THe Climate crisisHeartbreak is all around us, and it is here. The promise of President Biden’s dramatic action is slowly fading in the old mud bog that is fossil-fuel politics. Despite 40 years of warnings by scientists and the declining cost of clean energy, carbon emissions are still rising and the world is heating up faster than ever. The final sentence of last February’s U.N.’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of that warming is stark and unequivocal: “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” Or as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres Put it! after an IPCC report on the mitigation of climate change was released this month: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
The heartbreak does not come from fear that the battle will be lost, but from the realization there will never be a turning point when the world faces the climate crisis head-on. There will be no solutions. There will be winners and losers. But collectively, we are heading into the unknown — politically, ecologically, economically, morally. “The climate emergency is not an issue,” futurist Alex Steffen says. “It is an era.”
This does not mean it’s time to give into doomer-ism. Actually, the opposite. Our future is a little cooler for each ton of CO2 that we keep out of the atmosphere. Every gas-burning furnace replaced by a heat-pump gives fossil-fuel gangsters like Vladimir Putin less control over our lives. Every climate protest increases the likelihood that we will be able to seize this transformative era and build a better world.
But the politics surrounding climate action have changed. There is no debate about whether burning fossil fuels warms up the Earth. Now, justice and equity are at the forefront of the fight. It’s about the widening gap between the Saved and the Doomed. It’s about dealing with our grief about how much has already been lost and how much more loss there is to come. There are some positives to be proud of, such as the fact that most climate scientists agree that actions to slow the growth carbon pollution in recent decades have made it unlikely that the worst possible future climate scenarios will occur. However, this is not a reason to celebrate. “This is going to be a really grim year for climate politics,” says Green New Deal activist and UC Berkeley professor Daniel Aldana Cohen. “Let’s remember the big picture, and fight like hell for the best projects and campaigns.”
In that spirit, here’s a list of the 10 actions we can take in this new era of climate disruption. Some are unrealistic, while others are practical and feasible. This list is incomplete. It does not include investing in grid upgrades, rent control, or raising the minimum wage to aid the most vulnerable. Even if everything on this list were achieved, it wouldn’t “solve” the climate crisis. It would be a great start.
1. Carbon tax
In February, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse took to the Senate floor for his 280th “Time to Wake Up!” speech about the climate crisis. The centerpiece of Whitehouse’s plan was the need for a tax on fossil fuels. This argument speaks to an economic truth: To make something scarce, tax.
Here’s Whitehouse’s argument in a nutshell: Clean-energy tax credits and a clean electricity standard — two popular proposals to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels — are a step in the right direction. Only a carbon price will get us there. Pricing carbon reaches every corner of the economy; it fuels innovation (“suddenly every carbon-reduction strategy has a revenue proposition; no more government-chosen winners and losers,” Whitehouse said); it raises investment by sending a market signal to Wall Street; it puts a tax on imports from countries like China with less-strict climate policies; finally, Whitehouse argued, a carbon price helps to unravel what the International Monetary Fund says is more than a half-trillion-dollar subsidy propping up the fossil-fuel industry in the U.S. “You want to know why the fossil-fuel industry can so easily corrupt American politics?” Whitehouse thundered. “That’s your answer. That’s 660 billion answers. A $660 billion subsidy every year is one hell of a motive.”
The problem with pricing carbon, as Whitehouse well knows, is that saying the word “tax” is political suicide in America. ExxonMobil is one of the many corporations that support it. As a former senior director on Exxon’s Washington team put it in a video secretly recorded last May by undercover Greenpeace activists, the company backs a carbon tax “as an easy talking point” and an “advocacy tool” because “there is not an appetite for a carbon tax.”
But appetite or not, the idea is slowly gaining ground — if not as a straight tax, then something more creative, such as under the guise of a carbon-trading program that caps carbon pollution and then allows the market to set a price for any pollution that exceeds the limit. The trend is clear: As the world gets hotter, the desire to set a meaningful price for carbon pollution will only increase.
