What can you do about climate change?

Climate change is impacting the whole planet, and getting worse every year. So you want to do something—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.” And working on clean energy or efficiency is definitely a great way to spend your time.

Thing is, policy-makers are doing far less than they should. As a result, this essay isn’t about technology, even though that’s what I mostly write about on this site, because I’m not so certain that technology is the bottleneck right now.

Instead, I’m writing about policy and politics, and what you can do about it. Keep in mind that my perspective is heavily influenced by living in the US, but the big picture issues are likely universal.

The status quo is self-sustaining

The status quo has a vast amount of inertia, with economic, technological, and social systems that are self-sustaining (up to a point). To give an unrelated example, consider how baking and cooking works in the US:

  • A recipe might call for a 9 inch by 13 inch pan, and two cups of flour, and a teaspoon of spices. No centimeters, no milliliters, just nonsense measurements that make no sense (how many teaspoons to a cup? why are liquid ounces used to measure flour?).
  • But all the recipes use these nonsense measurements! So when a kitchenware company wants to make baking pans or measuring devices, they will make items measured in inches, cups, and teaspoons.
  • Since these measures are used in cooking and baking implements people in the US use at home, that’s what people who writes recipe will use.

And so the system continues.

The same sort of self-sustaining processes apply to house construction techniques, and paper sizes (A4 or US Letter), the QWERTY keyboard, and of course to the massive economic/technological/social/political system built around burning fossil fuels. This final system will eventually fall over as its side-effects cause mass destruction, but we’d rather not reach that point!

So we need to apply change, and the best lever we have to accelerate change on this scale is government action. The metric system was first introduced in France during the French Revolution, undone by Napoleon, and eventually reimposed by the French government starting in 1840. Lacking government action, they’d still be using a system just as convoluted as the one the US still uses.

Governments can:

  • Force economic changes even when they don’t add 2% to the quarterly EPS of a publicly traded company.
  • Set new technological standards and requirements.
  • Make large scale investments in new infrastructure that has a long-term payoff horizon.

But while governments can act, that doesn’t mean they will act.

Governments don’t act without pressure

The popularity of a particular policy position often has very little to do with actual policy outcomes. Not only is the status quo hard enough to change all on its own, but in addition:

  • The status quo has lobbyists: Merely by existing, any sufficiently-large system has huge economic and political interests invested in it. And they will fight against change, and they will have resources to apply to this fight.
  • Priorities are set by vocal groups: Elected officials and government staff have lots and lots of different things to worry about—if they’re not being pressured to focus on a particular issue, it’s likely to get deprioritized.

Likewise, voting is useful but nowhere near enough. In addition to the already described issues, there’s also the question of who you get to vote for.

In order to end up on the ballot, candidates need money; for advertising, hiring staff, buying supplies, collecting signatures. Lacking money, they need large amounts of volunteer time. And it’s quite easy for a small group of rich or powerful people to provide the necessary financial and volunteer support to the candidates they want. As a result, by the time you’re voting, you typically only get to choose between candidates that have been pre-vetted by a very small minority, who might have very different opinions than you do. (See The Golden Rule for more.)

One person with an opinion does nothing. One person voting is useful, but insufficient. Change requires people to actively engage in politics, both the process of how policy decisions are made, and who gets to be on the ballot in the first place. And since one person can’t do much on their own, change requires a group effort.

If you want change, you need an organized, vocal, focused group, with as much money and time as possible. Let me give an example.

Infrastructure, the status quo, and local action

Last fall I spent some of my mornings handing out pamphlets to bicycle riders, promoting political candidates who would support separated bike lanes. Separating people on bikes from cars makes biking much safer, reducing injuries and deaths from car crashes. And in dense cities like mine, the main reason people don’t bike is lack of safety.

Handing out pamphlets is pretty tedious. After finding an intersection with plenty of bicycle riders and a long red light, I would do the following:

  1. When the light turned red, step into the street and hand out the pamphlet to people on bikes.
  2. Keep an eye out for the light changing to green, so I didn’t get run over by moving cars.
  3. Twiddle my thumbs waiting for the next light cycle.

I was not doing this alone. Instead, I was part of an organized group of many volunteers here in Cambridge MA, and we’ve been doing this for years: gathering signatures, holding rallies, having conversations with city councilors and staff, writing emails, speaking at public meetings—it has been a process. But we’ve been winning, and the outcomes are having a significant impact on the local level.

In 2019, we convinced the City Council to pass a short ordinance (a city-level law). The ordinance states that whenever a street that was supposed to have protected bike lanes in the city’s Bike Plan was rebuilt from scratch, it would have those lanes built by default. Safe bike infrastructure would no longer be optional in large-scale construction.

A year later, in 2020, the council passed an additional ordinance requiring the construction of a network of separated bike lanes to be finished by 2027 or so. As a result, over the past few years my city’s bike infrastructure has massively improved, with every year bringing many miles (kilometers simply aren’t big enough for the US!) of new, safe biking infrastructure.

In some ways these ordinances only have a small, very local impact, but that’s not the whole story. In particular, these ordinances have three effects:

  1. Locally, safer bike infrastructure means more bicycle riders, and fewer car drivers. That reduces emissions—a tiny bit.
  2. Over time, more bicycle riders can kick off a positive feedback cycle, reducing emissions even more.
  3. Most significantly, local initiatives spread to other cities—kicking off these three effects in other cities.

Let’s examine these effects one by one.

Effect #1: Fewer cars, less emissions

About 37% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts are due to transportation (ref); for the US overall it’s 29% (ref). And a very large part of that is personal cars.

