In 1969 or 1970, my family started recycling. This was a time when almost no one knew what recycling was, especially in the suburbs where I grew up.
A couple times per week, my mother would have me step on my father’s aluminum beer cans. I loved the crunch they made, and I liked to see how flat I could get them with the thick rubber sole of my Keds. I was also in charge or sorting our glass bottles by color into paper grocery bags. And then there were the newspapers. We subscribed to the San Francisco Chronicle, and I tried my best to bundle them with jute twine.
Once or twice a month, I’d help my father load the cans, bottles and newspapers into our VW bus. Then we’d drive 20 minutes to the recycling center in Berkeley. The recycling center was a place like no other: Men with beards and hair down their backs. Women with hair under their arms. The sound of bottles and cans being dumped into huge bins. The general vibe of friendliness and the freedom to be your true self. My seven-year-old self took it all in.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the young people running that recycling center were starting a revolution. What was originally derided as fringe or extreme or foolish idealism blossomed into nationwide recycling. Recycling became acceptable and “normal.”
Environmental ideas often seem extreme to the wider population but gain traction and acceptance over time. That was true with recycling 50 years ago, and it’s true with the climate emergency today.
Public Opinion Backs Climate Action
According to a study conducted by Yale in 2018, a decisive majority of Americans believe climate change is real and is caused by human activity. In fact, solid majorities in every single state believe global warming is happening, and majorities in every state but Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming believe that human activity is the cause. Importantly, most Americans want local, state, and federal elected officials to take action on the climate crisis.
Which brings us to the election this November. If you are among the majority of Americans, you want the government to do something about the climate emergency. The election gives you a clear opportunity to express your concerns about the climate and a whole range of related issues, including public health, environmental justice, mass migration, climate resilience, good-paying jobs and the economy in general.
It’s Not Just the Climate
Let’s take, for example, the first climate-related issue I mentioned: Public health. Just as Americans are concerned about climate change and want their leaders to take action, they are, understandably, very concerned about health and healthcare. Climate change is the world’s greatest health crisis, and the crisis is getting worse.
The likelihood of new pandemics, possibly more deadly than the coronavirus, is increasing right along with the earth’s rising temperature. Higher temperatures and increased rainfall—the hallmarks of climate change—facilitate the spread of vector-borne diseases by mosquitos and other insects.
You might think of the earth as having a fever, and it’s in desperate need of medicine to bring the fever down.
Voting for a Climate Cure
If we’re going to cure the patient and bring the fever under control, the first thing we have to do is vote. And who we vote for matters. If the election results go one direction, the Affordable Care Act will come under attack (again), and millions of Americans could very well lose their health insurance. At the same time, environmental regulations will be further weakened, and the government will promote the production and burning of fossil fuels. Such policies will increase the incidence of asthma and cancer, increase the likelihood of another pandemic, and increase extreme weather events that kill and injure thousands every year.
Or the election could go in a different direction. We could see expanded access to healthcare, and advance planning and preparedness for pandemics. We could see adoption of the Paris Agreement and greater international cooperation on climate issues. Perhaps we’d even see American universities and businesses leading the world in research, development, and deployment of new technologies and solutions to the climate crisis. And, yes, we could see tighter regulations and the closing of regulatory loopholes, which will rankle some industries but benefit many others.
Like healthcare, jobs and the economy are big concerns of most Americans. Moving toward a green economy, as some political candidates want to do, will generate good-paying, long-term jobs in new industries. These won’t just be desk jobs for Ivy-educated insiders. They’ll be jobs for former coal miners, gas pipeline workers, and oil riggers in or near their communities. They’ll be jobs for scientists and engineers, and jobs for electricians and construction workers. They’ll be jobs for people in the inner city whose needs have been neglected for too long. All those jobs will generate other jobs up and down the economy.
Remember, the election is not just about who the next President will be. There are U.S. Senate and House races, and numerous state and local races nationwide, all of which, taken together, can have enormous positive or negative consequences in our quest to end the climate emergency.
Do a Little More
That’s why we all need to do a little something extra this time around. As a start, talk to your friends, family, and neighbors about the importance of voting. It’s especially important to talk to people you know who usually don’t vote or think voting doesn’t make a difference or that nothing ever changes.
You can point out that the presidential election and many state and local races could be decided by just a few votes, or even just one vote (this does happen), so every vote does, indeed, count. And there’s a more diverse pool of candidates than ever: Most of us can find at least one candidate running for one office or another that we can identify with and support.
You can also help counteract voter suppression by volunteering with or sending money to organizations that help voters apply for mail-in ballots or get to the polls. Volunteering at a polling place is another way to help ensure a free and fair election.
It’s also not too late to volunteer for a candidate you like, either in your state or home district or somewhere else. Many campaigns and organizations need help with phone banks and social media, work that can be done safely from home.
Change feels scary and uncertain to many people. Change is hard, and it’s natural for people to resist it. Changemakers, like the idealistic people who started the recycling revolution when I was a kid, are called names and ridiculed and harassed. They sometimes are jailed. In the face of all that, they are courageous and tireless and dedicated.
Join me this November. Let’s vote and make change, together.