“We are the last generation that can end climate change. We can and we will.” Khishigjargal, 24, Mongolia
On November 4, 2020, the United States officially withdraws from the Paris Climate Accord in a mockery to the reality Americans face in this tumultuous year. No longer a theoretical projection modeled from academic geophysical constructs, climate changes brings the reality of drought, fires, floods and diseases upon us all over the world. The youth of the world cry out for attention, as they observe the window for effective action closing rapidly. For some, their fate is sealed already. Grieving for what has been and will inevitably be lost burdens the hearts of all who care about the future and the fate of civilization.
The triple existential threats of greenhouse gas emissions, global pollution and now global pandemics all result from human patterns of behavior over the last 100 years. Transforming our way of relating to the natural world can create a better, brighter future. The problems of climate change, social equity and environmental justice must be resolved simultaneously, or they will not be resolved at all. We must recognize that we are more alike as human creatures dependent on the living Earth than different in our genders, religions, cultures, races or political persuasions. We must reimagine our way of life in harmony with Nature, rather than dependent on its destruction.
Recognize the Cost of NOT Acting on Climate Change
Although many individual cities, a few states and some businesses and corporations have made climate commitments since the International Paris Accord in December 2015, the United States has promoted policies to support fossil industries. Baseline emissions patterns continue on a trajectory toward a four-degree increase, or higher, in the average global temperature.
|U.S. Emissions Trajectory Compared to Climate Goals|
UNEP. 2018 Emissions Gap Report https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/12/UNEP-1.pdf
Prospects for economic prosperity weaken as climate conditions continue to worsen. The Market Risk Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a report that sounded a stark alarm: “Climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy. Climate change is already impacting or is anticipated to impact nearly every facet of the economy, including infrastructure, agriculture, residential and commercial property, as well as human health and labor productivity.”[i] The invisible hand of the market will not make the adjustments necessary because the consequences of destroying the ecosystem services that support life on Earth are not directly counted in the marketplace. Losing the living Earth will cause cascading disasters that cannot be replaced.
The natural world that forms our life support system is under extreme duress. Species extinction rates are now hundreds of times higher than historical averages. Human actions have compromised or destroyed 75% of the land surface of the earth, including loss of 85% of wetlands, and 66% of the worlds ocean area is experiencing multiple destructive forces from human actions in overfishing, pollution -especially from plastics, and chemical changes in acidification due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[ii] In the last four years, regulations that protect the environment and endangered species have been weakened or rescinded.[iii] Under the excuse of the COVID pandemic, environmental protections are not being enforced.[iv] Granted at the behest of oil and gas industries, the relaxation of environmental protections has increased the pollution of air and water across the United States.
Climate change exacerbates some underlying health threats and creates new public health challenges. Climate change increases exposure to elevated temperatures; more frequent, severe, or longer-lasting extreme events; degraded air quality; diseases transmitted through food, water, and disease vectors (such as ticks and mosquitoes); and stresses to our mental health and well-being.[v] Vulnerable populations are more likely to experience climate change injury, acute and chronic illnesses, developmental issues, and death. Especially people living in heavily polluted areas or who are in poverty have a higher risk of exposure to biological, psychosocial, chemical or physical stressors which are often increased by climate change conditions. The social safety net has not provided timely or sufficient assistance to help people cope with the constant stress of climate change, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed weaknesses in the health care, education and public health and welfare systems.
Support the Benefits of A Green Economy
As we seek recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes clear that restoring the “normal” of the past will not achieve a lasting solution. The need to address the economic and social pain of the pandemic puts a spotlight on the inequities and systemic injustices of our current system. Planning a recovery to a new “normal” can accelerate the necessary transformation of our economy and our culture to a more sustainable way of living. Our laws and policies must change to restore the balance among a just and equitable economic system; a social justice system for health, education, culture and public well-being; and environmental protection provisions that sustain our life support system- fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and the diversity of species that comprise the global web of life. Over the last fifty years, the economic metric has dwarfed all other measures of value in our culture, resulting in inequitable wealth distribution, unequal power sharing, and broad environmental degradation.
