Lessons of the coronavirus pandemic for climate: What matters to us and what we fear

Like many of you, I’m working from home, going out only to grocery shop and take walks. I’m trying to keep what I can of my schedule, which means posting my monthly blog by the end of March. But I’ve been unsure about what to say during this disorienting time. Is there a constructive way to talk about the connections between the coronavirus pandemic and the slower-moving catastrophe of climate change?

Two climate thinkers I admire have insights about what the coronavirus pandemic shows about what we care about and what we fear. These insights illuminate a possible path forward in our efforts to tackle the climate crisis, offering some inspiration.

Katherine Hayhoe: What matters to all of us is the same: the health and safety of our loved ones and our communities. Climate change and the coronavirus are alike in that they both threaten what matters to all of us.

Climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of my favorite climate communicators, was asked about the connections between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change by John Schwartz of the New York Times. Here is part of her response:

“This crisis really brings home what matters to all of us. What really matters is the same for all of us. It’s the health and safety of our friends, our family, our loved ones, our communities, our cities and our country. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic threatens, and that’s exactly what climate change does, too.”

Claire Cohen-Norris: A major reason we haven’t yet eliminated fossil fuels is our fear of change and disruption. Now, coronavirus has turned our world upside down. This give us an opening to make the big shifts we need to decarbonize quickly as we navigate the global pandemic.

In a new blog post from climate advocate and biology teacher Claire Cohen-Norris, she says:

“Why have we been slow to eliminate fossil fuels? The short answer is fear of disruption…Well, disruption is here. COVID-19 has made sure of that.”

The pandemic, she argues, has almost instantaneously disrupted our entire society, shifting our expectations for the future. This creates an opening for facing the climate crisis and rapidly decarbonizing our entire economy (I’ve written elsewhere about having the policy tools and knowledge to decarbonize, as soon as we build the social and political will to do so). Our world, Cohen-Norris reasons, is going to be upside down no matter what we do now. So we might as well tackle the climate crisis–a slower moving global catastrophe that threatens everything we care about–as we navigate the global pandemic.

If we can see that the climate crisis, like COVID-19, threatens all we care about, and we accept that total disruption is already here, it becomes more imaginable we can rapidly decarbonize now to protect a livable world. The possibilities are extraordinary.

Considering carbon offsets: What’s in a name?

I often get asked what I think about carbon offsets. Are they a good idea? Do I buy them myself? If so, how do I choose which ones to buy?

So here is my answer: I think carbon offsets are an excellent idea for people who have the financial security to consider them. I do buy them, and there are tools available that allow you to choose good ones. But I object to the name carbon offset and what it implies: According to journalist Emily Chung, “Carbon offsetting is a way to ‘cancel out’ carbon emissions that have been spewed into the atmosphere. It works by letting emitters (including individuals, governments or businesses) fund and take credit for greenhouse gas reductions from a different project or activity elsewhere.”

But we can’t cancel out our carbon emissions, and I don’t want to be absolved of concern for the climate impact of my actions. We are in a climate crisis, and to solve it we need to do everything: bring emissions down and contribute to projects that fund greenhouse gas reductions. So I propose calling them carbon gifts, or alternatively, a personal carbon tax, and buying them, especially when you travel.

I think of carbon gifts as one of the actions I take to help solve the climate crisis. I buy them to support projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which, at their core, are what carbon offsets really are. I buy them because I recognize that I live in and contribute to a fossil-fuel based economy. I buy them as another way to fight climate change. And because there are now tools to evaluate and compare carbon offsets, I can buy ones I feel really good about.

Calling them carbon gifts helps me reimagine them. I believe in facing that if I fly, drive, heat our house, or eat nectarines flown in from Chile, the greenhouse gas emissions I cause contribute to climate change. Best not think I can cancel this out, or get a free pass by buying carbon offsets. I don’t condone living in state of guilt, but I do believe honesty is the best policy. That way, I won’t use offsetting as an excuse to slack off on my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint more every year. But the projects funded by carbon offset/gift purchases are climate solutions projects. So yes, I contribute.

