Americans’ confidence that our democracy can solve serious problems is a subject for other blog posts. In any case, it is clear that there are opportunities to improve climate action policies at all political levels, and that focusing on one level does not preclude working on other levels, too.


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