Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."


DIVEST!

Rapid Response to the Climate Emergency = Move Investments away from Coal, Oil and Gas

Patricia M. DeMarco

March 6, 2020

The world needs to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 to preserve viable conditions for life on Earth as we know it. The current Nationally Determined Carbon (NDC) emissions target for the United States of America is to reduce emissions by 26–28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025.[1]  The climate emergency is upon us. The people of 2050 are here now – my niece will be 28; my grandchildren will be in their early 40s, my children will be looking at retirement in 2050. We need to mobilize the transformation to a non-fossil-based economy on a scale equivalent to the mobilization of World war II, a shift that happened within four years.  

For the last three years, we have moved backwards in the actions to reduce GHG emissions through three specific policy efforts of the Trump Republican administration. First, Trump’s Republicans replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan with the recently issued Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. While the Clean Power Plan, targeted to emissions from coal power plants, would have reduced power sector emissions by roughly 32 per cent, the ACE rule is expected to reduce them by roughly only one per cent.[2] This is far short of the NDC goal for the United States under the Paris Climate Accord.

Second, Trump’s Republican administration froze the vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks until 2026, meaning that the average fuel efficiency will remain at 35 miles per gallon (mpg), rather than rising to 54 mpg. According to analysis by the Rhodium Group, this will increase emissions from the transportation sector by 28–83 Million tons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030, with the ultimate amount dependent upon the effect of oil prices on consumption.[3]

Third, Trump’s Republican administration has weakened or rescinded 95 environmental regulations deemed “burdensome” to business to accelerate production of oil and natural gas, opening federal lands including National Wildlife Preserves and National Parks to drilling.  Emissions from heightened oil and gas production and renewed coal use or deferred plant retirements have added 2.2% to the GHG burden. According to the International Energy Agency’s Global Energy and CO2 Report, U.S. government policy is centered on the concept of “energy dominance,” which reflects a strategy to maximize energy production, expand exports and be a leader in energy technologies. Environmental deregulation is a central focus, though it may have (negative) implications for the emissions trajectory. [4]

Policy U-Turn required to meet climate goals by 2050 UN Emissions Gap Report.
In spite of Trump policies that ignore climate change and exacerbate emissions, overall Americans are increasingly concerned about this issue. Recent national surveys show that 67% of the total population believes climate change is happening now, and 60% are worried or very worried about climate change with 67% expressing concern for future generations and 69% concerned about harm to plants and animals. Support is very strong for funding research into renewable energy sources (83%) and for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (72%) or setting strict limits on existing coal -fired power plants (68%).  A surprising 70% believe that environmental protection is more important than economic growth. [5]    

A group of 25 governors representing over half of the country’s population and $11.7 trillion in US Gross Domestic Product have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition committed to reducing GHG emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.[6]  In addition, many national and international corporations have made climate commitments a part of their operating strategies.  

Furthermore, the economics of utility scale solar and wind now compete favorably with all fossil fuels and new nuclear power. As the life cycle costs continue to fall and energy storage and load management technologies improve rapidly, the utility sector is continuing its move away from coal, diesel and natural gas.[7] The US energy- related CO2 emissions fell by 14 per cent between 2005 and 2017, while the economy grew by 20 per cent.[8] The often-touted tie of environmental emissions to economic growth is clearly intercepted by advances in technology and responsible policies at the sub-national levels. But much more rapid movement to reduce the levels and pace of the GHG emissions is critically necessary for us to meet carbon neutrality targets by 2050.

What tools are available now to advance this rapid transformation? 

We can stop the flow of money to these capital-intensive fossil industries. Government subsidies hard-wired into law have supported mature coal, oil and gas production and service industries for more than fifty years, long past the time of spurring innovation.  For example, leases and sales of public lands at favorable rates is one frequently unrecognized form of subsidy.  In 2018, our public lands and waters produced 39% of total U.S. coal (282 million tons), 21% of total U.S. oil (826 million barrels) and 14% of total U.S. gas (4.3 trillion cubic feet). Since taking office, the Trump administration has offered more than 461 million acres of public lands and waters for oil and gas leasing from January 2017 through January 2020. Since January 2017, the Trump administration has sold 4,928 parcels (or more than 9.9 million acres) of public lands to oil and gas companies for development, including more than 5 million acres onshore and more than 4.9 million offshore acres. Development of these leases could result in lifecycle emissions between one billion and 5.95 billion Metric Tons of Greenhouse Gas emissions (CO2 plus methane.)[9] Removing such subsidies will require changes in law, a ponderous process certain to be stifled by the Trump Republican administration and Congress in the control of Republican majorities.