The question is not if it will happen but when and how much. Whitehouse and other legislators, including Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (chairman of the Senate finance committee), have been advocating for a Carbon Fee-and-Dividend Program. “Fee and dividend” means that money raised from taxing the consumption of fossil fuels would be sent back to Americans in the form of a dividend check. In other words, we tax Big Oil and Big Coal and you get a check for several hundred dollars each year. The appeal is obvious. A carbon fee could be crafted to return higher dividends to low-income consumers, thus abiding by Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on families earning less than $400,000 annually.
How effective would it be, you ask? A recent analysis by Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environmental research organization, found that a U.S. carbon fee that started at $15 per metric ton and escalated to $50 per metric ton by 2030 would cut the country’s carbon pollution by about 44 percent from 2005 levels by 2040 — doing a lot of heavy lifting for Biden’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
2. Electrify everything
The U.S. has approximately 290 million vehicles and trucks, 70 millions fossil-fueled furnaces and 60 million fossil fueled water heaters. There are also 20 million gas dryers and 50 million gas stoves. What if all that were electrified! Saul Griffith, an Australian engineer and author of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future,Electrification could reduce emissions by 80 percent in the United States by 2035, according to experts.
The logic is simple: Electricity is more efficient that burning fossil fuels for nearly every purpose. While coal and natural gas still power approximately 60 percent of the U.S. electricity grid, the rising price of clean energy means that the dream of a low-carbon grid does not seem like a pipe dream. The cleaner the grid is, the more affordable and cleaner the electricity. It’s easier to abandon any appliance or vehicle that can’t be replaced with one powered by electricity.
Griffith co-authored a study estimating that mass electrification would lead to up to 25,000,000 new jobs in the U.S. Most of them — installing solar panels and wind turbines, upgrading the grid, and replacing dirty heaters with clean ones — would necessarily be local (you can’t offshore the installation of an electric heat pump in your basement). The amount of investment is staggering: The auto industry globally is expected to invest half a billion dollars in e-vehicles. It will build and refit factories, train workers, create software, and upgrade dealerships. A dozen new American electric-car battery factories are currently being built.
“It’s one of the biggest industrial transformations probably in the history of capitalism,” Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen, told The New York Times. “The investments are massive, and the mission is massive.”
None of this is possible without new technology. Electric cars offer enough range to suit almost anyone. The purchase price is almost the same as a gasoline guzzler and the cost per mile is lower (a 2018 University of Michigan study found that electric cars cost half the maintenance cost of gas-powered cars). Heat pumps are more efficient than traditional boilers and furnaces in many climates. Induction stoves are safer than using gas and can be used with greater precision. In most areas of the country, solar and wind are the most affordable ways to generate power. And let’s not forget e-bikes! E-bikes were the most popular vehicle in America in 2020. They outsold hybrids and electric cars combined. Even a modest use of ebikes can have a huge impact: A 2020 study by Portland State University found that ebikes could replace just 15% of passenger transport, reducing carbon emissions by 12 percent.
3. Solar is the best option for you.
It’s now obvious: The future is solar on homes, solar on apartment buildings, solar on malls, solar on parking lots, solar on fast-food joints, burrito stands, and strip clubs. Small is beautiful when the sun shines. The sun makes wasted space a platform for power generation. Solar has always been expensive, but the price of solar panels is dropping over the past decade. Nobody pretends that you are going to make steel from solar, or that it will be the best way to generate power in every situation,but it is clean and reliable and won’t go down in a blackout like the one in 2021 that left 11 millions Texans freezing in the dark for days and was responsible for as many as 700 deaths.
Going local with solar doesn’t mean giving up on wind energy and big utility-scale solar projects (which can, in some cases, be cheaper). The energy potential of local solar can be enormous. An AnalysisIn the last year Nature CommunicationsIt was found that the U.S. rooftops could have enough capacity to match current electricity generation. On a more modest scale, a recent report by the nonprofit Environment America found that the amount of space available on the rooftops of shopping malls and big-box stores like Walmart, Home Depot, and Target in the continental U.S. amounts to 7.2 billion square feet, or about the size of El Paso, Texas. The report found that superstore roofs could provide enough clean energy for nearly 8 million American homes. Or, to put it another manner, rooftop solar panels in big-box stores could produce half of the annual electricity these stores currently require.
