In 2019, the term “climate emergency” multiplied by no less than one-hundred fold on websites in English-speaking nations around the world, leading the Oxford English Dictionary to designate it Word of the Year.[1] Such a dramatic increase in just one year heralds a welcome shift in consciousness about global warminga sharp elevation in the sense of immediacy and urgency that many now feel about the issue.

Use of the word “net-zero” has also been surging. This is another hopeful sign because the term refers to an emerging consensus as to what our climate change policy should strive for: reducing human greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2050 and compensating for remaining emissions by removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.[2]

Some of this urgency derives from the accelerating human costs of recent extreme weather events, especially heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires. These events are among the first clear responses of the Earth system to the temperature increase caused by human activities. Accelerating extreme weather is like the proverbial canary in the coal minean unambiguous sign that something is fundamentally awry in the natural environment that we all depend on.

Although the critical need for action has only recently been recognized by the general public, it has been central to climate scientists’ thinking for decades. For example, renowned chemist and inventor James Lovelock has long used the Gaia metaphor to illustrate how the mineral parts of the Earth system are integrated with the biosphere to generate a climate stable enough to withstand external shocks, such as changes in solar radiation or volcanic eruptions.[3] Gaia, the Earth goddess from Greek mythology, is the nourishing mother who created that system. But in Lovelock’s potent version of the myth, Gaia also has a vengeful side, and she will wreak havoc on those who disrupt her creation.

In scientific language, this means that if our greenhouse gas emissions exceed a critical level, the added heat may overwhelm natural balances, flipping the climate into a “hothouse” world with much higher average temperatures and sea levels – a world far less favorable to human flourishing. Earth’s rocks and fossils contain ample evidence of hothouses caused by massive natural carbon releases, but humans are now releasing carbon at a rate ten times faster than at any time in the past 66 million years.[4] This carbon release is the ultimate legacy of the fossil fuel era, and its geologic signature will remain long after the heating eventually stops.  

In a sense, we are fortunate that extreme weather is so evident, since it signals the need for urgent action in a way that the many less visible effects on Earth’s natural balances cannot. By moving decisively to a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century, it is still possible to limit damages and maintain Gaia’s creation in a recognizable state. This is the great project of our time, and our obligation to future generations. And since we all now take part in the fossil fuel economy, all of us can play a role in bringing it to a definitive end.


This book offers a comprehensive guide to climate science, policy, and politics in the United States, written specifically for citizen advocates. It comes at a propitious moment: a new president who is squarely confronting the full magnitude of the global warming crisis, and a rare consensus among many Democrats about the kinds of policies that need to be put in place. This moment is without precedent in modern politics. President Biden’s early efforts are a sea change from the disaster of the Trump era, but they also signal a shift from the Obama administration, which supported the natural gas industry and relied heavily on top-down regulations to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The Biden team does not compartmentalize climate change but treats it as a condition that must be integrated into all policies. Coordinated from a central White House office, federal efforts to combat global warming are now embedded in Coronavirus relief spending, infrastructure rebuilding plans, land and coastal ocean conservation, and a myriad of other programs.[5]

All of this is promising, yet the Biden administration cannot tackle climate change alone. Certainly, the damage done during the Trump years will be reversed through executive orderswhich can be implemented rapidlyas well as by rewriting agency regulations on issues such as automobile mileage standards, which is a lengthier process that will probably have to surmount legal challenges. But executive actions and regulations are not enough to solve the climate crisis because they can be reversed by subsequent administrations that are hostile to their intent. Lasting change requires legislation, and that means negotiation between Democrats and Republicans. In some cases, Democrats may be able to enact legislation alone, but their narrow majorities in the 2021-2022 House and Senate leave almost no margin for dissent, and those hailing from conservative states often do not view climate change with the same urgency as their progressive colleagues from deep blue parts of the country.[6]      

The structure of the federal system in the US, which divides power between the national government and state and local authorities, is another reason why we should not expect the Biden team to solve the crisis on its own. Congress and the president can adopt economic and environmental policies that set the stage for deep emissions reductions, but a great deal of the follow-through must occur in the states, which can either enthusiastically adopt or resist the changes. Fossil fuel development, in particular, largely takes place on state and privately held lands, and the enduring reliance of some states on oil and gas revenues will require a great deal of effort to dislodge, regardless of what the federal government does.