While we work to change the political balance to favor these necessary legislative measures, there are three ways citizens, corporations and communities can influence the flow of money to oil gas and coal interests immediately.  We can stop new investments in coal, oil, and gas extraction, production and services; divest from existing investments in these industries; and move investments into the high growth areas of renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and green chemistry.  All of these opportunities hold great promise for economic growth while sustaining a viable living ecosystem.[10]

University of Pittsburgh students and alumni call on Board of trustees to divest (January 28, 2020) /photo credit Mark Dixon Blue Lens LLC.

Money can move quickly, and the shift away from fossil industries is already growing. Larry Fink, Chairman of Blackrock Investment wrote to his shareholders, “… investors are asking how they should modify their portfolios. They are seeking to understand both the physical risks associated with climate change as well as the ways that climate policy will impact prices, costs, and demand across the entire economy…we will see changes in capital allocation more quickly than we see changes to the climate itself. In the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant reallocation of capital.”[11]

The U.S. shale oil industry hailed as a “revolution” has burned through a quarter trillion dollars more than it has brought in over the last decade. It has been a money losing endeavor of epic proportions.[12] In spite of the growth in emissions and investments in oil and gas development driven by the Trump Republican administration, the global trend has been away from investments in new fossil resource production. Blackrock’s $7.4 trillion in investment holdings is a huge driver, a larger amount than the entire country of Japan. Other major investors have also moved to divest from fossil fuels because of concern about climate change, including the European Investment Bank, The Church of England’s Pension Board, and large corporations such as Microsoft.  Sustainable investing began long ago as a focus for charitable contributions, but the recent movement began in the 1960s and its popularity has soared over the past few years with a 38% hike in assets since 2016 alone.[13]

Investments in clean energy stocks have outperformed fossil industry investments over the last decade.  Driven by global commitments to decarbonization, and the growth of renewable industries to power emerging economies in India, Africa and Asia, clean energy industries have seen increases from 32% to 58 % in the last five years. In addition, the rapidly falling cost of solar and wind technologies has driven confidence in these investments. The cost of solar has fallen 85 per cent since 2010, while wind power has dropped about 50 per cent, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.[14]  Williams Market Analytics reports that from 2014 to 2019 Extraction Production and Extraction Services industries have fallen 85%  while S&P 500 industries, including large utilities, have grown 69% in the same period.[15] As the hard evidence for sound investments in clean energy industries mounts in global markets, the Trump Republican administration policy position of forcing favor to coal, oil and natural gas becomes increasingly untenable.

As we look for ways to secure a better future for our children and families, it is increasingly important to recognize that current Trump Republican administration policies are looking backwards to a world that no longer exists.  The Energy Information Administration characterizes the carbon emissions profile and expectations thus: “After falling during the first half of the projection period, total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions resume modest growth in the 2030s, driven largely by increases in energy demand in the transportation and industrial sectors; however, by 2050, they remain 4% lower than 2019 levels.”[16] This level falls far short of any reasonable goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The longer we persist in subsidizing and investing in fossil industries, the less opportunity we will have to capture the rapidly growing clean energy options for the future. It is critical that we begin to make the policy U-Turn away from fossil fuel industries to avoid locking in another thirty years of fossil industry infrastructure.  The energy industries that adapt and move their focus away from fossil- based resources are the ones that will thrive in the future. 

 Continuing ‘Business As Usual’ will come at the cost of destruction of the ecosystem services of the living earth.  The Global Futures Report evaluated the cost of climate change in terms of the effect on six critical ecosystem services such as the pollination of crops, protection of coasts from flooding and erosion, supply of water, timber production, marine fisheries and carbon storage.[17] Reduced supply of these six ecosystem services alone would lead to a drop of 0.67% in annual global GDP by 2050 (compared to a baseline scenario in which there is no change in ecosystem services by 2050). This would be equivalent to an annual loss of US$ 479 billion compared to the baseline scenario, assuming an economy of the same size/structure as in 2011. Over the period between 2011 and 2050, the total cumulative loss would be US$ 9.87 trillion (3% discount rate).[18] In contrast, in a ‘Global Conservation’ scenario – in which the world adopts a more sustainable development pathway and safeguards areas that are important for biodiversity and ecosystem services — annual global GDP would be 0.02% higher (US$ 11 billion) by 2050, than in a baseline scenario of no change in ecosystem services, generating an annual net gain of US$ 490 billion per year compared to the Business As Usual scenario.[19]

If the United States established a priority for use of federal lands to sequester carbon and protect ecosystem services instead of prioritizing extractive industry development, the economic impact and emission reductions would be substantial. At the national level, the US Geological Survey estimates that terrestrial ecosystems (forests, grasslands, and shrublands) on Federal lands sequestered an average of 195 Million Metric Tons of CO2 – Equivalent per year between 2005 and 2014, offsetting approximately 15 percent of the CO2 emissions resulting from the extraction of fossil fuels on Federal lands and their end-use combustion. Lifecycle emissions from the production and combustion of fossil fuels produced on public lands as a result of the federal leasing program are equivalent to over 20% of total U.S. GHG emissions.[20]

