On October 7, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a massive report that, through careful consideration of more than 6,000 scientific studies, contained a bleak message for anyone who lives on planet Earth. The IPCC, a notoriously staid scientific body, wrote that we have put off acting on climate change for long enough that it’s almost certain that the planet will face catastrophic consequences like global food shortages, mass migration, and destruction of ecosystems in a just few decades.
While the report cautions that it’s not too late to stop the very worst consequences of climate change from coming to fruition, the solution that it gives, from a practical standpoint, isn’t very encouraging. Basically, we have a decade to get our act together before the planet warms to a temperature that will drown entire islands; a decade to beat back climate change denial enough to switch completely from fossil fuels to clean energy, and completely remake almost every sector of human life.
Grasping for a silver lining in the darkness, some outlets responded to the IPCC report’s depressing news with tips about steps that individuals can take to slow climate change. CNN, for instance, published a list with suggestions for personal action like consuming fewer meat products, switching from flying to driving, and replacing old, inefficient technology with newer, more energy efficient pieces. Those are all good ideas, but they’re also almost certainly useless at this point. Individual action on climate change is literally an outmoded 80’s idea from a previous IPCC report when things were not so dire. Switching to a plant-based diet saves .7 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year — about the same as burning 90 gallons of gas. Giving up a car entirely saves the average person about 2.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide — the same as burning 270 gallons of gas. The United States as a whole, emitted 6,87 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2014. Only 100 corporations worldwide are responsible for a whopping 71 percent of global emissions. Laying the responsibility of climate change at the feet of individual people by telling them to tinker around the margins of their own actions is like telling someone to stop a reckless driver by turning down the radio or turning up the air conditioning.
There is really only one thing that individuals can do to prevent the worst of climate change from becoming a reality — and really, it’s the only way out of this mess: stop voting for politicians who don’t treat climate change like the immediate, existential threat that it is.
This should, in theory, be easy. We are less than a month away from a midterm election (it is on November 6, by the way), and there are hundreds of politicians up for re-election who have shown that they don’t believe in climate change despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In the House of Representatives, 232 elected officials, or a little more than half, are climate deniers. In the Senate, 53 are. These are people who, unlike the average individual, actually have the power to create the kinds of policy changes needed to avert the worst of climate change. They could pass a tax on carbon, or pass a bill investing in green infrastructure — policies that, unlike switching your thermostat to a smart thermostat, would have an actionable impact on the amount of carbon dioxide our country spews into the atmosphere each year.
The current Congress — for a number of reasons, from sheer cravenness to fossil fuel money in politics to the fact that most representatives are so old that they won’t feel the consequences of climate change anyway— isn’t going to do that. A nationwide price on carbon, one of the IPCC’s primary policy suggestions for getting a handle on rampant climate change, is a political anathema. This summer, 229 representatives voted for a resolution that condemned a carbon tax as “not in the best interest of the United States.” And following the release of the IPCC report, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) told the Huffington Post that the report “might as well be calling on me to sprout wings and fly to Canada for the summer.”
Replacing these people with politicians who actually care about the future of our planet is not as easy as it sounds. Historically, voters — even liberal Democrats, the demographic most likely to care about environmental issues at the polls — have prioritized things like the economy, or national security, over issues like climate change. Candidates don’t help the problem, because they rarely, if ever, talk about it — even when it seems ridiculous not to, like one Democrat running for the House in the North Carolina district that received 30 inches of rain during Hurricane Florence only weeks ago who doesn’t even list climate change as an issue on his campaign website. If there’s any personal action we aren’t taking that we should be, it’s demanding that candidates take an aggressive, uncompromising stance on climate change immediately, and showing up to vote for them when they do.
We have 12 years to act before climate change becomes catastrophic. That’s six midterm elections. Three presidential elections. A handful of chances to elect people who care more about the planet than corporations or political donations. We can start in a month. Or we can keep electing people who ignore reality for their own comfort. Either way, we can’t say we weren’t warned.