This is where citizen advocacy comes in. We should all petition our federal representatives to act, yet most opportunities for direct involvement are closer to home. This is a good thing. It means that relationships can be more easily forged among advocates united in a common cause, and that influential local businesses, community organizations, faith groups, and other stakeholders can lend their institutional clout. The power of an engaged citizenry is not often recognized, but it has played a central role in several successful campaigns for change. Such victories for the Left include same-sex marriage and the right of Guantanamo detainees to legal representation, and on the Right, an expanded right to private gun ownership.[7] In each case, grassroots movements at the local level grew and eventually gained enough influence among decision-makers to drive political change.

A prominent example of citizen advocacy for a healthy climate is the widespread opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline. If built, this pipeline would transport heavy oil from dirty “tar sands” deposits in Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast.[8] Since it was first proposed in 2008and through a seemingly endless series of environmental reviewsthe pipeline has ping-ponged from eventual opposition by the Obama administration, to support from President Trump and, most recently, revocation of a key permit by President Biden. Citizen advocates from all walks of life have called attention to the consequences of the pipeline, which include ecological devastation as well as a spike in greenhouse gas emissions enabled by the use of the oil. Their actions, together with a barrage of lawsuits, built strong Democratic opposition and substantially slowed progress during the Trump administration. There is now good reason to think that the pipeline will never be built.

As this example and others we will explore demonstrate, citizen advocacy is instrumental to creating the political will to follow through on President Biden’s plans at all levels of government. To date, only a small fraction of Americans are participating in this effort. However, an enormous reservoir of potential new advocates exists in the estimated 53 million Americans who are alarmed about climate change. These alarmed citizensand an even larger group who identify as concernedare the primary audience for this book.[9]

Citizen advocacy for a healthy climate is much more likely to be successful if advocacy groups organize and work together toward common goals. Historically, this has been a challenge for the climate movement, most prominently displayed in clashes between progressive and center-left advocates. Progressives, led by Green New Deal champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and advocacy groups such as the youth-led Sunrise Movement, argue for a transition that emphasizes justice, which would restore and strengthen historically marginalized groups that have borne a disproportionate share of climate change impacts. The center-left, in contrast, has been more focused on impacts to the Earth systemtreating climate change mainly as a scientific problem. They favor technical or market-based solutions without paying specific attention to disparities in impact on particular populations, or on ensuring that those groups have a seat at the policymaking table.

In the months before the 2020 election and empowered by a unified awareness that the climate stakes could not be higher, a number of coalitions formed to put forth policy proposals that seem to have yielded a substantial consensus.[10] Net-zero emissions by 2050 has emerged as the dominant organizing principle, with a strong emphasis both on setting tough emissions reductions standards tailored to particular economic sectors, and on very large public investments in infrastructure, land management, and other areas that impact the climate. In a clear victory for progressives, environmental justice is also prominent in these plans. There are, however, still significant areas of disagreement among advocates, especially with respect to policies that many economists and climate scientists see as necessary and effective but have historically been championed more by political centrists or conservatives. These policies include carbon pricing, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage approaches for large-scale drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The early executive orders by President Biden clearly embrace the main themes of this consensus. Moving forward, unity among Democrats is crucial because of strong Republican resistance to much of the agendaa good deal of which is driven by a well-organized network of donors with roots in the fossil fuel industries.[11] This coalition, unfortunately, can be counted on to oppose virtually any substantive climate policy proposal. As is so often the case on many issues, federal legislation addressing climate change may be shaped by the small number of Representatives and Senators that remain at the political center. If these efforts turn out to require significant compromise from the net-zero policy blueprint, climate advocacy in the states will assume even more importance.

This is the outlook in the early months of the Biden administration. It follows an effective eight-year hiatus, from 2010 to 2018, during which Congress paid little to no serious attention to climate change. This period opened with the failure of the Senate to pass a comprehensive federal carbon pricing bill,[12] and ended with the rise of the Green New Deal and the recapture of the House of Representatives by Democrats in 2018. The hopeful shift in climate change politics is still very recent, and the landscape may certainly change again. But what will not change are the dynamics of the Earth system, the nature of the effective strategies that drive the carbon-free energy transition, and the key role of engaged citizen advocates to bring about change. These three topics define the scope of this book.