The US government has many tools at its command to support and accelerate a transition to a renewable- energy- based economy.  For example, The Department of the Interior could drastically reduce needless methane pollution by reinstating a federal methane and natural gas waste regulation informed by science-based recommendations; eliminate production subsidies and loopholes for fossil energy; require developers to mitigate climate impacts; and rapidly phase down leasing and production. Additionally, the federal government should protect major carbon storing landscapes and invest in programs, incentives, and partnerships that promote responsible renewable energy development and public land restoration to create new sustainable economic opportunities.[21]

We can address the social disruptions already stressing coal, oil and gas-dependent communities by shifting investment and public policy support toward community-driven clean energy solutions.  In the four Re-Imagine community exercises I have participated in over the past three years, every community has developed serious plans for economic development in non-fossil industries.  The options range from solar farms to glass recycling centers; from growing hemp and bamboo to replace materials made from petrochemical feedstocks to building passive solar design eco-villages for affordable housing. I am convinced that if we unleash the ingenuity of the American people and support these initiatives with public policy that enables rather than stifles renewable energy, regenerative agriculture and green chemistry solutions, we will see a rebirth of America on a scale not seen in this century.

Citations and Resources:


[1]. United Nations Environment Programme (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019. UNEP, Nairobi.  http://www.unenvironment.org/emissionsgap        

[2]. Amelia T. Keys, Kathleen F. Lambert, Dallas Burtrow, Johnathan J. Buonocore, Jonathan I. Levy, and Charles T. Driscoll. “The Affordable Clean Energy rule and the impact of emissions rebound on carbon dioxide and criteria air pollution emissions.” Environmental Research Letters. April 9, 2019. Volume 14, Number 4. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aafe25

[3]. Trevor Houser, Kate Larsen, John Larsen, Peter Marsters, and Hannah Pitt. “The Biggest Climate Rollback Yet?” Rhodium Group Note. August 2, 2018. https://rhg.com/research/the-biggest-climate-rollback-yet/   

[4]. International Energy Agency. Global Energy and COStatus Report 2019. United States Data to 2018. March 1, 2020.  https://www.iea.org/countries/united-states

[5] Jennifer Marlon, Peter Howe, Matto MildenbergerAnthony Leiserowitz and Xinran Wang. Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2019. September 17, 2019.  https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/  Accessed March 1, 2020.

[6].  United States Climate Alliance. December 2019. http://www.usclimatealliance.org

[7].  Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage 2019. Lazard Insights. November 7, 2019. https://www.lazard.com/perspective/lcoe2019    Accessed February 26, 2019. 

[8] . Annual Energy Outlook 2020. U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA] 2018 data. https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/  

[9]. The Wilderness Society. Climate Report 2020: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Public Lands. https://www.wilderness.org/sites/default/files/media/file/TWS_The%20Climate%20Report%202020_Greenhouse%20Gas%20Emissions%20from%20Public%20Lands.pdfAccessed March 4, 2020

[10]. See the Global Futures Report for a new assessment of the economic cost of failing to preserve the ecosystem services that support global economies, and the value of a conservation strategy instead. https://wwf.panda.org/?359334 Accessed March 4, 2020 

[11]. Larry Fink. Chairman’s Letter “To Our Shareholders.” Blackrock Annual Report 2018.  https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/larry-fink-chairmans-letterAccessed March 2, 2020

[12]. Rebecca Elliott and Christopher Matthews. “Oil and Gas Bankruptcies Grow as Investors Lose Appetite for Shale.” Wall Street Journal. August 30, 2019.    https://www.wsj.com/articles/oil-and-gas-bankruptcies-grow-as-investors-lose-appetite-for-shale-11567157401   Accessed March 1, 2020.

[13]. Steve Norcini. “Sustainable Investing: Redefining Investing for the Long Term.” Wilmington Trust, Investment Advisory. Q4 2019. https://library.wilmingtontrust.com/z-featureditems/sustainable-investing-redefining-investing-for-the-long-term  Accessed March 1, 2020.

[14]. Harry Sanderson. “Clean Energy shares streak ahead of fossil fuel stocks.” Financial Times. October 1, 2019.   https://www.ft.com/content/2586fa10-e122-11e9-b112-9624ec9edc59  Accessed March 3, 2020.

[15]. Williams Market Analytics. https://www.williamsmarketanalytics.com

[16] . Energy Information Administration. Annual Energy Outlook 2020. (Data 2018)  https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/

[17]. Johnson, J.A., Baldos, U., Hertel, T., Liu, J., Nootenboom, C., Polasky, S., and Roxburgh, T. 2020. Global Futures: modelling the global economic impacts of environmental change to support policy-making. Technical Report, January 2020.  105 pages. https://www.wwf.org.uk/globalfutures  Accessed March 3, 2020.