I choose them based on what I know about where the money goes, or I use carbon offset certification tools like green-e. Examples of carbon offsets I’ve bought include Seeds for the Sol, a program in Corvallis, Oregon to help schools and low income homeowners go solar, and Terra Passes’ renewable energy credits.

In a future post I’ll write more about ways to choose high-value carbon offsets/gifts.

Guest Blog: Yes, it’s still up to you to do something about climate change

Reposted with permission from Ensia.

There is one statistic easing pangs of guilt for people who feel they are not doing enough to fight climate change: About 71% of greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015 came from only 100 companies. Increasingly, the message is: Stop worrying about yourself and take the fight to the corporations and policymakers who refuse to stop them!

But you’re not off the hook yet. Individual action matters for a number of reasons: It stimulates and supports social action. It is central to honoring our moral duties to respect life. And it can be a force for social change in subtle or unexpectedly powerful ways.

Here are four arguments to keep riding your bike and doing all the other green things that each of us should do.

Argument 1: It’s Them and Me

It is disempowering to realize that most of the harm from climate change primarily comes from relatively few actors. In the face of this knowledge, it would seem, our individual actions don’t really change a thing. Social change, on a massive scale, is what we need. As author Derrick Jensen bluntly states in his essay, “Forget Shorter Showers”: “Personal change does not equal social change.”

He’s right, but only to a point. In fact, the individual and the social are intertwined in two crucial ways. First, enough individuals making changes does equal social change. And individual actions can have a ripple effect that we should not discount.

Each of our behaviors affects those close to us. People have a strong desire to fit in and build bonds with like-minded people. Once two of my friends installed solar panels, I did, too. Hopefully, when people see the panels on my roof, they will consider it as well. Everything we do is a signal to others about how we think the world should be.

Second, collective action doesn’t happen without individual action. Jensen is right that, “Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.” What we really need to do, he argues, is to confront and take down the political systems that have gotten us into such a situation.

Indeed, there is no avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change without major changes on a global scale. But that starts with campaigning and voting for politicians who will act on climate change, shopping less and more ethically, and doing what you can to disrupt business as usual. In other words, social change starts with you.

Argument 2: It’s Just the Right Thing to Do

Even if you learned that turning off the lights when leaving a room will not make a measurable difference in reducing climate change, would you then feel free to leave lights on all the time? If you truly believe that doing so is wasteful, then probably not.

Most people’s moral sensibilities tell them that we have an obligation to do the right thing, even if nobody else does it or its impact is small. And the right thing to do is to respect other life forms and not waste resources, as you are able.

Our moral responsibilities may also extend to future generations. Philosophers may quibble about such things, but ask yourself this: Even if your grandchildren aren’t born yet, would they be out of line to blame you for not doing what you could have done to protect our planet?

It is a matter of moral integrity. If you are not willing to live in a way that is true to your convictions and invite others to do so as well, who will? The right thing to do is the right thing to do. Period.

Argument 3: Be a Rock in the River

One hopeful metaphor for thinking about the effects of our actions comes from philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. Just as particles in a river can combine to change its course, our “small” acts can alter the course of climate change.

In life, as in rivers, everything changes. To quote Moore: “Our work and the work of every person who loves this world — this one — is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood.”

The upshot is that our small acts absolutely can make a difference in unexpected and possibly powerful ways. Our individual choices join with others’ choices to disrupt the flow of destructive ways of living. Small acts are a witness, inspiring others and contributing to a momentum of change that can trigger a social change faster than we anticipate. That’s what we need. Soon.

Argument 4: Channel Your Inner Greta Thunberg

Once in a while someone comes along who dispenses with the calculus of whether their sacrifices will amount to a hill of beans and just says, “Enough!” And thank God. One such person is the Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg.

I’m guessing she — or other young activists who came before her — has little time for those who say that individual choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Who would have thought that one schoolgirl sitting on the steps of the Swedish parliament building every Friday with a simple sign would change the world? Good thing she didn’t let the “smallness” of her individual act discourage her. The world is changed because she sat — alone.

Some of us choose to bury our heads in the sand and continue shopping. Some of us make halting steps as an increasingly grimmer picture of future life for our children emerges.