The book is divided into ten chapters, and includes an Interlude that describes the contours of the necessary carbon-free energy transition. I drew on many years of my laboratory’s research on the chemistry of the biosphere, legal training and research into climate change policy, and experiences in the climate advocacy community, primarily through the Citizens’ Climate Lobbya nonpartisan grassroots group that advocates for federal carbon pricing legislation. This book offers climate education in the service of advocacy, and it fulfills the need for a comprehensive guide that provides an entry point for engaged citizens who wish to help build the political will to solve the problem of climate change.

The first four chapters describe the past, present, and potential future of Earth’s climate system. The narrative assumes that the reader has no background in science. These chapters start with first principles and offer thorough explanations of all the key concepts as they are understood by climate scientists today. My approach to these chapters emerged from a series of monthly evening lectures I delivered to the environmental advocacy community in Portland, Oregon, in 2017-2018. From this experience, I was exposed to the keen desire of citizen advocates to fully understand the scientific data that underlie today’s policy debates. The seminars were my education in appreciating the deep level of understanding that many citizen advocates are hungry for.

Interwoven in the scientific narrative are descriptions of some of the most egregious ways that climate change deniers have tried to distort the meaning of the data. Many of these individuals and groups are now avoiding outright denial in favor of more subtle arguments that undermine the need for urgency or exaggerate the costs of taking action.[13] But a grasp of the more direct denialist tactics is important because it shows how easy one can be misled on a subject as complex as climate change. This can make a difference when engaging with well-meaning people who are simply uninformed or confused about what the science says.

The Interlude sets the stage for the second half of the book by offering a summary of many of the policy roadmaps for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 in the US. These are aggressive plans that do nothing less than remake the entire energy economy of the country, with consequences that propagate to every level of society. The Interlude is followed by a chapter that surveys the landscape of US climate advocacy and offers information about groups and resources that provide support for lay citizen advocates. Some helpful research that informs advocacy strategies is also summarized here. Opportunities for advocacy that are linked to specific policies are then interwoven throughout the remainder of the book.

Chapters 6 through 10 explore the policy landscape for the carbon-free energy transition in detail. Chapter 6 stands somewhat apart because it is devoted to an exploration of the fossil fuel industry, especially strategies for accelerating its contraction and ultimate demise. Although the recent rapid growth and plummeting costs for solar and wind power provide the essential foundation for the energy transition, attention to fossil fuels is crucial because these sources must be replaced by renewables. While coal-fired power plants have been closing at record rates, recent growth in the solar and wind industries has been matched by increased oil and gas production; the fraction of total US energy provided by fossil fuels has thus remained nearly the same over the past decade. As the fight against the Keystone pipeline shows, curtailing fossil fuel production by advocating against new infrastructure is an area of engagement and subsequent victory that the climate advocacy community can be especially proud of.

The approach to the final four chapters might be summarized as, “All of the aboveexcept fossil fuels.” The dedicated chapter on carbon pricing reflects its unique role as a foundation for other efforts. Even a relatively modest, economywide carbon price would selectively disadvantage coal, oil, and natural gas in proportion to how much carbon they emit, making all other policies that promote carbon-free energy more effective. The consideration of all carbon-free energy sources includes nuclear power, because maintaining its present 20 percent share of the electricity grid balances the intermittency of solar and wind power while cutting down the amount of additional expensive energy storage that is needed in the short term. Just as important is the emphasis on carbon capture and storage, which includes both natural land management and large-scale industrial approaches that draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is necessary because many decades were lost to climate change inaction while greenhouse gas levels continued to increase, making these approaches now essential to stabilizing temperature at a safe level.

