Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Seek Friendly Government Involvement

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Cover Courtesy Island Press
“Cooler Smarter,” by the Union of Concerned Scientists, is an empowering guide that shows which changes in our lifestyles will make the biggest difference to the climate. 

While routine decisions that shape our days — what to have for dinner, where to shop, how to get to work — may seem small, collectively they have a big effect on global warming. Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Island Press, 2012), based on a comprehensive two-year study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains how to make the biggest impact and when not to sweat the small stuff. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 11, “Making Government Work for Us.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cooler Smarter.

Making Government Work for Us

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

–Helen Keller

You have made a number of effective climate choices in your own life. You’ve spread the word to friends, family members, and coworkers. Now it’s time to make sure your elected officials hear your voice, too. From our cities or towns to state and federal government, officials are making decisions on our behalf and with our tax dollars. Put simply, these funds can be spent to improve our energy future or to impoverish it. Along the way, especially in Washington, DC, lobbyists help protect companies that benefit from continued reliance on coal, oil, and gas, regardless of its longterm impact on the environment or the U.S. economy, blocking renewable energy and delaying energy efficiency measures and other efforts to limit carbon emissions.

Listening to the rhetoric of oil, coal, and gas company executives, one might think they were champions of limited government and the free market. But in truth, fossil fuel companies are heavily subsidized. Their enormous profits would shrink considerably without federal support. According to a study by the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. government provided the industry with $72 billion between 2002 and 2008, mostly in the form of permanent tax credits for producers of oil, coal, and natural gas. That’s twice the total of direct subsidies and tax breaks that renewable energy received in the same period. If we hope to reduce carbon emissions, we need to reverse these priorities right away and devote our resources to developing clean energy instead of subsidizing emissions as usual.

Government has long played an active role in shaping our energy and transportation systems–from building enormous dams to creating the interstate highway system. Government funding for research and development on the jet engine even led directly to the technology for today’s gas-fired power plants. Government also plays an important role in creating market incentives by taxing or subsidizing goods and activities, hopefully in keeping with the wishes of its citizens. And government has had to step in and require automakers and power plants to clean up their act and cut emissions that cause asthma, lung disease, and cancer. With a problem of the magnitude of global warming, it makes sense for government to take a hands-on role in implementing solutions, along with citizens and businesses. Action at the state and national levels is a crucial component of any successful effort to drive down emissions.

As engaged citizens, we each have a vital role to play in spurring this government action along.

It has become popular in some quarters to attack government inefficiency and inaction, and, to be sure, there are plenty of discouraging examples of foot-dragging or worse on climate solutions and other environmental issues. The lack of a truly comprehensive binding international agreement on global warming is a disheartening setback. Closer to home, the inability of the U.S. Congress to pass a limit on global warming emissions, and the ongoing efforts by some in Congress to hamper the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions, point up the intense ideological divide and capitulation to corporate interests in Washington that too often keep our elected officials from safeguarding our future. Ultimately, any complete solution to the global warming problem will require us to get past gridlock to achieve a sensible national energy policy.

But despite inaction in Congress, the picture is more heartening than it might first appear. A variety of state and national policies–such as energy efficiency standards for appliances, buildings, and vehicles, and standards requiring the sale of renewable electricity and low-carbon fuels–are already resulting in emissions reductions. And, as we will discuss in more detail, you can help to strengthen and broaden these standards.

Equally important, state and local governments play a key role in shaping where our energy comes from and how it is used, issuing permits for new energy-generating facilities and making decisions about things such as building codes, zoning laws, regional access to transit, and regulation of electric utilities. State and local governments also serve as a critical proving ground for new ideas and approaches that could be scaled up. Promising programs are underway around the country, and your involvement can foster more of them. The key point, of course, is this: a single state or federal provision can lock in enormous reductions in emissions, far beyond what any of us could hope to accomplish individually. By getting involved in the formulation and implementation of government policies related to energy use and global warming, you can increase your impact many thousands of times over.

And when you do become more actively engaged in climate-related policies at the local, state, and national levels, you’ll be in good company. Many of the country’s best and most creative minds are working to address global warming. Scientists, engineers, technical experts, business executives, faith leaders, military planners, policy makers, and active citizens are working right now to reduce our emissions through a host of innovative strategies that can strengthen our economy and improve our health.