But sometimes you just have to shrug off all the moral calculus and just say, “Enough.” Will my solar panels make enough of a difference to justify my sacrifice in buying them? Stop thinking. Just take action now.

The Upshot

We all must do what we can — in our homes, our communities and our countries. Writing in Orion Magazine years ago, author and climate activist Bill McKibben captured the “both-and” approach we need: “If 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough.”

So change your lightbulbs. Walk or bike instead of drive. We are all responsible, individually and together.

Original post December 6, 2019 on Ensia.
Sunflower Sunrise

Guest Blog: How do we convince climate deniers? That’s the wrong question

Reposted with permission from ENSIA.

Instead of wasting time trying to convert opponents, we should invest it in motivating passive allies to act.

November 20, 2019 — “How do you convince people that climate change is real?” is a question I’m invariably asked after I give a talk on climate change and health. Even as wildfires incinerate communities in California; hurricanes decimate islands, taking thousands of lives; and Qatar starts to air condition its outdoors from scorching heat, some continue to “not believe” in climate change.

I have struggled to come up with a convincing answer. Should I show them the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report? Share gut-wrenching facts on the mass extinction of species? Offer statements from trusted medical organizations?

But I know none of this would work. Research shows us that presenting scientific facts, the “information deficit model” of communication, is often not effective in changing deeply held beliefs about climate change.

So instead of asking myself how I should convince someone of climate change, I started asking why instead. The answer is simple, isn’t it? If they “believe” in climate change, they will want to take action. They will cut down their carbon footprint, vote …

I lost confidence in what I was saying halfway through that sentence. As a physician, I know how difficult behavior change is. Smokers, who are well aware of the harms of cigarettes, take a long time to move from the stage of “pre-contemplation,” where they are not considering quitting smoking, to the “action” phase of quitting smoking.

When we look at climate-behavior change, an analysis by Yale Climate Communications in 2018 might give us an insight into the tedious nature of the task. The study estimated that 70% of respondents believe in climate change. But only 57% believe humans cause it. So, first, we need to convince people it’s real. Then we need to convince them it’s man-made. Then we need to motivate them to take action — action that essentially requires changing every aspect of their lives.

Well, if we don’t convince everyone that climate change is real, how do we fix it? A common misconception is that to create change, everyone needs to act. However, the data show otherwise. According to the Washington Post, a Gallup Poll in 1961 showed only 28% of respondents in a U.S. survey approved of the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom buses during the Civil Rights movement. Only 57% supported same-sex marriage when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in its favor in 2015. Erica Chenoweth from Harvard University analyzed hundreds of nonviolent campaigns over the course of a century. She found that it takes only around 3.5% of the population actively participating in civil protests to cause real political change.

In other words, the efficient move now is to take the time and energy we want to expend on convincing deniers and use it instead to assemble the critical mass to turn the tide.

With a few exceptions — speaking truth to leaders in power and helping loved ones recognize the magnitude of the threat — we need to shift our way of approaching climate communication from changing minds to giving people already on board concrete tasks on which to take action.

An excellent way to visualize this is an advocacy tool called “Spectrum of Allies.” This tool is based on the premise that the most effective way to create social change is to convince, not vehement opponents, but people who are neutral about an issue or passively agree with you to support your cause.

The “Global Warming’s Six Americas” 2018 survey on climate attitudes of Americans showed that 29% are “alarmed” and are taking action. Another 30% are “concerned,” and 17% are “cautious” but not taking action. The Spectrum of Allies framework suggests that for greatest impact we should focus action-oriented climate communication on the latter two groups rather than trying to convince the 18% who fall in the “doubtful” and “dismissive” categories that they’re wrong.

So, what should you do when your uncle calls climate change a liberal hoax over the Thanksgiving dinner table?

Here’s my suggestion. Estimate how many minutes you would likely invest in this “discussion.” Then — don’t. Engage about something else that connects you on shared values. And once you’re done with the interaction, use the time you didn’t spend arguing about climate change to call your legislator or write a letter to the editor. Better yet, mobilize a friend who already believes climate change is a problem. Help them set up an in-person meeting with their representative, join a protest or build a relationship with a local environmental nonprofit.