A good understanding of climate science yields this inspiring message for advocates: We have the power to stabilize the climate by limiting warming to under 2ºC (3.6ºF) compared to preindustrial temperatures. In contrast, skeptical accounts that misrepresent the scientific literature and underestimate climate change damages lead to complacency instead of action. Similarly, books promoting the false doom and gloom perspective that climate chaos is already inevitable deliver the message that advocacy efforts will be fruitless. Think of this book as the middle groundthe antidote to both those extremes.[14]

Many people wonder about the relationship between individual actions that we may take to reduce our personal climate footprints and engaged group advocacy, which this book describes. Some have suggested that too much emphasis on personal actions is a mistake because it lets the fossil fuel companies off the hook and may even undermine support for effective national policy. Yet, in cutting the link between individual and collective action we risk missing a key opportunity. Sierra magazine editor Jason Mark puts it this way: “When we take personal responsibility for our actions, we deepen our commitment to environmental sustainability. Living in accord with one’s political vision is a way of laying the foundations for the world we want to seeto engage in a kind of ‘prefigurative politics’ that makes the future into now.”[15]

So by all means, let’s dust off the bicycle, eat a bit less red meat, electrify our homes and cars at the next opportunity, sell off those fossil fuel stocks, and reduce air travel. And if you are inspired to also help shift our national priorities, this book will show you that there is a great deal to do and will help prepare you to take action.

Let’s get started.

[1] OxfordLanguages, Word of the Year 2019,

[2] These goals would be reached by enacting the five hundred-page policy roadmap produced by the US House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Climate Crisisthe first comprehensive plan to combat global warming generated by a congressional body. See House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient and Just America.” Released June 30, 2020, For a modeling study projecting that this plan will reach its stated targets, see Megan Mahajan, Robbie Orvis, and Sonia Aggarwal, “Modeling the Climate Crisis Action Plan”, Energy Innovation, June 2020,

[3] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

[4] R.E. Zeebe et al., “Anthropogenic Carbon Release Rate Unprecedented During the Past 66 Million Years,” Nature Geoscience, no. 9 (2016): 325,

[5] January 27, 2021 was “Climate Day” at the Biden White House. Following high-profile executive actions to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and revoke the permit for the Keystone oil pipeline, President Biden’s team released a massive executive order placing the climate crisis at the center of foreign policy, national security, and economic and jobs growth, with emphasis on environmental justice and revitalization of communities dependent on fossil fuel extraction. See The White House, “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad”, January 27, 2021,

[6] Majority votes suffice to pass legislation in the House of Representatives, and Senate Democrats can use a process called budget reconciliation to bypass the filibuster and pass bills with a bare majority. However, this is limited to legislation with significant direct impact on the budget. Otherwise, 60 votes are required to move a bill to the Senate floor for discussion and votingunless the filibuster is repealed, which is unlikely. Dylan Matthews, “Budget Reconciliation, Explained”, Vox, November 23, 2016,

[7] These examples all culminated in favorable Supreme Court decisions, but local efforts can also drive actions by Congress and the executive branch. See David Cole, Engines of Liberty: How Citizen Movements Succeed, (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[8] Melissa Denchak, “What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?” National Resources Defense Council, January 20, 2021,

[9] The data come from surveys conducted by Yale and George Mason universities, which have identified six segments of the American public that respond in distinctive ways to climate change. These are called “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” See Chapter 5 and Anthony Leiserowitz, “Building Public and Political Will for Climate Change Action” in A Better Planet: Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future (Daniel C. Esty, ed.), (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019) 155-162.

[10] David Roberts, “At Last, A Climate Policy Platform That Can Unite the Left,” Vox, last modified July 9, 2020, The platform discussed in this article is embodied in the House Climate Crisis roadmap for the carbon-free energy transition; see

[11] For insight into Republican thinking on climate change, see Zoya Teirstein, “Feeling the Heat. How the Green New Deal Lit a Fire Under the GOP,” Grist, October 14, 2020,

[12] This was the Waxman-Markey carbon pricing bill, which would have enacted a nationwide cap-and-trade program to impose a price on greenhouse gas emissions. For an account of the politics of its demise, see Ryan Lizza, “As the World Burns,” The New Yorker, October 3, 2010,

[13] For denialist tactics, see Michael Mann, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2021). For rebuttals to nearly 200 denialist arguments, see the Skeptical Science website,

[14] A prominent advocate of the skeptical position is Bjorn Lomborg; see False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, (New York: Basic Books, 2020). Journalist David Wallace-Wells has produced the most prominent recent example of gloom and doom; see The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).

[15] Jason Mark, “Yes, Actually, Personal Responsibility Is Essential to Solving the Climate Crisis,” Sierra, November 26, 2019,