Energy storage is one of the drawbacks to small-scale solar. The main bottleneck has been batteries, which are large and expensive. But that’s changing fast, in part because of the push for battery innovation associated with electric cars. Home storage with batteries in your basement or garage is now possible. Electric vehicles are becoming portable power-storage units, which homeowners can use to store their backup power in their driveway. Companies like Tesla may see batteries as a larger part of their business in the future than cars.
But big utilities don’t like it. Over 100 years, power companies held a monopoly over electric power. Rooftop solar is a way to break that monopoly and empower customers to make their own decisions. Power companies in sunny Los Angeles and Florida are trying to impose taxes on solar installations. These power companies may slow the transition to cleaner power in the short term. But in the long run, the local solar will win out, not just because of low cost, but because it’s extremely popular among both Republican and Democratic voters.
4. Coal plants can be bought.
Coal is responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions. It is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. China is the largest coal consumer, consuming more coal than all of the rest of the globe combined. The U.S. is slowly replacing coal with cheap gas, wind and solar. There are still 179 coal plants that generate 20 percent of the U.S. electricity. The fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change is to shut them down and replace them with cleaner, more affordable energy. “The transition beyond coal is inevitable,” says Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project. “But the timeline on which it happens isn’t.”
Germany uses reverse auctions as a way to encourage power companies to shut down coal plants. New laws have been passed in New Mexico, Colorado to allow utilities the ability to restructure their debts to accelerate retirement. Guay and other Americans have suggested a cash-forclunkers program in which green banks work with other institutions to buy the coal plants outright and shut them down.
But closing down a coal plant does not only have economic implications. It’s also a question of jobs and community. “How do you replace the good pay, and union jobs, that will be lost as we shut down the coal industry?” Guay asks, saying the Green New Deal and a just transition has been “mostly happy talk” for coal communities. “We still have this abstract conversation about decarbonization and emissions that is purposefully devoid of the dirty words like ‘coal,’ ‘oil,’ or ‘gas’ because many of our national leaders want markets to do the dirty work. But I don’t see how we can envision an endgame for coal unless we talk about it directly.”
The Darth Vader wing of the banking industry hasn’t helped. Since 2019, $1.5 trillion has been channeled by commercial banks around the world to the coal industry. JPMorgan Chase is America’s largest coal industry underwriter. Jason Opeña Disterhoft, senior climate and energy campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, says JPMorgan’s list of coal clients “reads like a who’s who of the most carbon-heavy companies on the planet.”
“How do you replace the good pay and union jobs that will be lost as we shut down the coal industry?” asks one activist.
5. Tell the truth about climate crisis
How much is that $2 million house on the beach going to be worth when there’s an octopus swimming through the living room? What’s going to happen to all those refineries on the Gulf Coast as the demand for oil plummets? As the age of climate disruption accelerates, banks and corporations are facing huge financial risks. A report published just this week found that there will be $343 billion in climate-related economic losses in 2021, making it the third-costliest year in history. A 2019 study concluded that 215 of the world’s largest companies face nearly $1 trillion in climate-related risk as soon as 2024. This information is not disclosed in corporate financial statements. “The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable the United States is to sudden, catastrophic shocks,” Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s nominee to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, wrote in The New York Times. “Climate change poses the next big threat.”
Many corporations also pretend to be more virtuous that they actually are. Exhibit A: In February, the New Climate Institute, a European think tank, released a study of 25 of the world’s biggest companies. These corporate giants account for five percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The report found that companies are not reducing carbon emissions enough quickly to meet net zero targets. Furthermore, the targets themselves are hollow. The report found that the total 100 percent reduction expected by 2050 will look more like 40%.
The overuse of carbon offsetsetting is one of the greatest problems. Offsetting allows companies, instead of cutting their emissions directly. It allows them to reduce their emissions indirectly by planting trees or protecting forests (which absorb CO2 and sequester it). But too many credits are used for forests that were never intended to be cut down, or for those that are set on fire.
