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:
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 oceans, melting 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.
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.
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.
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/
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.
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.
Even at times when I can’t see a clear path to solving climate change, I find reasons for optimism. No one knows what will happen in the next few years, but a full scale transformation to contain climate change is not impossible. I take heart from the places where we are making progress. Consider these, for example:
Many states have been enacting truly transformative policies. Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Washington have committed to 100% clean electricity by 2050 or sooner, and at least six other states are considering similar legislation.
Twenty-four governors have joined the U.S. climate alliance, committing to implement policies consistent with the Paris Climate Accord. According to the Alliance fact sheet, the Alliance now represents more than half the U.S. population.
In the U.S., Coal-burning power plants continue to shut down, and half of them are already shuttered. Renewable energy continues to advance and become cheaper, and it’s providing more and more electricity, surpassing coal-fired electricity for this first time this year.
Perhaps where I find the most hope is the shift in public understanding. I read about this change in new polling, and I experience it talking to people. A large majority of Americans finally understand that climate change is happening, and many also understand the stakes and urgency of the climate crisis. For the first time, climate change has polled as the top issue among Democrats. The youth climate strikes are gaining momentum and beginning to influence governments. The strike on May 24 reportedly included protests in 1600 towns in over 125 countries. If these indicators reflect a true societal shift, then the possibility for transforming our society off carbon pollution becomes more imaginable.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones wrote:
“Solving climate is going to be harder, and more improbable, than winning World War II, achieving civil rights, defeating bacterial infection and sending a man to the moon all together.”
I think they are right. Then they say, “Let’s do it!” Because improbable doesn’t mean impossible. So when I feel down about the climate crisis, I pay a little extra attention to the latest good work on climate solutions, and I take action to help it grow. So far, this has cheered me up every time.
What I’ve learned in my years as a climate solutions advocate is that it’s very easy to find flaws with someone else’s plan to bring down carbon emissions. What is much harder is to be for it.
I used to bristle when anyone would argue that when pricing carbon, cap and trade is better than fee and dividend. I used to disagree when someone would say federal action is impossible, so we should focus on state and local action.
Every day I become more convinced that saying yes to ALL credible efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and solve climate change is the most essential action we can take to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
We are long past the time when we can debate the perfect approach. The most recent report from the IPCC (the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change) stated these stark facts: we are on track to face a world of worsening food shortages, wildfires, mass die-offs of coral reefs, droughts and poverty by 2040. Avoiding this future requires transforming the world economy beginning immediately, at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”
What would happen if all of us who understand the urgent threat posed by climate change decided to say yes to any proposal that good evidence suggests will bring down greenhouse gas emissions and help contain climate change? Carbon tax or cap and trade? Yes! Renewable energy standards or clean energy subsidies? Yes! State or federal action? Yes! Fracking ban or methane leak reduction? Yes! Solar access requirements or solar tax credits? Yes! Green New Deal or Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act? Yes! Electric vehicle incentives, closing coal-fired power plants, or setting efficiency standards for new buildings? Yes!
Enacting climate solutions is a huge lift. Huge. Anything that gets passed will not be perfect. The powerful interests who profit from fossil fuels will continue to use their resources to block or slow action, and they have a lot of resources. Therefore, all our attention right now needs to be on getting things done, not arguing with each other about why my policy is better than yours.
And the good news is that during the past 30+ years of disinformation and inaction, experts have converged on the things we can do that will work. We now have the knowledge, expert consensus, and technology to tackle climate change.
My previous post, “Seven things we can do now to fight climate change,” shares this consensus. You can also read about expert consensus here and here.
We know what we need to do, so let’s not let the fine print get in our way. If bold proposals are offered, consider saying yes first, and asking questions later. The only way we will have a chance of bringing down emissions during the window that matters is if we stop trying to win with our favorite proposal and agree to agree.
And, for climate policies you just can’t support, consider my grandma’s wisdom: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
One thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is my belief that we know what to do to begin tackling the climate crisis, we just need to get to it!
