Whether it’s the apocalyptic wildfires that once again ravaged California and the West this summer, a heat dome over the Pacific Northwest that made parts of Canada feel like Phoenix on the Fourth of July or the devastating floods in my state of Pennsylvania after Hurricane Ida dumped months’ worth of rainfall in a few hours, it is clear that dangerous climate change is upon us.
Climate change is a real threat to civilization and can no longer be denied. That means that the forces of inaction — the fossil fuel interests and the front groups, organizations and mouthpieces-for-hire they fund — have been forced to turn to other tactics in their effort to keep us dependent on fossil fuels.
These tactics include deflection (focusing attention entirely on individual behavioral change so as to steer the societal discourse away from a discussion of the needed policies and systematic changes), division (getting climate advocates fighting with each rather than speaking with a united voice), and the promotion of doomism (convincing some climate advocates that it’s too late to do anything anyway).
But delay is the D-word. And we’ve become all too familiar with the lexicon employed in its service: “adaptation,” “resilience,” “geoengineering” and “carbon capture.” These words offer the soothing promise of action, but all fail to address the scale of the problem.
Adaptation is key to resilience. We must cope with the detrimental effects of climate change that are already baked in — coastal inundation and worse droughts, floods and other dangerous weather events. However, if we fail drastically to reduce carbon emissions and limit the warming of the planet we will surpass our collective adaptive capacity as civilization.
When fossil fuel-friendly Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tells Floridians that they must simply “adapt” to sea level rise (how? You can grow fins and gills.), he’s trying to sound as if he’s got a meaningful solution when, in fact, he’s offering only empty rhetoric and a license for polluters to continue with business as usual. It’s a delay tactic.
What about geoengineering. What about geoengineering?
Unintended consequences are almost certain to ensure that we continue to screw up the planet. Geoengineering is also a license to continue carbon pollution. There’s a reason Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO and Donald Trump’s secretary of state, has dismissed the climate crisis as simply an “engineering problem.” If we can simply clean up our act down the road, why not continue to burn fossil fuels? This, too, is a delay tactic — one that buys time for polluters to continue to make billions in profits as we mortgage the future habitability of the planet.
And what about “carbon capture” and the promise of “net zero” emissions by mid-century? To prevent catastrophic global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, it will be necessary to achieve zero emissions by 2050. It is not enough. To keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must reduce emissions by half by 2030. Merely committing to the former, but not the latter, is like making a New Year’s resolution to lose 15 pounds without any plan to alter your diet and exercise regimen in the months ahead.
Furthermore, understand that the “net” in “net zero” is doing quite a bit of work, for implicit in the word is the notion that we can continue to burn fossil fuels if we can find a way to remove them just as quickly. To quote Will Smith’s Genie in the movie “Aladdin,” there’s “a lot of gray area” in that word. It allows politicians the opportunity to make vague promises of technological innovations, i.e., carbon cap, that could potentially remove billions if not trillions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year in the future. There is no precedent for the deployment of such technology on such an enormous scale.
It’s really easy to put carbon pollution into the atmosphere but really hard to take it back out and safely bury it for the long term. But politicians have the ability to push the goalposts of carbon capture and net zero emission for decades. That’s another masterful delay tactic.
Australia is a country that deserves better that the corrupt coalition government currently in power. They have only agreed to a weak commitment to net zero emissions by mid century, which they reluctantly and conditionally accepted. Their commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030, is only half of what other industrialized countries such as the U.S. and Britain have made.
A new report, based on leaked documents, shows that the Australian government attempted to soften an upcoming U.N. recommendation to phase out gas- and coal-fired power stations. Saudi Arabia and Russia — two countries that have worked to sabotage international climate action in the past — have made a mockery of the current climate negotiations by agreeing only to a laughably delinquent 2060 date for reaching net zero emissions.
Even countries that have made bold commitments are still suffering from an “implementation gap” that must be closed, a disconnect between what they’ve promised and what they’re currently delivering. The Biden administration is currently hampered by Sen. Joe Manchin, a coal-state Democrat who stands in the way of the administration’s clean energy agenda. The E.U. The E.U. and Britain are meanwhile pursuing new oil and gas pipelines, even though the International Energy Agency has stated that there cannot be any new fossil fuel development if we want to avoid catastrophic warming.
Even though the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow may not be able to provide a clear path to a sustainable future, it can still help. We cannot afford to be sucked into delay tactics. We must hold policymakers responsible for representing our public interest, not polluting. This is the last chance to prevent climate catastrophe.
Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences and director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, is a Penn State University faculty member. He is the author, most recently, of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.”
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