Corvallis High School student strikers
Corvallis High School student strikers
Student strikers at Corvallis High School, September 20, 2019

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.

David Roberts, image from AMERICA ADAPTS

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. 

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.