Why Democracy Itself Undermines Climate Action

Unless majorities view climate change a higher priority, we can’t really do much about transportation emissions.

Gasoline (and diesel) is our “energy miracle”. Gifting us a virtually unlimited capacity to cover vast distance, it catalyzed global economies. It’s the market heavyweight that emerged in the early 20th Century of democratic countries; an elixir that sealed the deal of a love affair with the private automobile (among other things).

In such a world, wanting affordable mobility for the masses, gasoline provided that scalable ingredient. It was quickly recognized as an ideal fuel for propelling cars; nature’s perfect gift. Infinitely storable, transportable and unflaggingly convenient, it is super energy dense by both weight and volume, at 131.76 megajoules of energy density per gallon.

This “energy”, in comparison to battery tech, says Fred Schlachter, where stored energy in gasoline is 47.5 MJ/kg and 34.6 MJ/liter, pales in comparison to a lithium ion battery pack at .03 MJ/kg and about 0.4 MJ/liter” equals to around 100 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery (Chevy Volt). Of course, the difference in energy density is partially offset by the very high efficiency of an electric motor.

But I’m not getting all wonky about the relative and numerous merits of EV technology, or the need for other low carbon modes of transportation; not to mention, a workable carbon tax that reflects the entire cost people pay when combusting gasoline.

More about these latent external costs in a moment.

It’s more the absence of political will — a shred of political backbone, really — that would urgently be directing these policies by now; beyond the familiar echos of political polarization on climate science that I’m talking about.

We already have electric vehicles that will go 500 miles per charge, but most Americans wouldn’t buy one. It’s as if you could keep throwing people the coolest, wiz-bang, low-carbon transport tech and there would remain predictably, a persistent cultural absence of a climate-change rationale that make these options, well, the better option.

Sure, majorities of people these days hold climate change as an “issue of concern”, and this is great. But consider the best-selling vehicle in America, a title given the Ford f-150 super-crew pickup truck. For around the ultra-affordable price of $27,000, you can head off on a 468 mile road trip on a single full-tank of gas, with all kinds of support systems at the ready, to keep this gas guzzler running uninterrupted, more or less, the next 30 years.

All that freedom is cheap too; $57 per fill-up on the current average gasoline price, which a typical Ford f-150 buyer can easily afford; and better, this rig is insribed with beaucoup levels of manly autonomy!

It would seems obvious then, given the fact that most Americans continue to rank climate change down near the bottom of policy priorities, that they would naturally resist efforts to reduce their gasoline consumption. And why shouldn’t they? Gasoline helped average people conquer distance and time. That’s really good.

Climate Change is a Problem | But Gasoline Allows us to Live

Remember France’s gasoline carbon tax experiment that led to over 4,000 police and civilian injuries in late 2018? That experiment drove a populist revolt, even though many of the “Yellow vests” believed climate change was bad and oddly, that people needed to do something about it.

Efforts to tax the unparalleled energy resource (referring back to top of story) in this case, tapped into a cultural zeitgeist. Seen as an attack on people’s lifeblood — being “out of gas” is often referred to in the same vane as being out of commission — the government of France tapped into deeply ingrained and libertarian notions of autonomy.

Advances in technology may well serve to tip the scales of popularity in favor of electric vehicles, but let’s consider this notion when it comes to majority views about climate change. Without making climate change more culturally salient, these innovations are largely illegible; as trusty old gas is already serving all of our needs and more, thank you very much.

Uncle Bill’s F-150

My Uncle Bill used to shuttle me back and forth from ski lessons on Friday night, as a kid, in upstate New York . He was a successful contractor and to me, godlike. He used to pay me $20 a day to help clean up around his construction sites. That’s a hundred bucks in today’s money! Raised by a single mom, that amount blew my mind!

It was the 1970’s during the last New Ice Age. Freezing my ass off — skiing at night is cold — I would start anticipating getting into that warm and cozy pickup. Once in, thawing painfully, I remember listening to The Police playing on his cassette in the car, the lyrics “his car was warm, and dry” from Don’t Stand So Close To Me, blinking inside the cabin.

Not to make my uncle out as a creep.

Anyway, that 4-wheel-drive f-150 got me back and forth and in bed by 9:30pm. A 45-mile drive often through a foot of snow before the snowplows came. But the gasoline that powered it made it possible for a (lower) middle-class kid skiing in used equipment, to get good at a decidedly upper-class sport.

Gasoline reliably got me to ski lessons, but it also allowed me to transcend social class. That’s some powerful democratic shit!

Carbon Democracy

In the book Carbon Democracy: political power in the age of oil, leading advanced countries function as oil states, deriving their current form of political and economic life from carbon fuels, with their citizenry having developed ways of eating, traveling, housing and entertaining themselves that require very large amounts of energy from the extraction of fossil fuels.

Modern democracy, the author explains, “forged a political consciousness which fought for more egalitarian and democratic collective lives,” while carbon energy provided the means for assembling effective democratic claims. Carbon energy produces higher living standards and has the potential to expand democratic freedoms, which makes it intricately tied to democratic politics and to the history of liberal democracies.

Freedom = Fossil-Free Lives

In my last article, I argued the need for government to regulate the fossil fuel industry. And that market forces alone are not closing the enormous gap between the present utility of gasoline and the urgent need for low-carbon modes of transportation.

In short, market forces alone don’t deliver us the policies that will enable the rapid growth of low-carbon transportation. These policies will depend on their political acceptance, which in turn, will depend on majorities who start to see climate change as more and more an untenable risk.

It would make equal sense then to deploy cultural modes (e.g. climate and public health warning labels on gas pumps) in order to illicit a broader cultural response our hidden problem with fossil fuels.

To give low-emissions alternatives some equal rights.

Mitchell, T. (2011). Carbon democracy: political power in the age of oil. Verso Books, United Kingdom.

Founder of the non-profit, Think Beyond the Pump. The group promotes a climate/public health warning label on all points of fossil purchase.

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