6. Build denser, fairer, more humane cities.
Urban life is more gentle on the planet than suburban. People who live in cities spend less time stuck behind the wheel of their SUVs, have better access to local food, and live in more efficient buildings. Cities need to upgrade their climate: more bikes, better public transport, and more green spaces.
Step one: Eliminate cars from the inner cities or reduce their presence. As urban populations increase and cities become gridlocked nightmares, a backlash against car ownership is growing. Berlin is looking at creating a car-free zone that is larger than Manhattan; Paris is banning traffic from the city centre. New York and other cities have introduced congestion pricing to levies a tax on vehicles during certain hours. This is a way to reduce traffic and raise money for climate-friendly urban upgrades.
Step two: Revise the zoning laws in order to increase density. Highways and low mortgage rates are two ways that fast-growing sprawl spreads. One solution: Build more duplexes or triplexes instead of single-family homes. Remove exclusionary zoning, which allows accessory dwelling units (basically a second home in the yard of a house), to be permitted.
Step three: Massive investment in new public housing. Ten million units would be a good starting point. In addition, existing public housing needs to be retrofit so it’s safer, healthier, and more efficient. That will help get the most vulnerable people out of harm’s way. The risk of flooding coastal areas and the need for affordable housing will triple by 2050. “In places where properties are vulnerable to sea-level rise, land tends to be less expensive, so moving those to higher ground areas means higher costs,” says Priya Jayachandran, CEO of the National Housing Trust, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing. “As a country, we have been comfortable subsidizing housing, but only in the worst areas. We don’t like the idea of spending money to put poor people in higher-income areas. That has to change.” Also important: Restrict development in areas vulnerable to flooding by limiting federally backed mortgages in vulnerable areas.
7. Get loud and hit them where it hurts.
The cowardice of our political leaders and their complicity in climate action have always been the biggest roadblock to taking action. For many, the lack of significant accomplishments at last year’s Glasgow climate talks and the failure of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda have been a brutal awakening. “Activists have become jaded because there’s been a lot of promises from politicians without a lot of action to back it up,” says Dana Fisher, an environmental-activism expert at the University of Maryland and author of American Resistance. “A lot of young people are looking at other tactics now.”
One example: Students activists are intensifying the fight for fossil-fuel divestment at universities campuses. A group called the Fossil Free 5 is challenging five of the richest universities in the country — Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Princeton, and MIT — to purge fossil fuels from their investment portfolios. The idea of divestment is not new. Students at five universities are now filing complaints with their state attorney generals to demand an investigation into whether or not the schools have violated laws regarding investments by non-profit organizations.
“The climate movement has to be smarter about where the power really is right now,” says Josie Ingall, a 20-year-old sophomore activist at Yale. Like other activists, Ingall is tired of what she calls “the paradigm of individual complicity” that suggests the climate crisis can be solved by recycling and composting. “We are a group of people who are incredibly privileged to have an affiliation with such a powerful, influential, wealthy institution like Yale, which has an endowment of $42 billion. They’ve made a killing investing [in fossil fuels]. And as activists, we want to use our leverage to move those networks away from environmental destruction.”
It’s not just students who are exploring new tactics. Over 1,000 scientists from all over the world took refuge in government buildings and were chained to the doors to oil-friendly banks on April 6. This was to raise awareness about the urgency of reducing fossil-fuel pollution. “I’m here because scientists are not being listened to,” climate scientist Peter Kalmus While he was being locked to the JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles, “I’m willing to take a risk for this gorgeous planet — and for my sons. We’ve been trying to warn you for so many decades that we are heading toward a fucking catastrophe.… It’s gotta stop. We’re gonna lose everything.”
8. Fund small-scale research in geo-engineering.
Dr. Evil wants to deliberately fuck with the Earth’s climate, but nobody else does. Nevertheless, it’s probably inevitable, given the risks we face. There are many forms of geoengineering. They can brighten clouds or stabilize glaciers. But solar engineering is the most well-known. It involves scattering particles into the stratosphere in order to reflect away sunlight and cool down the Earth. Scientists know it works because it’s essentially what volcanoes do (particles injected into the stratosphere from Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991, cooled the planet 0.6 C for more than a year, until they rained out of the sky).