[18]. Roxburgh, T., Ellis, K., Johnson, J.A., Baldos, U.L., Hertel, T., Nootenboom, C., and Polasky, S. 2020. Global Futures: Assessing the global economic impacts of environmental change to support policy-making. Summary report, January 2020. Page 3. https://www.wwf.org.uk/globalfutures   Accessed March 3, 2020.

[19]. Roxburgh, T., Ellis, K., Johnson, J.A., Baldos, U.L., Hertel, T., Nootenboom, C., and Polasky, S. 2020. Global Futures: Assessing the global economic impacts of environmental change to support policy-making. Summary report, January 2020. Page 4. https://www.wwf.org.uk/globalfutures   Accessed March 3, 2020

[20]. Merrill, M.D., Sleeter, B.M., Freeman, P.A., Liu, J., Warwick, P.D., and Reed, B.C., 2018, Federal lands greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration in the United States—Estimates for 2005–14: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018–5131, 31 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20185131.

[21]. Nathan Ratledge, Steven J. Davis and Laura Zachary. “Public lands fly under the climate radar.” Nature Climate Change. February 2019. vol.9:89-93. Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0399-7    Accessed March 2, 2020


Gifts of the Living Earth

by Patricia M.DeMarco, Ph.D.

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, marking the first time humans had stepped out in space: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”[i] The iconic images of our fragile blue planet spinning in the vast reaches of space cemented the perception of Earth as our only home. This giant leap in perception of the fragility of our planet set the stage for many of the environmental protections written into law in the United States during the 1970s.

The living earth fueled by the power of the sun provides the essential elements of our life support system: fresh air, clean water, fertile ground, and the biodiversity of species that constitute the interconnected web of life, of which humans are but one part. The gifts of the living earth include the many ecosystem services that humans rely on without thinking about them. The supporting services that provide nutrient cycling, soil formation, habitat formation and primary production; the provisioning services that produce food, fuel, wood and fiber and fresh water; the regulating services that temper the climate, control flooding, control pests and diseases, and purify water; and the cultural services that offer spiritual, aesthetic, educational and recreational benefits.[ii] This priceless life support system is in crisis. Burning fossil fuels has accelerated the accumulation of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, leading to global warming.  Resource extraction to obtain fossil fuels and other minerals has destroyed nearly one third of the natural habitat areas of the earth. Human populations, with life spans extended by modern health treatments, have spiraled beyond the carrying capacity of the natural world as the world’s people increasingly model their behavior after the Western standard of hyper-consumption. These four stresses on the earth have produced the twin existential crises of our time- global warming of the climate and global pollution, especially from plastic materials.

Solving the existential crises of global warming and global pollution is not a technology problem. It is a moral and ethical problem. The laws of Nature are not negotiable. We must change the way our society operates to abide within the laws of Nature in ways that can sustain life on earth. The United Nations Brundtland Commission in 1985 framed the concept of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This concept implies a commitment to preserve the well-being of future generations on a global basis. 

The most recent United Nations Report of the IPCC[iii] finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air. “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.[iv] Achieving a more sustainable path for modern civilization requires an adjustment of priorities. 

In the current system of the global economy, business decisions and government policies, especially recently in the United States, place highest value on monetary gains, with diminished or minimum weight on environmental and social values. This heavy stress on economic outcome regardless of environmental or social damage or inequity has resulted in rapidly accelerating deterioration of ecosystems, habitat, and quality of life across the country, and in many places around the world.

To achieve a more sustainable civilization for our children, preserving and restoring the ecosystems that provide our life support system must assume a higher value in decision making at all levels. Likewise, to achieve a higher level of equity, justice, and fairness, the social and cultural values that provide quality of life must have higher importance in all levels of decision making.

Pollinators provide essential eco-system service

The industrialized economy takes the basic premise that the resources of the earth are available for exploitation giving profits to investors. The land is not restored or regenerated as part of this process because there is no immediate profit in restoration. Only when regulations require remediation or protection do most corporations indulge in repair of damaged land. Likewise, to maximize profits, labor is paid as little as possible, with investment in machinery to reduce labor costs as much as possible. The entire tax structure and investment reward strategy of our current U.S. economy rests on these concepts.[v]

The earth is a living system of which humans are but one part; not human property to be owned or destroyed for profit. The laws of nature co-evolved over millions of years – chemistry, physics, biological and physiological responses to conditions in the environment -define complex inter-relationships among all living things and connect the living earth elements with the mineral and inert elements. These functions are inherent in living systems, priceless attributes of the living earth that are not reflected in the drivers of the economy. To achieve meaningful and lasting solutions to the existential crises of global warming and global pollution, the laws of nature must be incorporated into the practices of civil society.

