Even under the best of circumstances – or presidencies – the outlook for our environment can appear dire. Across the globe, habitat loss and species extinction are increasing; and natural resources such as water and forests are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. And of course, looming over all of it – and us – is the grim specter of climate change.
Almost 30 years have passed since climate change and its origin first entered into public awareness, yet today greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Moreover their effects are increasingly common around the world today: “global weirding” events such as the January snowfall in the Sahara desert and the fact that for the third straight year Earth has set a temperature record remind us that the stable climate conditions under which humans have flourished for centuries is destabilizing.
And all that was the stage before our recent election. Now we have a president and Congress who blatantly disdain even the token regulatory efforts to balance out environmental protection with economic development. The fervor with which Trump and his oil-slicked allies have attacked our environmental laws have made their priorities clear. On top of it all is veritable Greek chorus of media shrilly extrapolating every Trump word and action into dire auguries of every possible (and many impossible) worse case scenario imaginable in order to fill their insatiable need for content.
You’d think with this deadly combination of a very real need for immediate climate action, combined with the media’s fervent sales of negativity and gloom, that there’d be little room for hope for the environment. However in honor of Earth Day, I’m here to convince you – and myself – that there IS hope for the environment. And here are just a handful of reasons why.
Reason for Hope #1: A majority of ALL Americans understand that climate change is caused by human activity, and needs to be addressed. And the numbers are growing.
Despite the well-funded and documented misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, the number of people who understand climate change is rising. And after each superstorm, record heat wave, and extreme flooding event these numbers increase across the political spectrum. Even Rex Tillerman, our new Driller of State, was forced to acknowledge climate change on record while he was the president of Exxon, after fierce public criticism. Prominent conservatives who have publicly called for action on climate change include senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as James A. Baker III, Henry M. Paulson Jr., and George P. Shultz to name a few. Even Pope Francis has placed the Catholic Church to the side of climate science, with his 200-page encyclical on climate change released in 2015.
More importantly, a growing number of all types of people understand climate change is happening and is a product of human activity: the number of conservative voters who acknowledge climate change has doubled in the last two years, with only 9 percent believing that the climate isn’t changing at all.
And a large and increasing number of people support action. A Yale post-election survey last November found almost 70 percent of Americans support the United States adhering to the Paris climate treaty signed last year. Over 50 percent of Republicans support strict carbon limits, a carbon tax, and a tax-credit for renewable energy.
Perhaps the only population segment that doesn’t show increased understanding of climate change and support for solutions are politicians, who after accepting fistfuls of political donations from the fossil fuel industry either choose to remain silent on the topic or publicly spread misinformation and lies. However it’s only a matter of time before the growing disconnect between the rising support for climate action in the general population, and the steady numbers of politicians opposing it, ends up hurting politicians in the polls.
Reason for Hope #2: Meaningful emission reductions are still being achieved at the state and subnational level.
No matter what happens at the national level regarding climate, existing state and subnational climate agreements are already producing significant reductions in global carbon emissions. California is still on target to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and reach 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In 2015 Governor Brown set a target for over 50 percent of California’s electricity to come from renewable sources. Other states such as Florida, Arizona, Michigan, and almost 20 in total have binding carbon emission reduction targets. And the more states that enact their own, separate carbon regulations the more pressure the fossil fuel industry will feel to cave into a unified national standard instead of having to adhere to multiple state standards.
But we aren’t just limited to state action. Groups of states have entered their own regional carbon trading markets and emission reduction pacts; including the Western Climate Initiative and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast. And states are even taking international action into their own hands as well, entering so-called “sub-national agreements” with foreign states and territories. One of the largest of these sub-national agreements, called the Under2 Coalition, is composed of over 170 jurisdictions spanning 33 countries and six continents – all of whom have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 80-95 percent below 1990 levels. Altogether, this legally-binding agreement cover 1.08 billion people around the world, and over one-third of the global economy.