There are 12,000,000 reasons why solar geoengineering should not be pursued. I explored many of them in my book. How to Cool the Planet). Funding geoengineering research is a taboo subject to the principle that the better we know the technology, the more likely it will be used. However, there is a corollary: The less technology is understood, the greater the risks. We must be fully informed about all tools at our disposal given the hot future we are facing and the millions of lives at stake from extreme heat and heat-driven crops failures. “Yes, there are risks to solar geoengineering,” says climate economist Gernot Wagner, author of Geoengineering is the Gamble. “But there are also large potential benefits. So it’s not just about the risks of geoengineering. It’s about balancing those risks against the risks of unmitigated climate change.”
9. Eat crickets!
America’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) appetite for meat is barbecuing the planet. Livestock consume a lot of land, deforest, and are also carbon-intensive. It will be nearly impossible to limit global warming to 2 C without reforming industrial agriculture and reducing the consumption of meat.
The good news is there’s a lot of innovations and options in how and what we eat, including plant-based meat like Beyond Burgers, alternate proteins like crickets, meat and dairy alternatives made by microbes discovered in the acidic hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, and, soon, cell-based meat grown in labs. A dietary change can save you a lot of carbon. A University of Michigan 2018 report found that Beyond Burgers use 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and 99 per cent less water than a beef hamburger.
Insects are a promising alternative. I’ve had them at a restaurant in Mexico City, fried and served in a bowl — spiced with lime, salt, and red pepper, they tasted like spicy potato chips. Insects provide the equivalent amount of protein as beef and poultry. Even if you feel nauseated by the idea of eating crickets, they can still make a huge impact on your health. Insects can be used to replace corn-hungry land-hungry crops. They can also make flour for baking. And I know it’s impossible to imagine crickets at your next Super Bowl party, but consider this: In the 17th century, Europeans were skeptical of eating a new vegetable called “potato” because it was not mentioned in the Bible or because they thought it would cause leprosy.
Food waste is also a climate issue. About a third (33%) of food grown in America goes to waste. Globally, food wastage is a problem.It is possible to produce three times more greenhouse gases More emissions than aviation. It’s a moral issue, too. One study found that one billion chicks exist.Ens, more than 100,000,000 other land animals (turkeys and pigs and cows), 25 Billion fish and 15 Billion shellfish end up in landfills.
10. Fight the culture war and win
Many have spoken out about the failure of Big Media coverage to address the climate crisis. It’s too often pigeonholed as an environmental issue rather than a slow-rolling planet-wide catastrophe. Or it’s infused with “both-sidesism,” in which journalists are duped into the false idea that there is any real debate about the fundamentals of climate science. Or it’s just not discussed at all. When Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast late last summer, six of the biggest commercial TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and MSNBC — ran 774 stories about Ida, an analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters found. Only 34 of those stories included mentions of climate change. Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, an initiative dedicated to improving climate reporting, calls it “media malpractice.”
The media can also normalize catastrophe in slow-rolling stories like the climate crisis. David Wallace-Wells is the author of The Uninhabitable Earth wondered if the quiet response to a new IPCC report this year is a sign that the moment of climate alarm has passed: “What appears in prospect like apocalypse often grows into something more like grim normality by the time it actually arrives.”
It’s time for journalists to gear up for a much bigger battle. The climate fight is quickly becoming the center of a larger media-driven culture conflict, where science and data are irrelevant to opponents. Exhibit A: During a 2020 segment about wildfires on the West Coast, Fox News star Tucker Carlson offered this interpretation of events: “Climate change, they said, caused these fires. They didn’t explain how exactly that happened. How did climate change do that?” Carlson asked. “In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systemic racism in the sky. You can’t see it, but rest assured it’s everywhere and it’s deadly.” For him, the climate crisis is just fodder for his lies and distortions. The most important data point for the future of life on Earth may not be the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, but the Nielsen ratings of power-and-money-driven clowns like Carlson. Corruption and disinformation are what’s killing us now. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about this moment. Thanks to 40 years of science, we know what’s happening. We have the technology and tools to solve the crisis and build a better world. We just have to find the political will for them.