Environment America Blog
By Ross Sherman, communications associate for The Public Interest Network. Blog also available on Medium.
I vividly remember the first time the “Inconvenient Truth” about climate change really clicked for me. I was in sixth grade, and my whole family sat on our living room couch together and watched Al Gore’s signature PowerPoint presentation. By the end, I was horrified, with images of ice sheets crashing into the ocean, tropical storms devastating coastal communities, and out-of-control wildfires tearing through forests seared into my brain.
I was confused and angry: Why haven’t my teachers told me about this in school? Why aren’t the adults doing something? What can I be doing to help?
Even though I was only a middle schooler, the problem was easily understandable to me, as were the solutions — at least in a vague sense. The world, but especially the United States, was pumping too much dirty stuff into the atmosphere, causing serious damage to our environment. To stop the damage, we needed to stop using the dirty stuff, and switch to cleaner stuff.
With that epiphany, I quickly became the kid who nagged my parents every time they left a light on when leaving a room, or when they threw away something that should be recycled or composted. Cute, right?
Of course, the world knew about climate change way before Al Gore. We’ve known for more than a century that humans were impacting the climate. In the 1890s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to establish that connection — but hypothesized that a little global warming could actually turn out to be good for mankind.
Throughout the 20th century, scientific evidence emerged that painted a clearer and increasingly dire picture of what was going on, and what many already suspected — climate change was a serious problem, and needed to be addressed quickly to avoid potentially catastrophic events. The historic New York Times Magazine “Losing Earth” feature story published this past summer, in particular, took a look at the decade from 1979–89, where the pieces all seemed to be in place for large scale, global action. We can debate the reasons why we failed to act then, but bottom line, it didn’t happen. According to the piece, “If the world had adopted the proposal widely endorsed at the end of the ’80s — a freezing of carbon emissions, with a reduction of 20 percent by 2005 — warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees [Celsius]” (the Paris agreement aimed to keep warming below 2 degrees).
In the nearly 30–40 years since, the science has gotten even better and more precise. We now know to what extent climate change contributes to the severity of modern-day hurricanes, for example. But the overall trends and solutions remain the same. After many frustrating fits and starts, the global community came together in 2015 and signed the Paris Climate Agreement, a non-binding but nonetheless significant step toward collective action. But of course, Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, and has declared his intention to pull the United States out of the agreement (he can’t officially leave the agreement until after the 2020 presidential election).
With all that in mind, last week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its most recent report — a “special report” on what will happen if Earth warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The core message, like IPCC’s previous five assessment reports and three other special reports, was clear: We’re in much worse shape than previously thought, and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require transforming the world economy at a speed and scale with “no documented historical precedent.” More specifically, to keep global warming below the 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit threshold, we need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 — just 12 years from now — and 100 percent by 2050. To do this, the authors say, we need to phase out coal from nearly 40 percent of our electricity mix today down to between 1 and 7 percent. Solar and wind energy will have to rapidly produce about two-thirds of electricity generation.
This report has caused a healthy dose of shock and despair. But I’m not sure why it’s a shock. How many more of these reports and dire predictions do we need as a country and world to get serious? People have been sounding the alarm for several decades. What exactly are we waiting for?
I am heartened that the response to this report, perhaps not by our national leaders, but by most everyone else, has seemed different. It seems, at least to me, that the major national news networks dedicated more time to climate change than is typical. People across the country are quickly realizing that climate change isn’t some abstract concept that sounds bad, but won’t be a big deal in their lifetimes. Climate change is happening now, and causing tremendous damage. Just in 2018, we have experienced record-breaking wildfires in California, Hurricanes Michael and Florence, and life-threatening heatwaves all across the country. Look at the destruction and heartache those disasters caused. All of those events, plus many I didn’t mention, can at least be partly attributed to a warming climate caused by humans.
This isn’t the time to despair. Yes, things are bad, and if we don’t slash emissions nearly in half in 12 years, they’ll get a whole lot worse. There’s no sugarcoating it. But it’s also important to remember that we know the solutions, have known them for a long time, and at the local and state levels, people are taken action.
Renewable energy, to borrow a tagline from my friends at Environment America, is “on the rise,” consistently surpassing even the most optimistic predictions. Over the last ten years (2008–2017), solar energy generation has increased 39-fold, wind power has increased 5-fold, and the United States now has the enough renewable energy to power nearly 31 million homes. By the end of 2017, more than 395,000 electric vehicles had been sold. And battery storage technology, which will be crucial in the transition to clean energy, increased 17-fold. If renewable energy grows by 14 percent per year — which is slightly more than two-thirds of the current trend, wind and solar alone will produce enough electricity to meet all of our current electricity needs by 2035.
In the absence of federal leadership, progress must continue to happen at the local level. States, cities, college campuses and businesses can take it upon themselves to implement policies that encourage the rapid adoption of renewable energy. In many cases, they’re already doing just that. Since the day that the president announced his intention to pull out of the Paris agreement, there has been a seemingly constant stream of local commitments to clean energy. Perhaps the most pivotal was California passing SB 100, which committed the state — the world’s fifth-largest economy — to generating 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. It’s important to note that these commitments have not been concentrated in just one part of the country, or only in traditionally progressive places not reliant on fossil fuels for their local economies. Renewable energy is overwhelmingly popular everywhere. Even places in the heart of oil country, such as Georgetown, Texas, and Abita Springs, La., have embraced it.
We have a crucial midterm election coming up in less than a month, on November 6th. It should no longer be acceptable for a candidate or politician to oppose climate action in 2018, let alone even accept the science. We simply don’t have time for that.
The window may be closing quickly, but we know what we need to do. Let’s get to work.
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