Reason for Hope #3: Environmental activism works, and is getting increasingly creative in engaging diverse groups to act on climate change.
Let’s be clear: the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines were not stopped by the Obama administration – they were stopped by activists who rallied enough people and attention that it forced Obama to delay the projects. Particularly impressive was how the climate activist organization 350.org – led by environmental writer Bill McKibbon – practically single-handedly halted the Keystone Pipeline and altered the national debate regarding the project.
In addition to throwing a wrench into climate damaging projects, environmentalists are getting particularly creative in other venues as well. Conserving our planet for future generations has long been a moral (and fairly convincing) argument – that those who will inherit the earth have the right to inherit one with resources instead of a ravaged and pillaged earth. Last year this ethics theory was tested in a court of law, as 21 youths sued the federal government, arguing that a stable climate is a fundamental right, and politicians who knowingly allow polluters to destroy the earth’s atmosphere infringe upon the future well-being of all young Americans. An Oregon federal district judge ruled in favor of the youth movement, meaning the case will go to trial in 2017.
On the other end of the spectrum, the increase in climate change art and performance can influence and motivate another demographic who may not feel the impacts of climate change, but can play a big role in pushing for action and financing it. A recent example of art activism is the New York Museum of Modern Art, which protested Trump’s Muslim ban by replacing their traditional artwork with contemporary art from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan. These creative engagement methods offer a fresh approach that complements and supports the necessarily gloomy task of educating people about climate change impacts.
Additionally, social media is offering climate activists a new platform to creatively access a wider range of audiences. This marriage between technology and climate activism is nascent, yet offers a way to engage many more people in the national and global climate debate. Several recent examples highlight how the power of social media could be harnessed to help the environmental agenda push back against politicians and industry. When a National Park Service Twitter account was criticized and silenced by the Trump administration apparently for the simple act of tweeting scientific facts regarding climate change, within 24 hours hundreds of thousands of people had liked, retweeted, or followed the account – in other words, perhaps around the same number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration.
With more information at our fingertips than any other generation in history, we have just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible for social media and activism. Smartphone apps such as BuyPartisan can scan a barcode and identify the political affiliation of the company via their political donations; and the recently launched Great Company website, which acts as a giant index of which companies are for or against Trump’s Muslim ban, are a few early examples. Now more than ever, we have the chance to make informed purchases and use our dollars to deliberately support or avoid companies whose values align or don’t with ours.
Even the act of simply downloading or deleting an app can be political, as evidenced by the millions of people who deleted the Uber app in part due to the CEO’s willingness to work with Trump. Likely sensing the winds – and acknowledging their bottom line is more important than politics – recently more than a thousand tech workers signed an open letter against Trump’s Muslim ban, including more executives, vice presidents, and directors of major companies.
In the digital age, one of the benefits is that a product or company boycott can happen at warp speed – and at staggeringly high enough numbers to give companies’ pause. How likes and tweets and apps can translate into lasting change remains to be seen, but their potential reach is immense and offers tantalizing hope for growing and unifying climate change and other eco-social movements.
Reason for Hope #4: A little perspective can go a long ways
Trump is not the first president to attack our environmental laws. It seems so distant today, but many people forget that in George W. Bush’s first 100 days in office he not only reneged on a campaign promise to regulate carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, but also announced that the U.S. would not implement the Kyoto Protocol treaty signed by over 160 nations. Dubya’s administration opened millions of acres of wilderness to mining, drilling, and logging; removed species from the endangered species list; endorsed commercial whaling; and approved mountain-top removal for coal-mining. Bush tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and rollback car emission regulations – and failed.
Long before Dubya, Reagan tried to weaken the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act; but was thwarted by Congress. He did succeed in cutting funding for Carter’s renewable energy program – cuts which some attribute to setting the solar industry back a decade in the U.S. Though today’s booming solar industry appears to have rebounded nicely.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in particular has long been targeted by industry-friendly presidents. Reagan cut the EPA’s budget by 25 percent, and its staff by 20 percent in the 1980s. George W. Bush reduced EPA’s staff by 4 percent. And when budget cuts and staff reductions failed, both presidents tried to gut the agency from within – EPA enforcement cases dropped by almost 80 percent under Reagan, and 40 percent under George W. Bush.