Indigenous Peoples all around the world have long recognized the necessity of living within the laws of nature and do so by respecting the rights of the living earth. A gathering of Indigenous Peoples in the People’s Climate Conference at Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010 adopted a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that was introduced at the COP-15 meeting in Paris in 2015 arguing for a 1.5°C increase above pre-industrial ceiling for global warming. The goal of a 1.5°C ceiling was incorporated into the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 signed by 195 nations due to these efforts. The justification for this action states in part:

We the Peoples and Nations of Earth are all part of Mother Earth, an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny; and … Recognizing that capitalism and all forms of depredation, exploitation, abuse and contamination have caused great destruction, degradation and disruption of Mother Earth, putting life as we know it today at risk through phenomena such as climate change … establish this Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.[vi]

The Universal Rights of the Living Earth

The Indigenous Peoples Congress defined ten Universal Rights of Mother Earth.

  1. The right to life and to exist. The diversity of living plants, animals and micro-organisms on earth have a right to life and to exist. The complex interactions among the parts of ecosystems work best when all the components are in place and functional. Human habitat destruction, exploitation, and life cycle interruption drive hundreds of species to extinction. 
  2. The right to be respected. Indigenous Peoples lived on the Earth for thousands of years in harmony with Nature. Colonial appropriation of lands, especially for resource extraction, has destroyed many cultures. The cultural wisdom of Indigenous Peoples holds great value for guiding the transformation of society.
  3. The right to regenerate bio-capacity and to continue vital life cycles and processes free from human disruption. Human activities have permanently destroyed habitat, for example by converting rain forests to mono-crop plantations. Entire ecosystems have been disrupted by such activities as strip mining and mountaintop removal. Global pollution of air and water have damaged the viability of many living things. North American bird populations have declined by 29% since 1970 due to habitat loss.[vii]
  4. The right to maintain identity and integrity as a distinct self-regulating, and interrelated being. Complex symbiotic systems such as coral reefs, wetlands and rain forests are compromised by human actions both directly by development and exploitation and indirectly by the effects of pollution and global warming. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has experienced fatal bleaching for 50% of its range. [viii]
  5. The right to water as a source of life. Fresh water is a critical indicator for the viability of all living things on earth. Co-evolution of the integrated living systems currently on earth depend on the availability of fresh water. Over 140 million people are expected to face migration due to prolonged drought caused by climate change by 2050.[ix]
  6. The right to clean air. Air pollution transcends local, regional and continental boundaries. In many parts of the United States, pollution has reduced the distance and clarity of what we see by 70 percent. One in four children in the U.S. have asthma. Global air emissions contribute to global warming, ocean acidification, and particulates
  7. The right to integral health. The concept of health as a universal right recognizes the interconnectedness of physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual health. Healthy beings only can exist in a healthy environment. To keep the planet and people healthy, we need food systems designed to protect natural resources, absorb greenhouse gas emissions, provide nutritious and affordable food, and strengthen the resilience and prosperity of rural populations.[x]
  8. The right to be free from contamination, pollution, toxic or radioactive waste. Pollution from the by-products of modern society have contaminated the entire world. There are now 15–51 trillionpieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. The fossil fuel industry plans to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade in petrochemical plants across the United States to turn fossil natural gas liquids extracted by hydraulic fracturing into single-use plastic.[xi]
  9. The right to not have genetic structure modified or disrupted in a manner that threatens integrity or vital and healthy functioning. 105 commonly used agricultural pesticides, fungicides and herbicides have endocrine- disrupting effects on wildlife.[xii] In addition, the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture and other industrial processes compromises wild stocks as pollen travels without restriction on the winds.  
  10. The right to full and prompt restoration from violations caused by human activities. Many environmental harms from extractive industry particularly are not reversible.  Extinction is forever. And for some damages, there is no recovery possible. For example, Mountain top removal mining of thin coal seams has destroyed 500 mountains throughout Appalachia.[xiii] The “restored mine sites have vastly different, less diverse landscapes subject to erosion and acid runoff. 
“Restored” mountain top removal coal mine site in West Virginia. 

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth articulates an urgent plea for use of the precautionary principle in shaping the relationship of human activity to the natural world. The concept of protecting, and restoring to the extent possible, the natural systems of the earth lies at the heart of preserving the priceless life support systems of the living earth for current and future generations. As Rachel Carson wrote in her essay “On the Pollution of Our Environment,” 

Underlying all these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility – responsibility not only to our own generation, but to those of the future.[xiv]

In some cases, the harms to the environment or to living systems may not be known until long after the fact. But in many cases, especially with modern techniques for assessing biologic harm, the potential for harm is either well established, or can be shown to be highly likely. For example, Bristol Bay Alaska is home to the largest wild salmon run in the world. The open pit Pebble Creek Mine, if it begins operation, would end this $1.5 Billion fishery from arsenic contamination.[xv] Arsenic released from mining gold and highly soluble in water, even in minute amounts is toxic to salmon especially as they spawn and in the juvenile stages of growth. The livelihood of over 14,000 people directly depends on the wild runs of salmon, including the subsistence villages of Bristol Bay.[xvi] Even species as abundant as salmon can vanish quickly if critical habitat is lost, or harvesting is heedless of regenerative needs, as happened with the abrupt extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.[xvii] Some harms are not reversible. Extinction is forever.