What Government Involvement Can Do 

How can our government help move us toward a low-carbon future? Think of the basic tools as carrots, sticks, and seeds. “Carrots,” or incentives, aim to encourage climate-friendly actions. “Sticks,” or rules with penalties to ensure compliance, prohibit actions that are outmoded, inefficient, or harmful. “Seeds,” or funding for research, development, and pilot projects, help spark and incubate innovative new technologies and techniques. When it comes to climate change, there are many potentially effective government options, but most fall into one of four major categories, all of which use carrots, sticks, and seeds:

1. Augment energy efficiency in our buildings, appliances, equipment, industries, and vehicles.

2. Build renewable energy capacity to ensure that an increasing portion of our electricity comes from clean, renewable sources.

3. Limit permissible levels of emissions by, for example, setting carbon standards for vehicles, fuels, power plants, refineries, and other major emitters, or by implementing a price on carbon.

4. Invest in research and development to develop new technologies that can help reduce emissions in the future.

To better understand how these strategies work in practice, let’s look briefly at some specific government programs in each category.

Efficiency Standards

Improving our energy efficiency is typically the fastest and easiest way to reduce carbon emissions. Energy efficiency programs are particularly appealing because they can yield significant reductions in emissions quickly and save money for consumers and businesses. An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists has shown in detail how efficiency measures using existing technology could cut total U.S. energy consumption by 29 percent by 2030. Previous chapters have shown how smart consumer decisions are an essential component of this process. But individual choices alone cannot work quickly enough to achieve the high level of energy efficiency and renewable energy use we need, especially if companies are not making those products and resources available to consumers. Government policies and programs are essential for overcoming the entrenched market barriers that currently impede our progress in combating global warming.

Appliances and Equipment. Government efficiency standards for appliances and equipment save energy by requiring that various new products achieve minimum levels of efficiency by a specific date. As more energy-efficient products enter the market, they replace older, less efficient models while still offering consumers a full range of options.

Efficiency standards have been one of the federal government’s most successful strategies for reducing energy consumption in homes and businesses since their inception more than two decades ago. By one estimate, the government’s efficiency standards in place by 2006 had already saved some 1.3 percent of the total energy that the nation would otherwise have used that year–equivalent to the total energy usage of some 6.6 million households.

The federal government has established minimum efficiency standards for many residential and commercial products, such as washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers, and air conditioners. Several states–including Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington–have augmented these standards with additional ones for products not covered by federal standards. Not only do each of us as consumers benefit from these standards, but we can also speak up and encourage our state to do more. State efficiency standards are reviewed regularly. By looking into what other states have done and urging our elected officials to strengthen our state’s standards and adopt new ones, we can help bring about even greater efficiency.

Remember that most manufacturers are fully capable of making their products a lot more energy efficient. But changes in their processes might incur modest costs–and the benefits will accrue only to consumers. So government has to prod manufacturers (as in those “sticks” above) to offer more efficient products; they will comply because they know that their competitors must abide by the same rules.

In addition to efficiency standards, many states have implemented a variety of “carrots” in the form of incentive programs, including rebates and tax exemptions for energy-efficient appliances and equipment. Make sure your elected state and federal officials know that you want to see more of these incentives to help lock in more efficiency for consumers and greater reductions in carbon emissions.

Energy Efficiency Codes for Buildings. Energy codes require all new residential and commercial construction to meet a set of minimum criteria for energy efficiency. Today, the most stringent codes are the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and Standard 90.1-2010 of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). These model codes are updated every three years, and states should require automatic review of the updates to ensure that their codes reflect the latest standards. Adopting more stringent energy efficiency codes over time ensures that builders deploy the most cost-effective technologies and best practices in all new construction.

If you care about green building, a good way to get involved is to learn about your state’s current building codes and urge your elected officials to aggressively implement the strictest and most up-to-date ones, so that new and remodeled buildings will be as energy efficient as possible. You can also encourage your state to go beyond building codes by promoting standards that set the bar even higher for energy efficiency, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system and the EPA’s Energy Star program for new homes. These programs, often called above-code standards, provide guidance and incentive for builders to be even more vigilant about energy efficiency than they might be otherwise.