We are past the time for convincing. It’s time to act.

Listen to a Climate Cast interview with Laalitha Surapaneni: Doctor’s advice: Forget the climate change deniers, focus on the ‘passive allies’

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily of Ensia. We present ​them to further discussion around important topics. ​We encourage you to respond with a comment below following our commenting guidelines, which can be found on this page, or submit a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s Contact page  for submission guidelines. The author is a associate at the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where Ensia is based and which provides funding to Ensia. Ensia is an independent publication of IonE. To learn more, please see our Code of Ethics.

Climate change for busy people: Ten key words

The climate crisis can seem complicated. Yet as warming accelerates, impacts grow more powerful and solutions become more feasible, I keep coming back to a ten-word summary of climate change that includes all the essentials you really need to know to get involved:

It’s real

It’s us

Experts agree

It’s bad

There’s hope

I am unsure where I first saw this 10-word description, but the power of it lies in its truth, its simplicity, and its empowering message. Yes, it says, you DO know enough to act.

So here is a little bit more about each two-word fact:

1. It’s real. Since 1880, the earth’s climate has warmed 1.8 degree F or 1 degree C. Although this doesn’t sound like a large number, this is extremely rapid warming compared to naturally occurring climate change through most of geologic history. For a graph of what recent global temperature trends look like, updated monthly, you can go to James Hansen’s resources here:  http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/Temperature/

2. It’s us. Humans are the cause of today’s fast and accelerating climate change. Since 1950, all the climate warming has been caused by human activities, and natural factors have had a small net cooling effect (Huber and Knutti, 2012).

3. Experts agree. There is a robust and durable scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. At least 97% of publishing climate experts have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. This level of scientific consensus is similar to the scientific consensus that smoking causes lung cancer.

4. It’s bad. The impacts of climate change are costly, deadly, and getting worse. Climate change is already making people sicker, worsening a range of illnesses from seasonal allergies to heart and lung disease. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are most at risk from extreme weather and rising heat. Climate change is worsening wildfires, floods,and food shocks, harming the world’s oceansmelting ice sheets, and threatening the world’s fisheries, on which billions of people depend.

5. There’s hope. We have the technology and tools needed to avoid the worst climate impacts. Because of the tremendous breakthroughs and cost reductions achieved in renewable energy technologies, experts say we can make a full transition to zero carbon energy in time to avoid the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change we are currently heading toward. We’ve made progress understanding effective policy solutions and the steps we need to take to contain climate change.  What we need is the individual, societal, and political will to make this huge and rapid transformation, and to begin immediately. 

Whatever way you are working for climate solutions, whether it’s reducing your carbon footprint, being part of a community group, voting for climate, contacting your elected officials, participating in climate marches, joining Power Up for Climate Solutions, or other ways, I hope you’ll keep at it and if you are able, do a little more.  You know enough, and you matter.

 

The single most powerful way to fight climate change, and what you can do to support it

Probably the number one question people ask when they learn I’m a climate solutions advocate is, What is the most important thing I can do? It’s a difficult question, because there is no single solution to the climate crisis. We know that individuals alone cannot solve this, and that we need big, ambitious government action soon for any chance of containing climate change to adaptable levels. So where should governments start, and how can you help?

There’s actually a simple answer. We need a price on carbon. This is the overwhelming consensus from UN climate experts, 27 Nobel laureates and 3500 of the U.S.’s top economists, political leaders including Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, James Baker, George Schultz, EPA chiefs under 4 Republican presidents, leading climate scientists Michael Mann, James Hansen, and Katherine Hayhoe, a growing number of business leaders, and most recently the IMF. Increasingly, experts also agree that a good way to do this is with carbon fee and dividend, collecting a rising fee from polluters and giving the money back to households to protect low- and middle-income families through a clean energy transition.

And today, even as this administration tries to dismantle every bit of climate progress we’ve made, we are closer than ever before to enacting this key policy solution. Right now, there is a bill in the United States Congress, The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763), to put a rising price on carbon, return all the money as a monthly dividend to households, and enact a border carbon adjustment. This bill, the strongest climate bill introduced into Congress in a decade, would reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and currently has 69 co-sponsors, more than any other major climate policy ever. Learn more about how HR 763 works.