A Matter of Ethics and Justice

How we as a society address the challenges of climate change is not a matter of technology, but rather a matter of justice and ethical choices on several levels. Most urgently, addressing climate change effectively now is a matter of intergenerational justice. Actions taken or not taken by the current generation will markedly affect the fate of future generations.  While this has always held true in the past, these times are different because actions taken today will have irreversible consequences that compromise options for the future. It is important to recognize that within the range of options available now, there are many choices that will lead to a better future, without relying forever on fossil fuels.  For example, the re-Imagine Beaver project facilitated by the League of Women Voters in Beaver County PA developed a four-part plan for diversifying and renewing the economy as an alternative vision to having the Shell Appalachia Petrochemical Plant dominate the area’s economy.[xviii]

Climate action is also a matter of international justice because the effects of global warming are not evenly distributed around the world.  The richest 10% pf people produce half of the global carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 50% of people produce only about 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions.[xix] Globally, the industrialized countries mostly in the northern hemisphere are greatest causes of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but the greatest damages from resource extraction and global warming occur in the southern hemisphere among poorer nations. Global market drive resource extraction practices that destroy habitat as well.  For example, palm oil used for snack foods devastates 27 million Hectares of tropical rainforest and is endangering hundreds of native plants and animals.[xx] Island nations and coastal areas along all continents are affected by sea level rise, more extreme and frequent storms and tidal surges. Even within single nations such as the United States, climate change has varied geographic effects. Coastal areas suffer flooding and storm surge while other areas suffer from prolonged droughts, wildfires, and advancing deserts. The World Bank estimates there will be 140 million climate migrants fleeing lands made uninhabitable by loss of water due to climate change.[xxi]

People of all faiths all around the world hold common concern for the well-being of people and for the need for justice and equity in interpersonal transactions. As a civilized society, we must consider the present and impending conditions that require understanding, empathy for our fellow beings, and a sense of obligation for the welfare of future generations. We must recognize that the laws of Nature are NOT negotiable. Humans cannot legislate the laws of chemistry or physics or the biologic system responses to changes in the environment.  We must adjust our laws and cultural customs to live in harmony with Nature. The time for exploitation and subjugation of Nature for short term profits is over if we are to survive as a species.

A Transformation for a Better Future

When faced with the alarming facts of the effects of climate change, many people respond with fear. At the hearings on the Clean Power Plan in the summer of 2016, the streets of Pittsburgh were filled with demonstrators on both sides of the proposed action to close coal power plants and move toward renewable energy systems.  Coal miners and their allies in the IBEW, AFL-CIO and trades unions marched 3,500 strong with uniform T-shirts, loudspeakers and goading from Governor Corbett. In contrast, a few hundred assorted environmental activists, mothers with children in strollers, and students gathered on the corner of Grant Street near the Federal Building to chant and sing. This sharply drawn contrast belies the reality under the demonstrations.  Coal miners understand that their work gives them lung diseases and faces a stark future, but their fear stems from knowing that if nobody goes into coal mining, there will be no new workers to support their pensions, health benefits and families. Laws protect corporations in bankruptcy, but as has been evident as Patriot Coal, Murray Coal and others have gone bankrupt, the workers are left with pennies on the dollar to fend for themselves.[xxii] Union strength has eroded significantly, and many workers in the oil and gas fields are not unionized.  Transformation to a sustainable economy must address the entire social fabric of our culture, not just fuel switching.  The human face of the transformation must be a major part of the way forward.  The AFL-CIO statement to the Copenhagen Climate Accord states: “We are asking for a just transition of the workforce that creates decent work and quality jobs.” [xxiii] But the climate crisis is much more complex than a simple transition.  It requires a rearranging of the elements of our society to reach a sustainable civilization, much as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

We must make a plan to move to a sustainable future.  The tools for this process are at hand, lacking only the political will to move forward.  There are three principal pathways for our sustainable future:

  • Renewable Energy Systems that conserve and restore resources
  • Regenerative Agriculture for a non-toxic food system that captures carbon in fertile ground
  • Pollution Prevention and A Circular Economy for materials designed for re-use from benign materials.[xxiv]