The key point is that government has many ways to require or encourage more efficient uses of energy, and these can achieve enormous reductions in carbon emissions over time. Each area offers opportunities to get involved and maximize our impact on global warming. Let’s discuss a few other important efficiency programs before moving on.

Energy Efficiency Resource Standards. Some 26 states have enacted programs, called Energy Efficiency Resource Standards, that require utilities to save energy according to a specified schedule. To meet the state’s requirements, utilities can choose either to undertake a program to get consumers to adopt energy-efficient technology or to integrate more efficient technology into their own mix of power generation. Either way, these standards reduce emissions by mandating that utilities use (or generate) power more efficiently.

Find out from your elected officials whether your state has strong Energy Efficiency Resource Standards. If not, make sure they know that this issue is important to you. You can pursue this issue at the federal level as well. Already a number of other countries, including France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, have adopted national Energy Efficiency Resource Standards; the United States should adopt a national standard, too. Such a national standard would require electricity and natural gas providers to meet targets for reducing their customers’ energy use, spurring utilities to increase their investments in efficiency. Your vocal support, and the active engagement of others like you, is needed to help persuade Congress to enact such a national standard.

Transportation Efficiency. More than 30 years ago, in response to a crippling oil embargo, the federal government created a set of fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. If car makers did not meet the standards, they were subject to a fine (those “sticks” again). By any measure, the standards have been a remarkable success. Without them, today’s consumers would be stuck with the same fuel economy choices available in the 1970s, when vehicles averaged around 15 miles per gallon on government tests, with disastrous costs to the economy and environment.

Although fuel economy standards are still saving consumers money, they stagnated for nearly 20 years until 2007, when Congress began to toughen them by requiring that America’s cars and trucks average at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020. According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, if Congress hadn’t delayed the adoption of tougher standards between 1998 and 2011, U.S. consumers could have consumed 130 billion fewer gallons of gasoline during that period, sparing the planet nearly 1.65 billion tons of global warming emissions from vehicles. That’s equivalent to the total emissions from all U.S. automobiles in 2010.

Today, the government is finalizing the next generation of standards for fuel efficiency and global warming pollution, covering new cars and trucks from 2017 through the 2025 model year, with measures requiring automakers to move annually toward fuel economy standards of about 50 miles per gallon and per-mile carbon reductions of about 50 percent below today’s levels by 2025. Analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the combination of these new standards with ones covering new vehicles through 2016 will cut U.S. oil consumption by nearly 4 million barrels per day in 2030–about as much as we currently import from the Persian Gulf and Africa combined. In 2030, the two sets of standards will ultimately combine to prevent some 770 million tons of emissions from being released into our atmosphere–the equivalent of shutting down more than 160 coal-fired power plants.

Generating Electricity From Clean, Renewable Sources

In addition to fostering greater energy efficiency, government has a vital role to play in determining where our energy comes from. Along these lines, one of the most powerful arrows in the government’s quiver is the Renewable Electricity Standard (sometimes called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, as in a utility’s energy mix, or “portfolio”). As described below, this market-friendly standard can be one of the most powerful tools we’ve discussed yet to hasten our shift toward clean, renewable energy.

Renewable Electricity Standards. Renewable electricity standards require utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable power sources by a specific date. Since the late 1990s, national and local clean energy groups have worked with state legislators around the country to pass these standards, and today 29 states have mandatory programs. These programs work by allowing multiple renewable energy technologies to compete with one another in the marketplace so that utilities can choose the most cost-effective options first. By requiring a clear and firm target date, the laws offer certainty to investors and developers of renewables while helping utilities move away from older, carbon-intensive sources of energy.

More than two-thirds of the states that have enacted mandatory standards have already raised or accelerated their requirements. Existing renewable standards now lock in the use of enough clean power by 2025 to meet the electricity needs of some 47 million typical homes and reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to taking more than 30 million cars off the road.

As the map shows, some 29 states and the District of Columbia have established mandatory renewable electricity standards, while seven states have adopted voluntary renewable energy goals. If your state has no such standard or one that is weak or voluntary, your input could make an important difference in passing a stronger measure. Inform your state officials about the positive difference the laws have made elsewhere and how successful they have been in spurring the development of clean, renewable sources of energy. We’ll look more closely at California’s new renewable electricity standard–the toughest in the nation–in a moment.