Last month, Brad Plumer and Blacki Migliozzi wrote in the New York Times about seven things other countries or states are doing to cut greenhouse gas emissions that we can do here in the U.S. I was curious to see how these seven policies aligned with the consensus priorties I’m aware of, and I’m happy to say it’s a pretty good fit.
Here they are:
ONE: Enact an economy-wide carbon tax similar to British Columbia’s, starting low and rising over time. The consensus among climate scientists, economists, and world leaders is that a well designed carbon fee is the single most effective first step we can take to begin the transition to off fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.
TWO: Require utilities to produce all their electricity from zero-carbon sources by mid-century. New York, California, and Hawaii have passed this requirement already.
THREE: Pass agressive electric vehicle incentives like Norway has done. Plug-in vehicles now make up half of all new sales in Norway.
FOUR: Set efficency targets for cement, steel, and petrochemical industries, like China has done.
FIVE: Set energy efficiency standards for new homes and commercial buildings, like California has done. National adoption of such standards could dramatically reduce emissions from heating and cooling buildings.
SIX: Regulate to curb methane emissions from oil and gas operations, similar to Canada’s methane rules which aim to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations 40-45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.
SEVEN: Pass legislation to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, as the European Union has done. These powerful greenhouse gases are used in refrigerators and foams. The 2016 Kigali Amendment requires phasing out these fluorinated gases, but we have not yet complied.
I’ll be looking for ways to help you take action in support of these policies. If you haven’t done so, I invite you to join Power Up to get my action invitations. Because strange as it sounds, researching and sharing climate solutions is what gets me out of bed in the morning!
Power Up for Climate Solutions is here to help people take action to tackle climate change. So I’ve spent a lot of time considering this question: What are most of us not yet doing that will make a big difference?
It may surprise you to hear that every single person I’ve asked who has joined Power Up for Climate Solutions is taking steps to lower their carbon footprint—whether it’s through eating a plant-based diet, driving less, buying less, conserving energy, installing solar panels, or purchasing renewable energy. And yet, most report feeling hopeless or at least discouraged about our chances of solving the climate crisis.
I think you already know that the behavioral changes you may be making aren’t enough. Emissions are rising again, climate impacts are intensifying, and as all credible scientific reports have emphasized, we are out of time.
We know that along with lifestyle changes, we need a rapid societal and political transformation. We need to become a country (and a world) transitioning quickly away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and clean energy. In order to begin this massive transformation, first we need to be talking about it—a lot.
The reason talking about climate change and climate solutions is vital is this: we humans are social animals. We are strongly influenced by our friends, family, peers, members of groups we belong to, our leaders, and our constituents. Studies have found that once 10% of a population are dedicated to a cause (such as a rapid and just transition to a clean energy economy), cues from these dedicated folks can very quickly shift the prevailing attitudes in a society, instigating unexpectedly rapid societal and political transformations. Examples include women gaining the right to vote, the civil rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the legalization of gay marriage, and the legalization of marijuana.
Polls indicate that we’ve blown well past this 10% threshold on climate change. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s newest survey, 72% of Americans say global warming is extremely, very, or somewhat important to them, and 29% are alarmed, an 8-point increase from March 2018. However, only 8% say they often discuss global warming with friends and family. I am convinced that the most important thing we now need to do is speak up more—with our friends, families, in our communities, to our elected officials, and just whoever! (By the way, I didn’t come up with this idea–see Joe Romm’s comments here.)
I hope you will continue to make all the lifestyle changes you can to reduce your carbon footprint and transition to a clean energy economy. We will sometimes offer actions in this arena. However, most of the actions from Power Up will focus on ways to communicate with and influence those around you. They may include suggestions for talking to everyone–your sister, your electrician, your city councilor, your senator–about why you care about climate change, why we can and we must address it, and solutions that are technically and economically feasible. Because we know this is how societal transformations get started.