The pathways to a sustainable future are clear. We can transform our economy and our way of life to place priority on changing human behaviors systematically to control the acceleration of climate change. The technologies necessary to make the shift are in hand. We must galvanize a collective sense of urgency to take action.[i] When we do so, the benefits are significant, and accumulate rapidly.[ii]
Clear Policy Actions to Preserve the Planet for Our Children
In spite of the partisan divide that has hampered effective policy to mitigate climate change in the past decade, Americans increasingly recognize the need for action. In 2020, 82% of Americans across all political persuasions agree climate change from human actions is occurring and likely to increase global temperatures continuing into the next century.[iii] National leadership for a coordinated and consistent policy that will drive a unified response has been lacking. The amount of carbon dioxide already released into the atmosphere and baked in from existing sources of new emissions will assure that the global temperature continues to rise beyond the one degree Celsius already experienced in this decade. Controlling the further increase to levels that will still sustain life as we know it must take place within the next ten to 15 years.
Here are four principles to guide the climate policy U-Turn:
1. Empower people to transform the economy. Government policies since the early 1980s have focused primarily on market-based decisions to strengthen business, especially large corporate entities. Yet, the highest times of productivity in our country and elsewhere have come when public investment empowering people, small businesses and communities have priority. We can re-create a sense of community and common purpose where people feel connected to their own communities and when that connection allows people to prosper. Young people should offer one year of public service upon graduation from high school. This can be military service, Volunteers In Service To America service, or community infrastructure restoration such as was offered through the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era. Education beyond that year of service, whether to community college, union trade apprenticeship or university study should have a nominal tuition. Students should not be completing their education with $100,000 or more in debt. Re-weave the social safety net to provide equitable access to health, education and poverty assistance. We need to de-criminalize poverty at all levels and define equitable pathways to prosperity. Entrenched discriminatory practices that limit access to financing for personal investment or for entrepreneurial investments must be equitably available.
2. Revise property rights to place priority on protecting ecosystems rather than mineral rights. The natural systems that support life are embedded in the surface of the Earth- topsoil, trees, grasslands, wetlands, riparian areas around rivers and streams, oceans. These living earth ecosystems are the true places that support the essential needs for life as we know it to exist. Preserving the life support system should be the top priority. If value and rights are assigned to such ecosystem services, preserving forests will have value, regenerative farming that restores soil fertility will have value, preserving wetlands and coastal floodplains will have value. Rescinding mineral rights as having dominance over surface rights will prevent farms, forests, parks and wetlands from destruction to access minerals and fossil deposits of oil, gas and coal. Stop subsidies for fossil industries. The entitlement for protection will shift to living earth systems instead.
3. Restore science as the basis for public policy. The reality of climate change requires immediate and sustained action. The laws of Nature are not negotiable, nor do physics, chemistry and physiology adjust for our laws. Technologies to mitigate the advance of climate change are available. They must be incorporated into law across the country.
Renewable energy systems can advance rapidly if the electricity grid would be modernized to intersecting micro-grid nodes. Adopting a national building code standard based on passive soar design, adjusted for regional differences, would create net zero energy and water buildings, or even allow buildings to create more energy than they use if Photovoltaic roofs were incorporated. Electrifying the transportation system with electric vehicles and light rail systems would improve ambient air as well as bolster manufacturing opportunities. Integrating storage technologies with artificial intelligence for load management and aligning power sources with uses can shift the pattern of power from central distribution systems to dispersed interconnected options.