The success of renewable electricity standards in states as diverse as Texas, Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina also makes a compelling argument for Congress to pass a national standard–another effort where your voice can make an important difference in prompting needed government action.

Federal Renewable Energy Tax Incentives. Although the United States has thus far failed to adopt a national Renewable Electricity Standard, federal tax incentives have been important “carrots” driving renewable energy development over the past decade, especially in wind power. Production and investment tax credits help defray the upfront costs of installing renewable energy technologies and help level the playing field with fossil fuel and nuclear technologies, which historically have received much greater tax subsidies.

Unfortunately, while the subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries are mostly permanent, federal renewable energy tax credits have suffered from on-again, off-again extensions, resulting in a boom-and-bust cycle that injects needless uncertainty into the financing and construction of planned projects and raises their costs. For example, federal tax credits for solar power are currently in place through 2016, but those for wind power and other technologies are set to expire at the end of 2012. Here again, you have an important opportunity to pitch in. Call and write to your congressperson and senators and urge them to support permanent, aggressive tax incentives to speed the development of more renewable generating capacity.

What else can the government do? The following sections are for those looking for additional pressure points in current government energy policies.

Low-Carbon Fuel Standards

While some oil companies are making token investments in biofuels and hydrogen, they have yet to provide significant quantities of low-carbon fuel choices at the pump. Federal and state governments can do something about that by requiring the carbon content of fuels sold to drop over time and by fining companies if they fail to get better choices on the market.

California already has regulations on the books requiring a 10 percent reduction in the carbon content of gasoline by 2020–either directly or by running cars on low-carbon biofuels, natural gas, hydrogen, or electricity. Meanwhile, states in the Northeast are considering a clean fuel standard that would deliver similar benefits. The federal government does have a requirement called the Renewable Fuel Standard, but so far the requirements for truly low-carbon biofuels have been effectively waived every year. More states need to follow California’s lead, with an ultimate goal of federal adoption and implementation.

Net Metering

If generation of renewable electricity from rooftop solar photovoltaic panels and other small-scale technologies is ever to become truly viable, it will require what is known in the energy field as “net metering,” which allows customers to sell electricity back to the grid. For those who have solar panels on their house, for instance, net metering lets the excess electricity they generate flow into the grid, making their electric meters run backward and thereby lowering their electricity bills. Forty-five states have at least one utility that permits customers to sell electricity back to the grid, but only 18 states require all their utilities to offer net metering. Here again, a government policy can mandate a straightforward change that would make technologies such as small-scale photovoltaic systems much more desirable and feasible in the short term. If your state doesn’t require net metering, tell your elected officials how effectively it is working elsewhere and urge them to follow suit.

Feed-In Tariffs

One change in state electricity regulations, known as a “feed-in tariff,” could also greatly aid the spread of clean energy by guaranteeing that those who install solar panels on their roof or a wind turbine in their backyard will be paid a fixed rate for the electricity they generate over a set number of years. A multiyear guarantee, at a rate above the current price for electricity, ensures that homeowners, businesses, and other institutions can safely invest in small-scale renewable energy and speedily recoup their initial costs. Only a handful of states and utilities have adopted such price guarantees in this country, but the policy has been successfully adopted elsewhere in the world and has helped countries such as Germany and Spain become leaders in solar energy.

Emissions Reduction Targets and Limits

We’ve talked about programs to require or encourage efficiency and programs to augment renewable generating capacity. Many states, individually or in concert with their neighbors, are also implementing emission reduction targets and limits. Let’s briefly review how some of these efforts work. Some 23 states have adopted statewide emissions reduction goals for utilities and industry. The programs vary in their strictness and timetables, but having enforceable statewide limits will help ensure that states meet global warming emissions goals.

Oregon and Washington, for instance, have passed laws requiring that new power plants either reduce carbon emissions on their own or offset a certain portion of their anticipated emissions by paying a fee to an independent organization, which will then select and fund offset projects such as the development of renewable energy or the planting of trees. These states and others, including California, now deny long-term contracts for energy produced by power plants that emit more than a certain amount of carbon per unit of electricity, thus giving the utilities an incentive to reduce emissions.