I believe that the most important thing you can do right now for the climate is to work for passage of this bill. Carbon pricing alone will not solve the climate crisis–but without it, solving the climate crisis is unimaginable.

Almost daily, we experience more of the terrible costs and risks of not acting. As I write this, California is again fighting extraordinarily destructive and massive wildfires. Hawaii’s corals are dying from a new ocean heat wave. Some business, religious, and political leaders are speaking out about the need for action, and a global youth climate movement is demanding climate justice for the marginalized and vulnerable around the world who are least responsible for this crisis and are suffering most. And the IMF, tasked with keeping the global economy functioning, has just urged countries to enact a substantial carbon price. Canada has passed a national carbon tax, and we in the U.S. now have a good bill, which has led to a flurry of other bills being introduced.

So if you want to do something that matters, ask your members of Congress to co-sponsor, support, and pass this bill. (Citizens’ Climate Lobby has made it easy to email or write your members of Congressin support of this bill). I believe a groundswell of support from individual voters is needed to overcome the powerful forces fighting climate action. Push Congress to pass this bill, so that it can be signed into law on the first day we have a president who accepts the facts and values protecting a livable world. Let’s be sure that’s January 1, 2021, at the very latest.

Corvallis High School student strikers

The kids are not all right: The student climate strikes, Greta Thunberg’s message and where to go from here

What a week it’s been! On September 20th, I went to the Corvallis school climate strike to support high school students as they marched to City Hall to demand action on climate change. It was a first in our town, and the kids were mad. They didn’t care that most of the adults there have been working for climate action for years. They were telling us all that we’ve failed them. And they have a point.

A stunningly-illustrated spread in the September 19th issue of Nature shows the hard truths about climate change: the continued growth of emissions world-wide, the dramatically steep reductions necessary to have a chance of preventing catastrophic climate warming, the billions of people at risk from heat waves, water stress, and other threats, and the largest producer of cumulative emissions (the United States).

On September 25th, the IPCC released a report on threats to the world’s oceans and cryosphere from climate change. The report, written by more than 100 of the world’s leading ocean and climate scientists, states that climate change is warming the oceans and changing their chemistry so dramatically that it is threatening seafood supplies, fueling more destructive cyclones, worsening floods, and threatening hundreds of millions of people who live in coastal areas. Without immediate, steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, impacts to the oceans and humanity will soon be world-wide, catastrophic and irreversible.

What a week it’s been! I’m rattled because listening to Greta Thunberg, the student protesters, and the latest scientific assessments, I’ve thought about what has happened in the 13 years since I became truly alarmed about climate change and began down the path to becoming a climate solutions advocate.

The science has advanced. Technological solutions have made giant strides. Public concern has been growing, although not nearly as quickly as the facts demand. Now Greta, the student strikers, and the scientists are stating what I know to be true: we’ve run out of time.

An immediate global transition away from fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, and toward renewable energy, conservation, and sustainable agriculture might allow us to bring emissions down quickly enough to prevent the worst, most catastrophic climate harms, if this transition moves at a breathtaking pace. (For a good simple explanation of the science, see “What does ’12 years to act on climate change’ (now 11 years) really mean?” )

We have the technology and resources to do it, but we haven’t demonstrated the will. We lack the kinds of functioning political systems to make solving climate change seem possible. As David Roberts said way back in 2013, we are caught between the impossible (acting) and the unthinkable (failing to act). To avoid the unthinkable, we have to be all in, everywhere; we have to make the impossible (a rapid and complete transition to a zero carbon emissions world) possible. All of us, governments, businesses, communities, and individuals. That is what Greta, the student strikers, and even now the climate scientists, are begging us to do.

Voting for the climate is absolutely critical. But it’s only the beginning. Creativity, persistence, commitment, imagination, courage, cooperation with people outside your crowd, and unknown other ingredients will all be needed. I’m contemplating how to use my skills and strengths in new ways to heed the call that went out this week. I hope you will watch my website and this blog for ideas and opportunities. And I hope you too are imagining how to step up. We make the path by walking it.