If a lot of that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. Trump has many of the exact same targets as Reagan and George W. Bush – EPA budget cuts, rolling back environmental laws, pulling out or ignoring international climate promises. It’s clear that these proposals have nothing to do with Trump, George W. Bush, or any other president – they are simply the fossil fuel industry’s laundry list of chores for the politicians that they funnel millions of dollars to. Presidents and members of Congress on both sides have been assiduously trying to please their donors for decades – Trump just appears to be much more inept at couching the fossil fuel industry’s demands in politico-speak.
Yet despite the industry’s best efforts – despite the 3 fossil fuel lobbyists deployed per member of Congress, despite the $300 million spent every year – the EPA is still standing and enforcing our nation’s laws against polluters and developers. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act all still exist, and have been shrewdly used by activist NGOs like the Center for Biological Diversity to halt industry from damaging the air, water, and environment that we all share. One of the unintended consequences of George W. Bush’s administration’s lack of climate change action was the rise of state initiatives to form individual emission reduction targets, regional cap and trade networks, and renewable energy mandates.
This is not to say we can be complacent – we have to fight like hell to retain these modest tools that we have. Hope predicated upon the sense that “things have been this bad or worse before” is not truly inspiring hope – yet it is hope based on the fact that we have survived this, and worse. Failing to lump Trump into the same attacks that have come before him gives him a powerful status that he neither deserves nor has earned. Many of the things that Trump proposes he cannot do alone – yet our passive resignation and failure to understand the context is the first step towards us letting him do it.
Although it’s not in the news, there is hope and progress every day at local to international levels. The media’s toxic fascination with Trump, and their failure to distinguish between what the Trump administration says it can do, and what it actually can do, creates a dangerous attitude of helplessness. But lets not forget that our environment has survived attacks before – and better organized ones, at that – and that we as individuals can take daily actions like choosing to spend our hard-earned money on companies and products that support the earth. Punishing polluting companies; bottom lines by choosing not to spend money on their products – and using social media to influence our networks to do the same – is one of the only tools we as individuals have, but it has the potential to be a powerful one. On a larger scale, states and sub-national agreements have the opportunity to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a scale that puts our federal government to shame.
The world recently celebrated the 47th annual Earth Day, and it’s important to remember that the now international tradition of celebrating the earth came about in response to a local environmental disaster. The calamitous environmental actions that Trump and Congress have proposed have already catalyzed more and more people to the streets and to environmental causes. In addition to the millions who will march for science on Earth Day in the United States, on April 29 millions more representing all races, ages, and orientations from around the world will take to the streets in what will most certainly be the biggest climate march in history. And that power the fossil fuel industry and Trump will never have, and can never match.
 In 1998 NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the Senate Energy Committee what scientists had long known – that manmade climate change is occurring and action is needed to stop it; thus raising the issue to the public eye.
 Note that I purposely avoid the phrase “believes in climate change”. A believer (in a religion, for example) believes in something that cannot be proved nor disproved. Climate change is a scientific fact, like gravity, evolution, or that the earth orbits the sun. It can be overwhelmingly proved by evidence, and alternative explanations can be disproven by facts and evidence to such a degree that there is less than a one percent chance that anything else besides fossil fuel emissions are causing the change in climate. One can be ignorant of these facts, but that person is simply uneducated. So please, let’s stop using the phrase “believes in climate change”. Nobody says “I believe in gravity”.
 Referring to the scientifically accepted goal that limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As of 2012, the world had already warmed 0.85 degrees Celsius.
 Or limit to 2 metric tons of CO2-equivalent per capita, by 2050.
 Provided the company is publically traded.