In the wake of this divisive election that featured climate change as a break point issue, it is easy to assume that climate action will come to a screaming halt. How can we create consensus and momentum on this complex environmental puzzle when the country is so polarized? Our salvation comes from one convenient truth: most “climate solutions” are actually exactly what America wants and needs, regardless of climate change.
If you doubt this, think about air quality. One of the biggest co-benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels is cleaner air. China’s movement alongside the U.S. toward greater climate action has been driven in part by frustration among the Chinese people with serious air quality issues in cities. Similarly, here at home, some of the former industrial regions that voted most heavily for President-elect Donald Trump also suffer persistent air pollution. The same is true of America’s low-income city neighborhoods, often crowded by highways and industrial areas, which came out more heavily for Hillary Clinton. Continuing to develop a cleaner energy system that meets our power needs while generating less air pollution is good for everyone’s health—and good for climate change.
Another great example is forests. Here in the U.S., our forests and forest products capture and store 12-14 percent of our carbon emissions each year. One of the most effective climate interventions is to keep our forests as forests, and to manage them well. In places like the West where overgrown forests are creating fire hazards, we also need to restore forests so that they don’t threaten our homes and water supplies—and so that we don’t accelerate carbon emissions. The bi-products of this forest management can help drive further carbon reductions by fueling biomass energy.
Investing in our forests is not a painful solution—far from it. The rural areas that came out heavily for President-elect Trump are disproportionate beneficiaries of a stronger forest economy. As with other industries, our forest sector here at home is facing unprecedented global competition and other challenges. Creating incentives and investment to conserve our forests from development and then take action to make them as healthy and well-managed as possible will spin off lots of forest products, forest jobs, and carbon capture.
A third example is energy efficient and diverse transportation alternatives. Everyone—Republican and Democrat alike—detests sitting in traffic. Further, providing alternatives to car travel creates health and livability benefits with universal appeal, such as more calories burned and less time spent sitting. Investing in a fully integrated transportation system of safe and well-maintained roads, public transit, and walk-bike corridors will better our collective lifestyle, economy, and mood while reducing carbon emissions.
Finally, there is the opportunity to create more livable cities with “green infrastructure” like specially designed parks that capture stormwater, cool the urban environment, and protect us from flooding. Living in green neighborhoods is a pleasure, offering more visually beautiful and peaceful places to raise our families and operate businesses. As I wrote recently, green neighborhoods are also great for our health. Think of any city with an attractive riverwalk or park system, from red states and blue states alike—these are the cities where most urban Americans would prefer to live, and where some of our most robust economic growth is occurring.
Greening cities is also helping significantly with climate change by reducing energy use for water management and air conditioning, and protecting residents from climate-driven risks like flooding and heat. Another environmental co-benefit is that green infrastructure cleans urban waterways for everyone’s enjoyment—swimming and fishing are bi-partisan interests. Continuing to invest in urban greening is a no-regrets strategy, and in fact was embraced by voters across America on Tuesday night who approved new state and local funding measures in diverse states like South Carolina, Florida, California, and Massachusetts.
Identifying these natural opportunities for consensus is not to deny that we will have some tough conversations ahead about U.S. climate policy. Coming to agreement on our international responsibilities and our regulatory mechanisms will be difficult. But as we work on these thornier issues, we must continue to build climate momentum by moving on the convenient truths in climate change, those actions that can be easily embraced by all Americans. At this pivotal moment for global climate action, each step forward counts.