We Need to Build Our Climate Muscles

What do a presidential climate debate, gubernatorial executive orders, and kitchen table conversations have in common? They all help us build climate muscles.

One of the challenges of climate change is that it is big. The tendrils of climate change – both the work of reducing climate impacts and navigating impacts already underway – curl into almost everything. The cold beer you enjoy after work? It has the potential to go up in price given climate impacts on agricultural products such as barley. The financial system that underpins the value of the investments in your retirement savings? Thirty-six of the world’s central banks have gotten together to try to come to grips with climate-related risks to financial markets. The food we eat. How we get around. The buildings we inhabit. Our ability to navigate disaster. The lands we call home. The ability to manage chronic diseases like asthma. All of these things, and so much more, affect and are affected by climate change.

Given the bigness of climate change, a key question is how does our democracy come to grips with what climate change actually means? In other words, how do we collectively understand how climate change is already affecting us and how it will do so into the future? More importantly, how do we go about making sense of what it really means to consideration of climate change part of every relevant decision – as a society, as communities and individuals?

In answering these questions, I’ve started to think about the necessity of what I like to call climate muscle-building. Building muscle is a process that involves cycles of exertion and rest. With a disciplined practice, getting stronger is pretty much inevitable. When applied to democracies – and the communities, organizations, and individuals that make them up – building climate muscles can be thought of in much the same way. Getting better at dealing with climate change will take all kinds of cycles of exertion and reflection at multiple levels that will help us all build our collective muscles to address climate change.

Presidential Candidate Climate Debate

Let’s look at three examples of this muscle building to make this idea clearer: a presidential candidate climate debate, gubernatorial executive orders, and kitchen table conversations. 
Climate activists have been pushing for a climate-change-specific debate in the Democratic presidential primary, and for good reason. A climate debate would compel influential people to focus on climate change in ways never before seen in the United States. Media professionals, from producers to on-air talent, would have to come up with more than one or two questions about climate change. Maybe we’d even see some nuance! Candidates and campaign staff would have to go deep on climate policy, something only a handful of campaigns have done so far on climate.

“A climate debate would compel influential people to focus on climate change in ways never before seen in the United States.”

I’d hope for expect questions that elicit answers beyond support for rejoining the Paris Agreement and longer-term emissions reduction requirements. The two questions in particular I want answered are: how do you plan to reduce emissions in the next five years? And, how do your plans to address climate change ensure those most vulnerable to climate change are not only protected, but are also part of solutions and opportunities in addressing climate change?

And it’s not just candidates that are able to better grapple with climate change through a climate debate. It’s also the voters listening! And the American people overall. (Side note: not all Americans can vote. Young people, the incarcerated, permanent residents, etc.) The millions of people that would tune in to a climate debate would get a political education they’ve likely never had before. It would be a super-charge to our collective climate muscle-building. Just imagine how much more inspired and better-prepared those watching the climate debate would be to ask climate questions when a city council or state legislative candidate knocked on their door asking for a vote.

Gubernatorial executive orders

Every government agency has a role in addressing climate change. I’m talking about state-level agencies here because, well, I don’t have a lot of hope for presidential executive orders for a couple years.

Since I know my home government the best, let’s take a look at a few examples of how state agencies in Minnesota are addressing climate change. The Department of Health has a whole area of work focused on climate and heath. The Department of Natural Resources is working to ensure Minnesota remains home to cold water fish. The Department of Agriculture not only has proactive renewable energy programs, it also has programs to help farmers deal with disaster recovery and stress, both of which are made worse by climate change.

At a more basic level, it’s not clear leaders across state government understand what it will really take to drive emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed or how much effort (and money!) it will take to adapt to changes already underway.

While this is a lot of good work, not all Minnesota agencies are doing everything they can on climate change, and climate change cuts across agency work in ways not experienced before in state government. At a more basic level, it’s not clear leaders across state government understand what it will really take to drive emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed or how much effort (and money!) it will take to adapt to changes already underway.

This is where executive orders come in as key climate muscle-building tool. When an executive order is issued by a governor, it has the power and force of law. Executive orders don’t go through legislative processes to be enacted. According to the National Governors Association, the authority of governors to use executive orders varies by state, and examples of executive order use are:

  • “trigger emergency powers during natural disasters, energy crises, and other situations requiring immediate attention;
  • create advisory, coordinating, study, or investigative committees or commissions; and
  • address management and administrative issues such as regulatory reform, environmental impact, hiring freezes, discrimination, and intergovernmental coordination.”

All the examples can be used to address climate change! The first will become more likely under a changing climate, and the second two directly apply to building collective climate muscle-building.

So, what might that look like?

Governors across the country could issue executive orders to create climate commissions, which could function as platforms for the learning, dialogue, and planning needed to build our climate muscles. Depending on how it’s designed, a state commission could spur and focus climate work for state agencies and the state as a whole.

Addressing management issues is another exciting executive order possibility. Climate change will certainly impact how state government manages all kinds of things from the way it plans for infrastructure upgrades, to how it prioritizes public health investments, and the kinds of energy infrastructure it permits.

I daydream about gubernatorial executive orders on climate change. How about you?

As a Minnesotan, one of my dreams is to see Governor Walz issue two executive orders – one creating a climate resilience commission bringing together leaders across sectors, governments, generations, and communities to wrestle with climate change in a public, high-level way. The second would be to ask every state agency to come up with a plan for how to decarbonize its operations and those of its constituencies by 2030. While the order wouldn’t require decarbonization, it would enlist key people to grapple with fast decarbonization and spur important collective processes to address climate change. As a result, Minnesota would be much better prepared for what’s coming on climate.

Kitchen table climate conversations

So far, we’ve been talking pretty big-scale climate muscle-building, but smaller-scale is also important – as small as those intimate conversations around the kitchen table. I think about climate more than the average person, but I’m also in the thick of life with a toddler and parents who need my help.

In the midst of this busy phase of life, my husband and I have to intentional about making the time to build our climate muscles. For example, we recently bought an electric car (a Chevy Bolt, it’s amazing!), and it was a decision that involved many kitchen-table conversations. Together, we had to answer a bunch of questions. How much of a range do we need? How does the range affect our ability to continue being a one-car family? How do we figure out charging? What car fits these needs and our budget? Through this process, we both got smarter about not only electric cars (a key technology for climate solutions), but also the infrastructure that supports them. And by getting smarter, we got brave enough to actually take the step of buying the car.

What’s super cool is now that we have the car, I find myself spreading this knowledge to others. Just recently, I ran into a friend’s parents and showed them my electric car. I spent ten minutes raving about it and answering their questions about how the car worked. Together, we built our climate muscles just a bit more.

It’s a process

Given how big climate change is, navigating what’s to come will be a process. For me, it helps to think of this process as building climate muscles. The more each of us as individuals, leaders within communities, and citizens intentionally act to better understand how climate change plays out and what to do about it, the stronger we all become in the face of it.

Leave a Reply