Guest Blog: Redefining hope in a world threatened by climate change

Reposted with permission from SueEllen Campbell and Yale Climate Connections:

Perhaps you have read that The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom has decided to use the terms climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead of climate change in its news stories; and global heating instead of global warming. As social and cultural circumstances alter, words and their power change their meanings and impact, and the public in the end may have to adapt by using new words.

Or sometimes we can try to refine or redefine old words to fit new circumstances. For instance, hope, which as verb and noun has long implied both desire and expectation: “I hope [desire] that we can solve the climate problem” or “I have little hope [don’t expect] that our civilization will survive this existential climate crisis.” But what happens when desire outstrips results, and then discouragement leads to hopelessness, despair, cynicism, paralysis? When hope starts to sound passive and empty?

Here, from some leading thinkers, writers, philosophers, and educators, are a few useful, maybe even inspiring, ways to rethink hope. Click on the links for more good words.

Amory Lovins: “Many of us here stir and strive in the spirit of applied hope. We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices. … Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. … Applied hope requires fearlessness.”

Joanna Macy: “Active Hope involves identifying the outcomes we hope for and then playing an active role in bringing them about. We don’t wait until we are sure of success. We don’t limit our choices to the outcomes that seem likely. Instead, we focus on what we truly, deeply long for, and then we proceed to take determined steps in that direction.”

Michael P. Nelson: “I want us to replace ‘I hope’ with ‘I resolve to do the work’ or ‘I will be this kind of person, I will live this kind of life’ or any sort of utterance that focuses on virtue rather than on consequence. … I am suggesting … that our obligation to the future is most properly satisfied when we act rightly and virtuously, and when our motivation stands stubbornly apart from, not held hostage to, the consequences of our actions.”

David W. Orr: “Optimism has this confident look, feet up on the table. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

Maria Popova: “Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope – not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that. In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”

Carl Safina: “Hope is the ability to see how things could be better. The world of human affairs has long been a shadowy place, but always backlit by the light of hope. Each person can add hope to the world. A resigned person subtracts hope. The more people strive, the more change becomes likely. Far better, then, that good people do the striving.”

Rebecca Solnit: “Hope is not about what we expect. It’s an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world. Hope is not a door but a sense that there might be a door”; “It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand”; “It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.

Written by retired Colorado State University English professor and close climate change watcher SueEllen Campbell of Colorado, with permission of author and Yale Climate Connections. Link to original post: https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/07/redefining-hope-in-a-world-threatened-by-climate-change/

The four things we need to do now for climate action (Thank you, David Roberts!)

Last fall, I did something I thought I would never, ever do: I leased a brand-new car. I had been driving a used all-electric Nissan Leaf, and its 40-mile range just didn’t work for me anymore. So I leased an all-electric Chevy Bolt. Although I’m not crazy about having a car payment, I feel great about this choice; leasing an electric vehicle passed the test I use to decide which climate actions to take and which climate policies to support.

Where did I get this test? David Roberts, who writes about climate change and energy for Vox, gave it to me in his article “What genuine, no bulls**t ambition on climate change would look like.”

In this article, Roberts discusses three publications examining pathways to the 1.5°C target discussed in the Paris Climate Agreement. He finds that all the scenarios agree there are four things we absolutely must do–and do quickly–to have any reasonable chance of containing runaway climate change before its consequences become catastrophic and it threatens human societies around the world.

First, we need to dramatically increase energy efficiency. How efficient we are is measured as “energy intensity,” defined as the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP.  In all three scenarios, energy intensity needs to fall quickly and outpace economic growth. In one scenario, energy intensity falls by two thirds by 2050. Polices that raise efficiency standards for buildings, industries, vehicles, and appliances are all effective ways to catalyze this change. So is placing a rising price on carbon emissions.

Second, we need to dramatically increase renewable energy production. All scenarios show renewables—mostly wind and solar—rapidly becoming the dominant sources of electricity. The scenarios range from 85% renewable electricity generation by 2050 to 100% renewable electricity by 2040. Carbon pricing, renewable electricity standard laws, incentivizing renewable energy development, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and many other policies can speed up the shift to clean electricity generation.

