Introducing From Knowledge to Power (K2P)
JULY 30, 2021
When I began writing K2P a few years ago, I grappled with the question of whether the world really needed another book on climate change, when so much information was already available. This issue should properly preoccupy any aspiring writer on the subject. As a research scientist by profession, the need for originality in my work has always been front and center, and this was no less true as I set out to write K2P. What new perspective might I offer? Whom is the book for, and why might it be worth your time and attention?
My intellectual interests have always been broad. As a young scientist, though, I suppressed this inclination toward expansive inquiry in favor of the specialization that every scholarly discipline demands – in my case investigating the atomic architectures of proteins and how they work in living cells. But after earning tenure, I felt freer to explore my interests more broadly. Although I knew little about the subject at the time, I felt strongly drawn to the environmental sciences. This was probably due to my good fortune to spend childhood summers hiking and touring with family in our homeland Italian Alps, which impressed me with a great love of the outdoors. Within the broad environmental field, I found Earth’s climate to be an especially compelling topic because it incorporates so many disciplines – almost all of the natural sciences, plus economics, law and a smattering of other fields. What a cornucopia for an academic junkie such as myself! I was hooked.
Given my interest in all aspects of the climate problem, comprehensiveness naturally seemed a compelling central theme for K2P. The book would thus cover the full scope of climate science and practical solutions, dedicating roughly equal space to each. The missing and most essential piece, however, turned out to be political advocacy. In 2014, at a seminar at my university, I met several volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nationwide grassroots lobbying group with a strong leadership team in Washington, D.C. CCL is dedicated to creating the political will for Congress to enact an aggressive tax on fossil fuel producers, with revenues returned to American households. Monthly dividend checks would more than compensate for the inevitable increase in energy costs, especially for low-income families. The policy was compelling and the organization’s approach meshed with my own values – nonpartisan, nonideological, and dedicated to a lasting solution that I knew had broad support among climate science and policy specialists. Again, I was hooked.
K2P, then, has three essential themes: climate science, solutions to climate change (and the policies to enable them), and political advocacy. These can be condensed to just one: climate education in the service of advocacy. The main audience is grass roots advocates, folks that are part of the large subset of Americans who identify as alarmed or concerned about climate change, and also want to contribute in ways that go beyond making changes to their personal lifestyles. I was surprised to discover that there is no other book for a popular audience that covers anything like this amount of territory. Except as needed for context, the only major aspects of climate change that are not included in K2P are international politics and the history of how our understanding and response to the problem has evolved over time. This reflects the book’s focus on the contemporary situation in the US.
Although written for a popular audience, K2P offers depth and detail that go well beyond most books of this kind. This is both the strength and uniqueness of the work. For example, some books on climate change for laypersons use a question and answer format to discuss the most common issues circulating in the popular culture. This approach has value in helping readers become conversant with the main ideas, but as education it falls short because it does not begin from first principles. In contrast K2P offers clear, detailed explanations that are well-grounded in the basic chemistry, physics, geology and biology of Earth’s climate system. Good science journalists have shown us that is not necessary to sacrifice rigor and accuracy when explaining unfamiliar concepts, nor is it helpful to oversimplify issues that require more thorough discussions for clarity. K2P thus follows the principle famously articulated by Albert Einstein: everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Since its approach is consistent with academic norms, K2P is also suitable as a supplementary text for university classes in the environmental humanities, green business, law and society, and related disciplines.
In serving the cause of climate advocacy, K2P’s major premise is that a deep dive into science and policy will make the efforts of layperson advocates much more effective. The choice to make K2P an information-rich handbook was born from my years of interactions with citizen volunteers in CCL and other groups in Oregon, where the demand for such a resource seemed clear. Of course, there are obvious limits to the amount of information that can be included in a single volume, but K2P also provides well over a thousand notes to the popular and scholarly literature. It thus serves as both an accessible up-to-date review of the climate field and a portal for more detailed investigations. When petitioning lawmakers, businesses and community groups to take action, knowledge of the facts and context builds confidence and persuasive ability – in other words, power. Readers will discover many specific opportunities to take action throughout the latter parts of the book as well as in the dedicated chapter on advocacy.
Citizen advocacy of course means engaging in politics, no small undertaking given the divisiveness of the climate issue in the US. Because few prominent Republicans have the political courage to support the aggressive approaches needed to halt warming, the substantive policy field is occupied mainly by Democrats. The Democratic party, though, divides into moderate and progressive camps that would probably be distinct parties in any other Western democracy. Both camps strongly support the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, though they advocate sometimes very different policy approaches to get there. This can be a good thing, as healthy competition in the marketplace of policy ideas should lead to better ultimate outcomes. Given the Republican abdication, more conservative perspectives emphasizing market-based solutions are, of necessity, now also coming from the moderate Democrat camp.
Since most climate advocacy is at the local or state level, the regional political dynamics are very influential in setting the context for advocacy. Most greenhouse gases have long atmospheric lifetimes, so as a first approximation the amount of warming simply depends on how much is emitted to the atmosphere. K2P’s perspective, then, is to be relentlessly positive and to advocate working to maximize climate gains even if the politics appears highly unfavorable. In Republican-dominated regions, this often takes the form of reframing the issue to emphasize the many business opportunities associated with renewable energy. It also helps to understand that the economies of many red states depend on fossil fuel production, and this must receive a policy response if the net-zero emissions agenda is to gain traction in these areas.
In blue or purple states, where opportunities for large emissions cuts are greater, K2P’s main message is to emphasize the need for moderate and progressive lawmakers and advocates to find common ground through the art of political compromise. With respect to policy, the clear message is “…all of the above, except fossil fuels.” Given K2P’s larger mission to educate and inform, the policy narratives always set out the pros and cons of each approach. But it is also very late in the day, and we no longer have the luxury to discard key options (such as nuclear power and industrial-scale carbon capture) even if they carry some risk – especially given the sizable political constituencies that favor these approaches. Similarly, while there are certainly strong ethical and substantive reasons for linking climate policies to considerations of equity, K2P also asks progressives to recognize that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. As is often stated, there is little point in equitable access to a train wreck.
K2P is dedicated to the young people in my life: I wrote it with a growing awareness of the urgent actions we must take to keep the climate in a recognizable state for them. I very much hope that you will take a look at K2P and perhaps consider gifting a copy to a young person whom you know is concerned about the issue. Solving climate change is at once the defining challenge of our day and our obligation to future generations. We have no time to lose.