I bet you could use some good news today. I’ve been following three climate progress stories this month that illustrate movement toward a safer climate and a better world. Below are quick summaries of each of them with links you can use to learn more. I hope these stories encourage and inspire you!
One: The fossil fuel sector is increasingly losing its social license to operate. This month, the Vatican urged the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth to divest from fossil fuel investments. This is the latest in a string of increasingly big wins for the fossil fuel divestment movement. Since January, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and others have pledged to stop investing in the dirtiest fossil fuels. Many faith groups, universities and pension funds have declared that it is unethical (and unwise) to invest in the destruction of the earth’s climate. If the financial sector stops financing fossil fuel extraction refining and transport, the chances of preventing a runaway climate catastrophe increase.
Two: More businesses with deep pockets and vast resources are announcing plans and beginning to act to decarbonize their energy systems and contribute to climate solutions. This month Lyft committed to transitioning to 100% EVs (electric vehicles) by 2030. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., as well as a huge contributor to local air pollution. Lyft’s commitment will help reduce these impacts, and it will also increase trust in EVs, which is a critical step for widespread adoption. Ford Motors announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2050, which will require a huge commitment to EVs and other climate-friendly changes. Other companies that have recently upped their commitments to climate action include Unilever, (one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world), Amazon, Microsoft, and Ikea.
Three: Renewable energy is taking over the U.S. electricity grid, even without help from the federal government. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend, and a grid that’s powered by clean energy is rapidly becoming both technically feasible and economically competitive. A new study shows that falling costs combined with breakthroughs in storage have made it feasible to get to 90% renewable electricity in the U.S. in just 15 years while lowering costs. This level of technological progress and economic viability for renewables was unimaginable ten or even five years ago, but today, we have the ability to quickly transition our electrical grid to renewables affordably.
It’s not usually advisable to speak for others, yet I think I know how many climate experts are feeling right now. There’s this particular twinge I feel as a climate advocate: seeing how humans are mobilizing globally and instantaneously to fight the coronavirus yet we’ve been unable–for three decades–to mobilize against the slower-moving yet ultimately more catastrophic and irreversible threat of climate change. For someone deeply engaged in climate facts, this unequal crisis response feels dizzying. And yet, our global action against the pandemic shows that we are capable of massive, lightning-fast change.
I want to talk about our emerging awareness of the scale and speed of change we are capable of in a crisis. I don’t think any of us born after World War II have seen this capacity before, but we are seeing it now. In our country and around the world, hundreds of millions of people have stopped going to work, school, church, social events, and sporting events. Leisure and work travel has been suspended, skies have cleared, traffic jams are gone, classrooms, sports arenas, and concert halls sit empty, and nearly everything considered “non-essential” that requires being with others has stopped. Along with all the tragedy, fear and insecurity of the pandemic, we are also seeing a tremendous capacity for sacrifice, generosity, and change.
Naomi Oreskes, an historian of science at Harvard I’ve long admired, recently spoke with journalist David Green about the lessons of coronavirus that might help humanity respond to climate change. She highlighted the breathtaking sacrifices people are making in response to COVID-19 that were previously unimaginable:
“I think that the crisis brings into sharp relief the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” We can act, we know how to mobilize expertise, to mobilize technology. And we now see that the American people and people around the world are great at sacrificing. Whereas, it’s always been said that the problem with solving climate change is that people are not willing to sacrifice.”
And here’s the kicker:
“People not only can, but will, sacrifice, if they’re given the right information and leadership.” (emphasis mine)
This is the hopeful heart of her message. Because, as Oreskes points out, what most people need to sacrifice to solve the climate crisis is a whole lot less than what they are sacrificing during this pandemic. Decarbonizing quickly is achievable: we have the technology, resources, and policy tools to do it without widespread harm. In fact, most experts believe a well-organized clean energy transition will lead to widespread health benefits, a surge in good jobs and economic benefits for most people.
So as we navigate this crisis, let’s keep our eye on this prize: an economic recovery that builds clean energy and decarbonizes our economy at the same time. To get there, Oreskes says, we need two key ingredients: the right information and leadership, and breaking the control the fossil fuel industry has over our country and our politics. If the last four months illustrate anything, it’s that once we commit, we can get there quickly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With all the chaos and distraction the Congress faces, it’s up to us to keep their focus on climate action!
The more they hear from voters that our top priority is climate change solutions, the more likely it is they will work constructively on enacting them. Find ways to tell your Members of Congress to make climate action their top priority!FIND YOUR MEMBERS OF CONGRESS!