Making Progress on Climate in the Trump Years

Trump’s election is a huge setback for the transition away from fossil fuels.    Obama’s policy initiatives relating to oil and climate are very likely to be reversed.   Carbon taxes will not rise, the federal electric vehicle tax credit will be either terminated or allowed to expire, fleet efficiency standards will be lowered, and oil infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline will be given the green light.

Clearly, environmentalists must continue to defend these policies as best we can.  But playing defense is not enough:  we must also find a way to make progress during these years, so that oil consumption is less in 2020 than it is now.

While Trump and the oil companies are masters of the political process right now, consumer perception is much harder for them to control.  It is in this field–the consciousness and perception of consumers– that we have a lot of room to run. If we can turn consumers’ hearts, minds, and pocketbooks away from fossil fuels, we can make important progress on climate despite a Trump presidency.

At present, most people have only a vague, general understanding that gasoline usage contributes to climate change, and have little or no idea of the vast quantities of carbon and noxious pollution that spew from their car.   Driving a gasoline-powered car is still completely without stigma, even among committed environmentalists.   Few people understand that they dump 300 pounds of CO2 in the air with each tank of gasoline they use, and that unnecessary gasoline use is the moral and practical equivalent of littering.

How can accurate information about gasoline penetrate the public consciousness? How can the social acceptance of gasoline usage be altered?  These enormous communication challenges are similar to the challenges faced by anti-smoking activists in the 1970s and 1980s.  With respect to smoking, a steady stream of scientific information, combined with effective use of imagery depicting smoking’s ravages, helped turn the tide.

The same approach can be effective with respect to gasoline use—provide the public with a steady diet of the science and imagery of gasoline use. In the case of gasoline, we don’t need to or expect to convince the majority of people to abandon gasoline right away. Climate activists should focus initially on the low-hanging fruit—affluent, liberal consumers on the coasts who are concerned about climate change–95%+ of whom are still driving gasoline powered cars.  For these consumers, change will come not when they find themselves paying an extra $.25 a gallon for gasoline, but when they feel uncomfortable with themselves and face negative feedback from their social group for using gasoline.

By expanding the market for green technologies, conscious consumers will draw more investment to these areas, and improve green product offering in the coming years.  As the campaign gains traction, and people start to abandon gasoline usage, large oil infrastructure projects such as pipelines which rely on robust long-term oil consumption projections to gain financing will become infeasible.

An anti-gasoline campaign will also politicize consumers unhappy with their present sources of energy.  If consumers are confronted on a frequent basis with the destructive environmental impact of their gasoline use, many will demand that the political system provide them with options to switch to electric.  These pressures may initially be felt at the local level, where consumers will demand more and better access to charging infrastructure.  They will also energize legislative efforts to control carbon, and set the stage for a breakthrough in later years for robust carbon pricing and other necessary changes in laws affecting climate once Trump is out of office.

We can’t just play defense during the Trump years.  Rather, we need to find areas such as consumer consciousness where Trump can’t block us, and push hard to make changes which will pay dividends for the climate for many years to come.

-Matthew Metz