The reason people in the US drive cars everywhere is because all the transportation infrastructure is built for cars. Alternatives like biking, buses, and trains, all get vastly less infrastructure investment than car infrastructure.

If we focus on bicycles, 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—bike lanes that separate bicycle riders from all those dangerous cars—then bicycle use goes up.

From 2014 to 2022, Cambridge has had an increase in people on bikes of 28%; the 2022 numbers are likely an underestimate due to measurement distortions caused by the pandemic. And even more dramatically, over the same period there were 3.5× times as many children on bikes (on their own or with adults), a 250% increase. I suspect that most of the increase in the latter happened very recently, as a network of safer routes begins to coalesce.

This only has a small impact on emissions, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

Effect #2: A positive feedback loop on the local level

More people biking normalizes biking, and also makes biking safer, which leads to even more people biking, which increases the political will to make infrastructure even better, leading to… even more biking. With enough investment, you can kick off a positive feedback loop that can change a city in a surprisingly short amount of time.

A recent example of how this looks is Paris: a significant investment in safe infrastructure starting in 2015 resulted in an increase in biking, a re-elected mayor in 2020, and now even more investment. After years of very large increases, biking in Paris doubled in a single year from 2022 to 2023, with more bikes than cars on some key routes.

Effect #3: The idea spreads

The Cambridge ordinance passed in April 2019—and soon after Washington DC and Seattle passed similar laws that were inspired by Cambridge. Seattle’s version included legal language that was copy/pasted from Cambridge’s ordinance.

The even more significant 2020 Cambridge ordinance was overshadowed by the pandemic, but in 2024 a neighboring city is working on a similar ordinance, and neighboring Boston has been accelerating its bike infrastructure as well.

All of this is the result of hard work by local advocates in all of these cities—but it’s clear that Cambridge’s example helped. And of course Cambridge’s changes were inspired by other cities’ earlier efforts.

In other words, this is another positive feedback loop, but on a much larger scale, and with even more impact.

What you can do: become an activist

Let’s get back to you!

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, people not taking no for an answer. And that requires organizing, and organizing requires time, money, or both.

So if you want to change policy, you need to engage in politics, with time and money:

  • You can volunteer for candidates’ political campaigns, as early as possible in the process. Too many good candidates get filtered out before they even make the ballot. That doesn’t mean you can just go home after the election—that’s when the real work of legislation starts, which means activism is just as important.
  • You can volunteer with groups either acting on a particular issue (transportation, housing policy) or more broadly on climate change.
  • Also useful is donating money to political campaigns, both candidates and issue-based organizations.

The benefits of starting locally

If you are going to become an activist, the local level is a good starting point.

  • An easier first step: Cambridge has 120,000 residents—city councilors are routinely elected with just 2500 votes. That means impacting policies here is much easier than at a larger scale. Not only does this mean faster results, it also means you’re less likely to get discouraged and give up—you can see the change happening.
  • Direct impact: At least in the US, significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions are due to causes that are under control of local governments.
  • A wider impact is possible: As in the case of Cambridge’s ordinance, local changes can be adopted elsewhere.

Of course, local organizing is just the starting point for creating change on a much larger scale. But you have to start somewhere. And large-scale change is a lot easier if you have thousands of local organizations supporting it.

Why is this relevant to people who write software?

If you’re reading this, you probably write software, either as your job or as part of your job. So what does this article have to do with software? First and foremost, nothing much: I’m writing this because I believe this is relevant to everyone. If you want change, you need to engage in politics.

But if you are a professional software developer, you have some extra advantages. In particular, you are more likely to have access to the inputs needed to make political campaigns succeed—both candidate/party-based and issue-based:

  • Money: Software developers tend to get paid pretty well. Chances are you have some money to spare for political donations, or to fund local organizing.
  • Time: In my experience many programmers can get far more free time, if they want to.

If you don’t have children or other responsibilities or constraints, a 40-hour workweek will leave you time for other things. Before I got married I worked full-time and went to Harvard’s adult education school 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. I have rarely worked full-time since my daughter was born in 2012, and a few years ago I even wrote a book about how you can negotiate a 3-day weekend (free download here — again, written from a US perspective, though I talked to people in Canada and Europe as well).

Some potential responses

The most effective form of preventing change is convincing people that change is impossible. So mostly I’m going to focus on responses that are very much aligned with the status quo of doing nothing.

“There will never be the political will to change things”

Looking back at the past few years, or really the history of the past 250 years, it’s very that change is possible. Sometimes for the worst, sometimes for the better. But massive changes do happen—when enough people organize and push in the same direction.

The timelines for same-sex 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.

“Politics is awful and broken”

So are all our software tools, and somehow we manage to get things done!

“What really matters is policy X, not transportation policy”

No problem, find the group that is promoting policy X and join them.

“The necessary policies will never work because of problem Y”

Same answer: join and help the groups working on Y.

“It’s too late, we’re doomed no matter what we do”

I’m skeptical that the future is so easy to predict, and regardless, we have a moral obligation to try.

Finally, even if humanity really is doomed, there’s always the hope that someday a hyperintelligent species of cockroach will inherit the Earth. 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 ugly meatsacks may have been stupid, self-destructive, and vastly inferior to us cockroaches—but at least they tried!”

Time to get started

The next step is up to you. Find a local group, political candidate, or (where relevant) party that are 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 help make change happen.

Some of the work is fun, much of it is tedious and boring, but it all needs doing—time to get started!