Pines and firs are dying across the Pacific Northwest, fires rage across the Amazon, it’s the hottest it’s ever been in Paris—climate change is impacting the whole planet, and things are not getting any better. You want to do something about climate change, but you’re not sure what.
If you do some research you might encounter an essay by Bret Victor—What can a technologist do about climate change? There’s a whole pile of good ideas in there, and it’s worth reading, but the short version is that you can use technology to “create options for policy-makers.”
Thing is, policy-makers aren’t doing very much.
So this essay isn’t about technology, because technology isn’t the bottleneck right now, it’s about policy and politics what you can do about it. It’s still written for software developers, because that’s who I write for, but also because software developers often have access to two critical catalysts for political change. And it’s written for software developers in the US, because that’s where I live, and because the US is a big part of the problem.
But before I go into what you can do, let me tell you the story of a small success I happened to be involved in, a small step towards a better future.
About a year ago I spent some of my mornings handing out pamphlets to bicycle riders. I looked like an idiot: in order to show I was one of them I wore my bike helmet, which is weirdly shaped and the color of fluorescent yellow snot.
After finding an intersection with plenty of bicycle riders and a long red light that forces them to stop, I would do the following:
It was boring, and not very glamorous.
I was one of just many volunteers, and besides gathering signatures we also held rallies, had conversations with city councilors and staff, wrote emails, talked at city council meetings—it was a process. The total effort took a couple of years (and I only joined in towards the end)—but in the end we succeeded.
We succeeded in having the council pass a short ordinance, a city-level law in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ordinance states that whenever a road that was supposed to have protected bike lanes (per the city’s Bike Plan) was rebuilt from scratch, it would have those lanes built by default.
Now, clearly this ordinance isn’t going to solve climate change. In fact, nothing Cambridge does as a city will solve climate change, because there’s only so much impact 100,000 people can have on greenhouse gas emissions.
But while in some ways this ordinance was a tiny victory in a massive war, if we take a step back it’s actually more important than it seems. In particular, this ordinance has three effects:
Let’s examine these effects one by one.
About 43% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts are due to transportation; for the US overall it’s 29% (ref). And that means cars.
The reason people in the US mostly drive cars is because all the transportation infrastructure is built for cars. No bike lanes, infrequent, slow and non-existent buses, no trains… Even in cities, where other means of transportation are feasible, the whole built infrastructure sends the very strong message that cars are the only reasonable way to get around.
If we focus on bicycles, our example at hand, the problem is that riding a bicycle can be dangerous—mostly because of all those cars! But if you get rid of the danger and build good infrastructure—dedicated protected bike lanes that separate bicycle riders from those dangerous cars—then bicycle use goes up.
Consider what Copenhagen achieved between 2008 and 2017 (ref):
|# of seriously injured cyclists||121||81|
|% who residents who feel secure cycling||51||77|
|% who cycle to work/school||37||49|
With safer infrastructure for bicycles, perception of safety goes up, and people bike more and drive less. Similarly, if you have frequent, fast, and reliable buses and trains, people drive less. And that means less carbon emissions.
In Copenhagen the number of kilometers driven by cars was flat or slightly down over those 10 years—whereas in the US, it’s up 6-7% (ref).
The changes in Copenhagen are a result of a plan the city government there adopted in 2011 (ref): they’re the result of a policy action. And the political will was there in part because there were already a huge number of bicycle riders. So it’s a positive feedback loop, and a good one.
Let’s see how this is happening in Cambridge:
If Copenhagen can reach 50% of residents with a bicycle commute, so can Cambridge—and the ordinance is a good step in that direction.
The Cambridge ordinance passed in April 2019—and the idea is spreading elsewhere:
All of this is the result of local advocacy—but I’ve no doubt Cambridge’s example helped. It’s always easier to be the second adopter. And the examples from these larger localities will no doubt inspire other groups and cities, spreading the idea even more.