Third, we need to electrify everything.This is where my all-electric Bolt comes in. All scenarios require electrification of all sectors currently running on fossil fuels.  Once our economy runs on electricity, we have the technology and the infrastructure to run it on clean energy.  Currently, the many issues related to making zero-carbon liquid fuels have not been resolved.

The fourth thing we must do is to sequester carbon, or, as Roberts puts it, pursue negative emissions. Even if we ramp up quickly on global efforts to decarbonize our energy systems, all three scenarios suggest we will also need to remove some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Both forests and soils have the potential to store a lot of carbon. Planting trees, allowing forests to regrow, and changing to agricultural practices that enrich soil carbon have the potential to sequester carbon. A variety of interesting proposals and programs have started to find ways to do this. 

David Roberts is my favorite climate journalist.  I don’t always agree with his strong opinions or love his sometimes snarky Twitter feed, but he’s a voracious consumer of key climate information and a fantastic big-picture synthesizer of what it all means. I also think he’s really smart. He helped me to see that assessing climate solutions is pretty simple.  I’m for any solution or policy that contributes in a big way to these four steps—increasing energy efficiency, increasing renewable energy production, electrifying everything, and sequestering carbon—because we know what we must do and we are out of time. 

One clean energy solution you may be underestimating

When I was a kid, my favorite grandfather–a retired businessman and a dreamer–bought us a windmill. We were excited by the idea of wind generating some of our electricity, but that’s not what happened. After a series of delays and mishaps, the assembled structure was a spindly, fragile-looking thing perched on a tall metal lattice structure that from the start failed to produce any significant electricity at my parents’ gusty cliff-side house, an expensive disappointment. 

Forty years later, as I’m traveling through eastern Washington, modern wind turbines dot the wide-open grasslands. Cows grazing on a nearby hillside look very much like tiny black and white ants. It’s tricky to get a sense of the scale of these descendants of my grandfather’s windmill until we turn off on a side road that leads to a pullout near the base of a turbine. The tower is at least 200 feet tall, with three blades that are more than 100 feet long; I’ve read that the energy generated by a single one of today’s turbines can power hundreds and hundreds of homes.

If you don’t live in a windy open landscape, you may be more aware of advances in solar panels than wind turbines. Yet when experts model a successful transition to a clean energy society, wind plays a critical role. Today’s wind energy is cheap, efficient, and capable of supplying lots of electricity across a large swath of the United States and other parts of the world too. It’s also an excellent complement to solar power, often producing power when solar panels are not. Advances in grid technology and unexpectedly rapid declines in battery costs are improving reliability and reducing the cost of installing wind energy projects in the United States and the world. According to a report from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) the cost of wind power has dropped 67 percent since 2009, and now Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota all get more than 30 percent of their electricity from wind turbines.

Some experts also suggest that offshore wind farms, still in the early stages of deployment, may become a central clean energy source in the coming years. A 2017 analysis found that open ocean wind farms have the potential to power the entire world.

There is no free lunch, no harmless way to power today’s world. Since the 1990s, we’ve known that wind turbines pose a threat to birds and bats, who sometimes fly into the moving blades and are killed. Although this sad discovery led to some fierce criticism of  wind energy, it’s also led to important efforts to reduce bird deaths, including siting wind farms to minimize bird risk. 

A 2018 article in Audubon magazine summarizes Audubon’s stance on wind energy. After releasing a 2014 report on birds and climate change which found that climate change will threaten more than half of North America’s birds if we don’t rapidly reduce emissions, Audubon has become a powerful advocate for transitioning to renewable energy, including wind. Audubon is therefore working in collaboration with the wind industry on developing best practices for wind farms to minimize harm to birds, and highlighting other technologies being developed to make wind energy safer for wildlife.

I think of my grandfather whenever I see wind turbines across an open landscape. I think he would find today’s wind turbines miraculous and even beautiful in their way. He was a dreamer who was always excited by the promise of new technology; this is one that has a central role to play in a clean-energy powered future.