“Oh, come on, give me a break”

During last week’s marathon Democratic “debate” about climate change, moderator Chris Cuomo asked the one question I (and probably every other person who works in the environmental movement) am incredibly tired of hearing: Do you want to ban plastic straws?

Elizabeth Warren had a much better answer than I usually muster – “Oh, come on, give me a break”.

It really gets me that we are led to believe that the only thing we can do about climate change is change our own behavior. If you Google “things you can do about climate change” you get a 167 million results. The first three pages are filled with tips like carpooling, walking more, buying better light bulbs, eating fewer burgers, and having fewer kids. 

All of this talk about straws, burgers, and light bulbs leave me wondering, “When did consumerism become our superpower?”

Sure, we can all do a better job of managing our consumption. And, these little acts can add up to something big. But, if we hope to make any progress addressing climate change (or any big environmental issue) we have to face the facts: most of the environmental problems we face stem from underlying systemic choices. For instance, we have chosen to incentivize oil refining and could choose to incentivize renewable energy sources. And, the truth is that changing how we produce energy would have far greater impact on climate change than you and I changing the light bulbs we use ever would.

In contrast to questioning if we should make it harder to use straws, a number of authors are having big conversations about how we prioritize climate change action. Each author has their own list of priorities, but most of the discussion centers on two challenges: the production of energy and food. Everyone seems to agree that changes in those two areas will have vast benefits for the planet.

And, while everyone seems to agree that we could make a difference, they all have a caveat. These are the areas we need to address IF we can find the political will.

How is it that we don’t have the political will? Well over 60% of Americans believe climate change is a real and present danger. Gallup is reporting that “less than half of Americans (46%) satisfied with government efforts to preserve the environment”. Nonetheless, the environment continues to linger outside of the key issues that spur voters to the polls.

This is the problem we need to solve.

It is time for us to stop being content to try to solve big problems by being better consumers. It is time to flex our real superpower: being CIVIC ACTORS.

If we want the policies of our communities to reflect our environmental values then we have to get off the sidelines and make our voices heard. Every day our elected officials at the city, state, and national levels are making choices that impact the environment. Sure, sometimes a city council will decide to ban plastic straws. If excited citizens can convince the city council to make it harder to drink a milkshake we can certainly convince elected officials to increase the use of solar power or overcome local concerns about windmills. We just need to make sure those who value the environment make their voices heard.