Some states are also banding together to limit emissions. The leading effort in this regard is called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”) is a collaborative effort of ten northeastern and mid-Atlantic states to limit emissions from power plants in those states, reducing emissions by 10 percent below 2009 levels by 2018. Sales of emissions permits under RGGI have generated more than $880 million since the program’s launch in 2009, most of which the states have invested in energy efficiency projects, to great effect. Another major program, the California Cap-and-Trade Program (often referred to as AB 32), is set to begin in 2012. AB 32’s overall goal is to reduce the state’s emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Emissions Standards

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the EPA is empowered, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate global warming emissions from major sources in order to protect public health from the dangers of unchecked climate change. As of this writing, the EPA’s authority to regulate these emissions has come under strong attack in Congress. Despite this, 2010 saw the first-ever national global warming emissions standards finalized for new cars and trucks sold from 2012 through 2016, with even stricter standards through 2025 expected by the summer of 2012. And as of 2011, the EPA has pledged to issue carbon performance standards for power plants and refineries to ensure that these facilities limit their emissions and that we begin the transition to cleaner energy sources.

Other Programs

Here are a few other government programs with important implications for combating global warming.

Public Benefit Funds. Almost half of U.S. states have funds, often called public benefit funds, dedicated to supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy projects by collecting a small charge on the bill of every electric customer. With this steady stream of funding, states can provide money for projects such as energy assistance for low-income households, weatherization programs, investment in renewable energy technologies, and subsidies for efficient appliances.

Targeted Research and Development Funding. Government funding for research and development (R&D) in clean energy technologies can foster innovation, help lower the costs of renewable technologies, and accelerate their use (as in those “seeds” discussed earlier). For years, research grants and incubator programs for clean energy startup companies have advanced the performance of emerging renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and have lowered their costs. Such programs have, in most cases, proven to be a sound investment of taxpayer dollars, with lifetime economic benefits typically far exceeding their initial cost, particularly in energy-efficient technologies. Encourage your elected officials to support greater funding of R&D in clean energy at both the federal and state levels.

Putting It All Together 

Most of the government programs and standards we have reviewed so far address specific aspects of energy efficiency and renewable energy. But some government efforts seek to tackle the problem of global warming more broadly.

Climate Action Plans

Many states that have implemented programs to reduce their global warming emissions have benefited from adopting Climate Action Plans, which lay out goals and targets. These plans help state decision makers identify cost-effective and appropriate ways to reduce global warming emissions. To date, some 36 states have completed comprehensive Climate Action Plans or are in the process of revising or developing them. In addition, more than half of all U.S. states have set up advisory boards or commissions to develop and implement Climate Action Plans.

Find out if your state has a Climate Action Plan, and if it does, review an online copy of it to identify upcoming issues on which you can work to keep your state on track. If your state has yet to make such a plan, encourage your elected officials to create one, drawing on the wealth of good ideas in existing plans around the country.

Pricing Carbon

All of the innovative policies outlined above share one key attribute: they reduce carbon emissions to help forestall the worst consequences of global warming. All of them can make a big difference as we make the transition as quickly as possible to a more efficient energy system run largely on renewable sources. Even with these initiatives, though, the fact is, the time is long overdue for the federal government to set stringent limits on carbon emissions. Currently, it doesn’t cost a dime for anyone–a homeowner, a driver, a power plant, or a concrete factory–to dump unlimited amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, even though there is overwhelming evidence that these emissions are harmful to the health of life on our planet. One way or another, that has got to stop.

There are two major approaches for limiting carbon emissions. One approach, a carbon tax, makes companies pay on the basis of the volume of emissions they generate, with the tax providing an incentive to reduce emissions. A carbon cap, on the other hand, sets a limit on emissions and typically requires that companies buy permits for their emissions. Set up as a cap-and-trade system, these permits can be traded between companies, although the overall amount of permits remains fixed. Companies that find ways to curb their emissions more cheaply are rewarded and can trade with those that find it more costly and thus have to pay higher permit fees. The price on carbon is also an incentive for entrepreneurs to invent and commercialize new low-carbon technologies. The revenues generated under either a tax approach or a cap-and-trade approach can be used for public purposes. For example, they could be used to fund efficiency and renewable energy programs or to help lower-income families cope with rising energy prices, or they could be returned to the public in the form of a dividend.