Regenerative agriculture– the practice of restoring crop rotation, cover crops, low tillage and other techniques can restore the fertility of the land and protect the health of people. Reforesting abandoned mine lands and protecting forested lands on public and private property with sound management practices and native species can also help to absorb carbon to reduce the greenhouse gas burden. Agricultural policies must shift from subsidizing huge corporate agricultural industrial production to supporting smaller farms, under 1000 acres, for food production. Many of our farming communities are centered in food insecure areas because the output of the farms targets export or commodity products, not food for people. Technical assistance, marketing assistance and investment support as well as insurance should be structured to support family farms, not massive corporate entities. Cultivation using soil regenerating practices should benefit more than enterprises that depend heavily on petrochemical-based fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and GMO systems.
Reward circular materials management systems rather than the current system of taking raw material to trash as rapidly as possible. The cost of waste, packaging, and disposal must be incorporated into the price. The full life cycle cost of extracting, processing and using materials must be included. As long as the fossil-based products appear inexpensive, there is no incentive to reshape markets. We must design our materials to be re-used, repurposed or reclaimed after their intended use has been completed. Value based on long-term usefulness rather than disposable “convenience” restores traditional priorities on quality and durability. Moving to plant-based resources rather than fossil-based resources also expands the options for circular economies connected to the land. The expanding field of green chemistry offers numerous avenues for materials production without the burden of destructive resource extraction.
4. Address the systemic degradation of human value inherent in treating workers as commodities or units of production. The dignity of each person is an attribute of our shared humanity, regardless of race, gender, religion or political persuasion. The unrestrained capitalist approach places maximum value on the profits produced. That creates the incentive to devalue the land as much as possible, and to squeeze as much as possible out of the labor component. Returns on capital investment are highest when land, including resources and feedstocks, as well as labor costs can be kept as low as possible. This system is inherently biased against workers and against protecting environmental attributes. We must restore the balance by elevating the value of work and workers assuring the right to organize and bargain with assurance. We must protect people from corporate greed. Sacrifice zones- the areas within a mile of industrial installations- are not acceptable in a just and equitable America. It is not okay anywhere to write off the health and well-being of people because of where they live.
Call for Accountability
The burden of the climate crisis does not fall equally around the globe. The burden of climate change also falls more and more heavily on our children and those of future generations. Because the effects of greenhouse gas accumulation persist for hundreds of years, the mitigation efforts will not rapidly reverse damages already set from the accelerating levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We are facing a challenge of ethics and fairness, not a technology problem. On behalf of our children and the children of the future, we must call to account the true culprits of climate change. Global carbon emissions increased by 60% from 1990 to 2015. This increase has exhausted half of the atmospheric carbon level to hold global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.[i]
Carbon emissions by country reflect the energy intensity of the economic activity as well as the size of the economy. China (21.6%), the United States (14.4%) and the European Union (9.7%) together account for nearly half of total global carbon emissions, while the bottom 100 countries contribute only 3.5%.[ii] The majority of emissions come from producing electricity, transportation and heating. China’s rapid economic growth and its large population have contributed to the rise in its total carbon emissions in the last decade. Global warming has exacerbated the economic inequalities across countries. The higher carbon emitting countries have experienced relatively less severe climate change effects than many less developed countries, especially island nations and areas in the Southern Hemisphere that are severely affected by prolonged drought. However, since 2000, over twenty countries have reduced emissions while continuing to grow their economies.[iii] And, low-carbon energy sources have the potential to provide a substantial secondary development benefit, in addition to the primary benefits of increased energy access.[iv]