Bike infrastructure is just an example, not a solution—but there are three takeaways from this story that I’d like to emphasize:
By politics I don’t just mean having an opinion or voting for a candidate, but rather engaging in the process of how policy decisions are made.
Merely having an opinion doesn’t change anything. For example, two-thirds of Cambridge residents support building more protected bike lanes (ref). But that doesn’t mean that many protected lanes are getting built—the neighboring much smaller city of Somerville is building far more than Cambridge.
The only reason the city polled residents about bike lanes is because, one suspects, all the fuss we’d been making—emails, rallies, meetings, city council policy orders—made the city staff wonder if bike infrastructure really had a lot of public support or not.
Voting results in some change, but not enough. Elected officials and government staff have lots and lots of things to worry about—if they’re not being pressured to focus on a particular issue, it’s likely to fall behind.
What’s more, the candidates you get to vote for have to get on the ballot, and to do that they need money (for advertising, hiring staff, buying supplies). Lacking money, they need volunteer time.
And it’s much easier for a small group of rich people to provide that support to the candidates they want—so by the time you’re voting, you only get to choose between candidates that have been pre-vetted (I highly recommend reading The Golden Rule to understand how this works on a national level).
In the end power is social. Power comes from people showing up to meetings, people showing up for rallies, people going door-to-door convincing other people to vote for the right person or support the right initiative, people blocking roads and making a fuss.
And that takes time and money.
So if you want to change policy, you need to engage in politics, with time and money:
Here are some policies you might be interested in:
If you are going to become an activist, the local level is a good starting point.
Of course, local organizing is just the starting point for creating change on the global level. But you have to start somewhere. And global change is a lot easier if you have thousands of local organizations supporting it.
Let’s get back to our starting point—you’re paid to write software, you want to do something about climate change. As a software developer you likely have access to the inputs needed to make political campaigns succeed—both candidate-based and issue-based:
If you don’t have children or other responsibilities, you can work a 40-hour workweek, leaving you time for other things. Before I got married I worked full-time and went to a local adult education college half-time in the evenings: it was a lot of work, but it was totally doable. Set boundaries at your job, and you’ll have at least some free time for activism.
You can also negotiate a shorter workweek, which is possible in part because software developers are in such demand. I’ve done this, I’ve interviewed people who have done it, I’ve found many random people on the Internet who have done it—it is possible.
If you need help doing it yourself, I’ve written a book to help you negotiate a shorter workweek. If you want to negotiate a shorter workweek so you have time for political activism, you can use the code
FIGHTCLIMATECHANGE to get the book for 60% off.
Things do change, for better and for worse, and sometimes unexpectedly. To give a couple of examples:
The timelines for gay marriage and cannabis legalization in the US are illuminating: these things didn’t just happen, it was the result of long, sustained activist efforts, much of it at the local level.
Local changes do make a difference.
So are all our software tools, and somehow we manage to get things done!
No problem, find the local groups that promote your favorite policies and join them.
Same answer: join and help the local groups working on Y.
Perhaps, but it’s very hard to say. So we’re in Pascal’s Wager territory here: given even a tiny chance there is something we can do, we had better do our best to make it happen.
And even if humanity really is doomed, there’s always the hope that someday a hyperintelligent species of cockroach will inherit the Earth. And when cockroach archaeologists try to reconstruct our history, I would like them to be able to say, loosely translated from their complex pheromone-and-dancing system of communication: “These meatsacks may not have been as good at surviving as us cockroaches—but at least they tried!”
If you find this argument compelling—that policy is driven by power, and that power requires social mobilization—then it’s up to you to take the next step. Find a local group or candidate pushing for a policy you care about, and show up for the next meeting.
And the meeting after that.
And then go to the rally.
And knock on doors.
And make some friends, and make some changes happen.
Some of the work is fun, some of it is boring, but there’s plenty to do—time to get started!
This article originally appeared on Code without Rules.