To be successful, any carbon-pricing approach must be well designed. Loopholes must be minimized so that the planned reductions in emissions actually happen. The program’s reduction goals must be strong, and they must be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that the reductions achieved successfully avoid the serious risks identified by the latest science.

No matter what technique is ultimately adopted, the core idea is this: carbon emissions have a cost and should have a price. Given the grave threats posed to our health and livelihoods, people (and companies) should not be allowed to freely emit unlimited amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

What Can You Do? 

We’ve reviewed a smorgasbord of government policies that can help fight global warming by reducing carbon emissions. All of them play an important role. If you want to know what you can do to influence your government’s climate policies, the answer is simple: make your voice heard. More than anything, what is needed now is a concerted effort from the ground up to communicate that for the benefit of our children and grandchildren, we need our elected officials to address global warming now and put in place sensible policies to hasten our transition to a low-carbon future.

Whenever possible, the best option is to establish one-on-one contact with our elected leaders, letting our city, state, and federal officials know how strongly we feel about the need to combat global warming through firm government action. Only if they receive this information from many quarters will they be pushed to take the necessary steps. This is not to suggest that you deluge your legislators with letters and phone calls throughout the year. Rather, now that you have learned more about the issues involved, try to contact them strategically–in relation to relevant community events or pending votes–and encourage others to do the same.

A personal e-mail may be the easiest way to get your message across, but individual telephone calls and letters have even more impact. And attending legislators’ office hours, in-district meetings, or town hall-type events are great ways to let them know how much you care about climate action.

When you contact federal legislators, remember that printed letters can now take four to six weeks to reach their offices because of security procedures for mail handling. Phone calls are the best method of communication when an issue is urgent, such as a pending vote on a climate- or energy-related topic. Just a couple of phone calls to an office over a short period of time can bring an issue to the attention of your legislator and have a surprisingly large impact. Staff members on Capitol Hill routinely report that legislators pay close attention to–and are sometimes even swayed to change their vote by–the number of constituent calls they receive on an issue. Here are some tips to consider when you do call your legislator.

Call congressional offices directly or through the switchboard. If you do not have the direct number, you can reach U.S. representatives by calling 202-225-3121, and you can reach U.S. senators by calling 202-224-3121. Ask the operator to connect you to a particular legislator’s office. Phone numbers for most federal, state, and local officials–as well as valuable information about their positions on issues and their staff members–are available on their websites.

Ask to speak to the aide who handles energy and climate issues. Your call will be more influential if you speak to the correct staff member. But don’t be discouraged if you can’t reach him or her directly; congressional aides are frequently very busy. Just leave your message with the receptionist or on the aide’s voicemail, stating your views. Remember, polite persistence is always the most effective strategy for voicing your views.

Plan your call: know your facts, note your expertise, and be brief. Make sure to let the legislator know you are a constituent. Prepare and practice your main message in advance to be sure you’ll cover everything you want to say.

Be timely–call when a vote is imminent. National and local advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists work continually on climate and energy issues. These organizations can be a great help in letting you know when a vote is coming up on a specific piece of legislation or when your input can be particularly helpful. You will find a wealth of information at, and you can join an e-mail list to be kept up-to-date on the latest developments.

Let them know what you think after a vote, too. Legislative offices take particular note of constituents’ responses to votes. A vocal reaction from a number of voters sends a strong signal about whether the legislator’s stance on climate and energy issues is politically viable or risky. This makes it equally important to express your thanks for a positive vote on an energy issue as well as your displeasure about one that is negative.

Communicate Effectively

As you become more involved in climate action at the local, state, and federal levels, it is worth noting that there has never been an easier time to spread the word. Websites, e-mail, blogs, Facebook, Google, Twitter, texting, YouTube, podcasts, and more–today each one of us has tools to communicate quickly and continually with people we know and to reach out to others.

There is no limit to the ways in which you can use these technological tools in the fight for a low-carbon future. You can keep close track of government initiatives and find out where you can pitch in. You can share your personal experiences–both successes and challenges–as you work to reduce your personal emissions. You can organize events and engage others in political action. As we have seen in the Middle East, the latest communication and social networking tools have even helped people rise up against oppressive regimes. If these tools can work for those ends, they can certainly aid in the effort to reduce global warming emissions.