Carbon emissions per person reflect lifestyle choices and individual energy and food choices in particular. The top 10% of the wealthy account for 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions while the bottom 50% of people account for about 10%.[v] According to Tim Gore, author of the Oxfam Report, “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fueling the climate crisis yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price. Such extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of our governments decades long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth.” Americans are among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases per person in the world at an average of 18 metric tons of carbon emissions per person, compared to the global average of 4.3 metric tons of Carbon emissions per person, and double the level of China (7.9) Germany (8.9) United Kingdom (6.5) France (4.6) and Sweden (4.5).[vi] In the United States, emissions from transportation have been rising every year since 2012, and since 2016 have been the country’s largest carbon emissions source, surpassing the power sector.[vii]
Twenty corporations account for the majority of carbon emissions worldwide. Fossil fuels are the largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Between 1965 and 2017, the top 20 emitters contributed 35% of total carbon emissions worldwide. Twenty companies have collectively contributed 480 billion tons of carbon dioxide and methane, chiefly from the combustion of their products, equivalent to 35% of all fossil fuel and cement emissions worldwide since 1965.[i] Companies such as Suncor, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips have invested in the extraction of oil sands, tight oil, heavy oils and other forms which carry a larger environmental impact than conventional crude oil. These sources comprise a rapidly growing fraction of fossil fuels produced worldwide.[ii] The top five fossil industries spend significant amounts of money to control and limit regulation of emissions, with over $200 million a year spent on lobbying in the U.S. alone.[iii] Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil were the main companies leading the field in direct lobbying to push against a climate policy to tackle global warming.[iv] Worse, these companies knew the danger of global warming as early as 1965 but pressed forward with an increasingly strident effort to promote production and oppose any limits on emissions.[v] Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy and ConocoPhillips are all American companies in the top levels of global carbon emissions.[vi]
A Call to Action
The United States is officially withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. It is time to assert the reality of the climate situation and the important role the United States has as a major contributor to the problem. We also hold the potential to resume leadership in building a more just and equitable, resilient and sustainable way forward. We must act at all levels from the individual practice of reducing our carbon footprint, to local community climate action plans, state actions and ultimately a federal Climate Action Initiative that establishes a path to zero carbon emissions by 2050. Our children deserve a viable future.
Let’s start today!
Citations and References:
[i] Heede, Richard (2019) Carbon Majors: Accounting for carbon and methane emissions 1854-2010 Methods & Results Report, re-issued with new foreword, ISBN 978-3-659-57841-0, OmniScriptum, Riga, 148 pp.
[v] Tim Gore, Mira Alestig, Anna Ratcliff.Confronting Carbon Inequality: Putting Climate Justice at the Heart of the COVID-19 Recovery. Oxfam. 21 September 2020. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621052/mb-confronting-carbon-inequality-210920-en.pdf
[vii] P.Benoit.(2020,March).EverythingYouNeedtoKnowAbouttheFastest-GrowingSourceofGlobal Emissions: Transport. Ethics and International Affairs. https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/10/everything-you-need- know-about-fastest-growing-source-global-emissions-transport
[i] IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2020/02/SPM_Updated-Jan20.pdf
[ii] Patricia. M. DeMarco. “Green Jobs and a Living Planet- Make It Happen” Pathways to a New Economy Blog post May 23, 2019. https://patriciademarco.com/2019/05/23/green-jobs-and-a-living-planet-make-it-happen/ )
[iii] Krosnick, Jon A., and Bo MacInnis. 2020. Climate Insights 2020: Overall Trends. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. https://media.rff.org/documents/Climate_Insights_Overall_Trends_Final.pdf
[i] Rostin Behnam, David Gillers, Robert Litterman. Managing Climate Risk in the U.S. Financial System. Report of the Climate-Related Market Risk Sub-Committee of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. September 9, 2020. Library of Congress Control Number: 20209165930 ISBN: 978-0-578-74841-2.
[ii] United Nations Summit on Biodiversity. September 30, 2020. https://www.un.org/pga/75/united-nations-summit-on-biodiversity/
[iii] Katherine Buchholz. “Trump Administration Reversed 100 Environmental Rules.” Statista. October 15, 2020. https://www.statista.com/chart/18268/environmental-regulations-trump-administration/
[iv] Ellen Knickmeyer. “Citing virus, EPA has stopped enforcing environmental laws.” March 26, 2020. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/citing-virus-epa-stopped-enforcing-environmental-laws-69827970
[v] Balbus, J., A. Crimmins, J.L. Gamble, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, S. Saha, and M.C. Sarofim, 2016: Ch. 1: Introduction: Climate Change and Human Health. The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, 25–42. http://dx.doi.org/10.7930/J0VX0DFW