Steps in the transformation require a comprehensive approach, recognizing that as sustainable systems become more prevalent, the process of adopting them will become more sophisticated and streamlined in practice. Take for example the shift from horse-drawn carriages to motorized vehicles and consider the many adjustments that took place. Rules of the road had to be established to keep drivers from running into each other. Roads had to be paved so vehicles would not become bogged down in mud, and vehicles were licensed to certify drivers. An entire fuel delivery and supply infrastructure had to be established. Horseshoe operations, blacksmiths, tack shops and buggy makers all saw the decline and extinction of their business. Now, as we look at a transformation of the energy system to renewable resources, we have similar adjustments facing us. The utility interface changes when the customers also produce energy some or all of the time. Zoning issues and building codes become a consideration if net zero energy buildings are to become standard practice. Converting the energy system from a fossil-based operation to a renewable energy system will require attention to micro-grid integration using artificial intelligence to balance load and supply and offers the new utility service function of storage and load leveling. Technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and anaerobic digestion of waste to make non-fossil methane or hydrogen become more economic options. Similar changes will need to occur in food systems, transportation and materials management.[xxv]

The transformation to a society living in harmony with nature will place priority on protecting biodiversity in all areas of the world, as an excellent indicator for the health of the complex ecosystems that comprise Earth’s life support system. We are facing a critical time in which we will choose the fate of our living Earth for hundreds of years into the future. In making the critical choices about energy and all resource management, we must place greater value on the living things, rather than on the short-term profits to corporations as the dominant driver. The plan. For a just transition must address the needs of people caught in the transition- the oil, gas, and coal workers especially, who will need to transition to new ways of working in new fields. Just and equitable solutions will need to include protecting pensions, health benefits and re-training for existing workers. A companion to a policy of re-investing in communities can empower people to re-structure our society with a more diverse and locally responsible economy.

We need a new system of governance that relies on a doctrine of public trust for natural resource management. In such a system, common resources are managed for the long-term benefit of the whole of society collectively, rather than to be owned and divided to profit individuals or corporate owners. A particular major change in this approach would place the ecosystem services, mostly on the surface of the earth, as priority for protection above the rights for extracting mineral deposits from deep underground. Such an approach recognizes the priceless value of the services the living earth delivers to all living things for free, as conditions of mutual support.  We can transform our society to align with the natural cycles of resource use, recovery and re-use, rather than changing raw material to trash as rapidly as possible.

The Moral Imperative

Humanity now faces global crisis conditions: Carbon Dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have reached at 412 parts per million, the highest level in 650,000 years; 2019 is the hottest year on record since 2001; Arctic ice sheets are decreasing at 12.8% per decade; and coastal flooding worldwide is common as sea levels rise and oceans warm.[xxvi] Storms, wildfires, and prolonged drought conditions affect broad areas of the world. In the face of these dire facts, children all over the world have stood up to plead for action on climate to protect their future.  How can we ignore the pleas of our children as they protest, file lawsuits, demonstrate and march for the right to live on a viable planet?[xxvii]

There are no technological barriers to making rapid and meaningful changes toward sustainable climate solutions. All of the technologies necessary to address the major sources of global warming and global pollution are in hand and will only improve in effectiveness as they become more widely adopted. Only the political will to act stands in the way of transforming our economy. Over 73% of Americans want action on climate change but are deeply divided on partisan lines (67% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans)[xxviii] The U. S. Constitution vests the power of government in The People. We have the power to act to save our world.

The best way to move forward is to remember that we are more alike in our common humanity than different in political stance, race, gender, religion or culture. If we protect the rights of the living Earth and connect our own fate to the fate of the natural world, we will find the courage to make the necessary changes. The result will be a better future and the legacy of a renewed sense of wonder in the miracle of creation. Each person can act. Each person matters in the great interconnected web of life. Here is Rachel Carson’s conservation pledge:

I pledge myself to preserve and protect America’s fertile soils, her mighty forests and rivers, her wildlife and minerals, for on these her greatness was established, and her strength depends.[xxix]

Decide to leave our children a living Earth. Thank you.

Photograph courtesy of Kirsi Jansa

Presented to Integrity of Creation Conference: toward a Healthy Planet at Duquesne University on September 25, 2019

Citations and Sources

[i]  Associated Press. “Armstrong’s “one small step” quote explained.” Navy Times. July13, 2019. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/07/13/armstrongs-famous-one-small-step-quote-explained/  Accessed September 23, 2019.

[ii]  Robert Costanza, Ralph d’Arge, Rudolf de Groot, Stephen Farber, Monica Grasso, Bruce Hannon, Karin Limburg, Shahid Naeem, Robert V. O’Neill, Jose Paruelo, Robert G. Raskin, Paul Sutton, Marjan van den Belt. “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural capital.” Nature387: 253-260 (1997) https://www.nature.com/articles/387253a0#auth-2  Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[iii] United Nations Environment Programme (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019. UNEP, Nairobi. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2019   Accessed September 19, 2019.

[iv] IPCC. “Global Warming of 1.5°C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.” October 8, 2018. https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/   Accessed September 18, 2019.

[v] United Nations. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York. September 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300 Accessed September 19, 2019.