With the myriad of online tools, though, it’s important not to forget traditional media. Remember that all means of communication, from public conversations to press coverage, can help you engage with others to put pressure on elected officials.

Writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, for instance, is still one of the most effective and efficient ways to reach a large audience both online and off. Letters are printed on the editorial page, which is always one of the most-read pages. Not only will you reach daily newspaper readers; community leaders and congressional staffers also keep a close eye on local papers to see what issues are important to their constituents. To increase the likelihood that your letter will be printed, follow these simple rules:

• Respond to a specific article.
• Be timely (write within a day or two).
• Refer by name to the legislator or corporation you are trying to influence.
• Write briefly and clearly.
• Make your letter a call to action.
• Mention your relevant professional expertise.
• Follow the publication’s guidelines closely, including contact information and word count–typically under 200 words.

To increase a letter’s impact after it is published, clip it out of the paper and mail it to specific decision makers along with a short cover note.

Turning your community actions on reducing emissions into “news” is another way to publicize the importance of this issue. Getting local media to cover your story or come to an event isn’t really difficult. Let’s say you are organizing an energy efficiency barn raising or planning a local petition drive that you’d like the local paper to cover. All you need is a media advisory and some time to make a few phone calls. Your advisory should be a short, one-page notice about the event or initiative explaining what it is and where and when it will take place. Be sure to include your name and contact information so the reporter can call or e-mail you for more details. It’s important to send your media advisory out at least a week in advance to give reporters time to add your event to their busy schedules.

Whatever methods you use, the key thing is to engage with your elected officials as actively as you can and to publicly lend your voice to the expanding efforts to reduce emissions and build a more sustainable future.

The Case of California 

We end this chapter with a case study that shows both the power of an engaged citizenry and the great difference those bureaucratic-sounding government standards can actually make.

California won an important climate victory in April 2011, when it enacted a landmark renewable electricity standard requiring the state’s utilities to provide at least one-third of their electricity from clean and saferenewable sources, such as the wind and the sun, by the year 2020. The new standard creates the most aggressive renewable energy requirement in the country and positions California as a national leader in clean energy investment. In fact, according to an estimate by the Union of Concerned Scientists, with the new law in place, California, given its size, will very likely produce more than one-quarter of all the required renewable energygeneration in the nation by 2020. That is, unless other states follow its laudable example in the meantime.

In short, California’s new standard represents an enormous victory as the nation moves toward a clean-energy economy that will reduce the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Of course, California has often led all the other states on climate change and environmental issues. The state’s carbon emissions per capita– including the emissions from coal-fired electricity imported from other states–are already about 40 percent below the U.S. average. In part, no doubt, the state’s mostly mild climate is responsible for this outstanding performance. But climate alone cannot account for such a significant disparity: a lot of the credit goes to the state’s energy and environmental policies–and to the citizens and organizations that have worked hard over the years to implement them.

As it turns out, citizen involvement was crucial to the passage of California’s new renewable electricity standard, and the Union of Concerned Scientists was the lead group advocating for an aggressive standard. Laura Wisland, an energy analyst in the California office of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains that early in 2011, the organization helped mobilize members to call their elected officials and urge them to take up the issue in the legislature that spring. Before the legislators could become bogged down in other matters, the organization’s members and staff called and met in person with leaders in both houses to demonstrate the popular sense of urgency about the issue.

Shortly after this initial citizen-led push, the California State Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce (the first committee to handle the energy bill) held a special hearing to place the issue firmly on the legislative agenda. With help from technical experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, citizens successfully built support for a tough new standard from a broad range of stakeholders, meeting regularly with leading elected officials and engaging the media to report on the issue.

It took lots of hard work, but the payoff from this citizen involvement will be enormous. By generating one-third of its electricity from renewable sources, California will help lead the way to a lower-carbon future for all Americans.

With a concerted effort, you can help make similar changes in your state’s approach to climate change. In fact, as you begin to engage with your elected officials and make your voice heard at the local, state, and federal levels, you’ll be amazed at the difference your involvement can make.

Read more: Check out How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint and Reduce Carbon Emissions: Sweat the Right Stuff for more from Cooler Smarter.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living published by Island Press, 2012.Buy this book from our store:Cooler Smarter.

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