[vi] World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth.” Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 22, 2010 https://therightsofnature.org/wp-content/uploads/FINAL-UNIVERSAL-DECLARATION-OF-THE-RIGHTS-OF-MOTHER-EARTH-APRIL-22-2010.pdf  Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[vii] Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Adriaan M. Doktor, Peter J. Blancher, John R. Sauer, Adam C. Smith, Paul A. Smith. “Decline of the North American Avifauna.” Science. 4 Oct 2019. Vol 366, Issue 6461, pp 120-124. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2019/09/18/science.aaw1313

[viii] Terry P. Hughes, James T. Kerry, Andrew H. Baird, Sean R. Connolly, Tory J. Chase, Andreas Dietzel, Tessa Hill, Andrew s. Hoey, Mia O. Hoogenboom, Mizue Jacobson, Ailsa Kerswell, Joshua S. Madin, Abbie Mieog, Allison S. Paley, Morgan S. Pratchett, Gergley Torda, & Rachel M. Woods. “Global warming impairs stock-recruitment dynamics of corals.” Nature. 18 April 2019. Nature Vol. 568. Pages 387-401. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1081-y.epdf  Accessed September 19, 2019.

[ix] Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Bergmann, Jonas; Clement, Viviane; Ober, Kayly; Schewe, Jacob; Adamo, Susana; McCusker, Brent; Heuser, Silke; Midgley, Amelia. 2018. Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461  License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.  Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[x] World Health Organization. World Health Statistics 2018: Monitoring Health for the SDGs. https://www.who.int/gho/publications/world_health_statistics/2018/en/  Accessed September 19, 2019.

[xi] Center for Biological Diversity. “Ocean Plastics Pollution: A Global Tragedy for Our Oceans and Sea Life.”  https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/   Accessed September 20, 2019.

[xii] Mnif, Wissem & Ibn hadj hassine, Aziza & Bouaziz, Aicha & Bartegi, Aghleb & Thomas, Olivier & Roig, Benoit. (2011). Effect of Endocrine Disruptor Pesticides: A Review. International journal of environmental research and public health. 8. 2265-303.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51508758_Effect_of_Endocrine_Disruptor_Pesticides_A_Review  Accessed September 18, 2019. 

[xiii] Appalachian Voices. “Mountaintop Removal 101.” http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/mtr101/

Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[xiv] Rachel Carson.  “The Pollution of Our Environment.” In Linda J. Lear (Ed.) Lost Woods – The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Beacon Press. Boston. 1998. Pages 228-245.

[xv] Businesses for Bristol Bay. Economic Impact.   https://www.b4bb.org/economic-impact   Accessed September 20, 2019. 

[xvi] Earthjustice. “Bristol Bay Salmon threatened by Pebble Creek Mine.” October 9, 2019.  https://earthjustice.org/features/alaska-s-bristol-bay-the-pebble-mine  Accessed December 7, 2019.

[xvii] Patricia M. DeMarco. “Moving Targets- A Reflection on a Century Passing. March 13, 2015. https://patriciademarco.com/2015/03/13/moving-targets-a-reflection-from-a-century-passing/

[xviii] Mark Dixon, Heather Haar, Andre Goes, Joanne Martin, Connor Mulvaney, Sophie Riedel. Re-Imagine! Beaver County. Spring 2019.  https://breatheproject.org/app/uploads/1970/01/920114-LWVP-Re-Imagine-Beaver-County-Book.pdf   Accessed September 19, 2019.

[xix] Timothy gore. Extreme Carbon Inequality. 2 December 2015. Oxfam International.  https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf  Accessed September 20, 2019. 

[xx] Rainforest Rescue. “Palm oil- deforestation for everyday products.”  https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil  Accessed December 7, 2019.

[xxi] Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Bergmann, Jonas; Clement, Viviane; Ober, Kayly; Schewe, Jacob; Adamo, Susana; McCusker, Brent; Heuser, Silke; Midgley, Amelia. 2018. Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461

 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.  Accessed December 7, 2019.

[xxii]  Matt Egan. ‘Nervous and scared” – Coal Workers Fear for Pensions after Murray Coal Bankruptcy. CNN Business. New York.  November 1, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/01/business/murray-energy-coal-bankruptcy-pension/index.html  Accessed December 7, 2019. 

[xxiii] International Trade Union Confederation. Resolution on Climate Change action. July 12, 2018.  https://www.ituc-csi.org/the-4th-ituc-world-congress-20807    Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[xxiv] Patricia M. DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press. Pittsburgh PA. 2018.

[xxv] Patricia DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2018. Pages 193-210.

[xxvi] United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change Indicators in the United States 2016. Fourth Edition.  https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-us-and-global-temperature  Accessed September 19, 2019.

[xxvii] Juliana VS. United States https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-v-us Over 400 such lawsuits are pending at various stages in the United States courts. 

[xxviii] Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Bergquist, P., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2019). Climate change in the American mind: April 2019. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Climate_Change_American_Mind_April_2019b.pdf  Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[xxix] Linda J. Lear. Rachel Carson – Witness for Nature. Henry Holt & Company. New York. 1997. Page 137.