Now Is Not the Time To Give in to Climate Fatalism

6 minute read
Hassol is the director of the non-profit Climate Communication. She publishes Quick Facts on the links between newsworthy events and climate change, and received the 2021 Ambassador Award from the American Geophysical Union.
Michael E. Mann is presidential distinguished professor and director of the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of the new book Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth's Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis.

We are at an agonizing moment in world history. The combined stresses of the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, and economic troubles stemming from spiking oil and gas prices, inflation, and growing global inequality have pushed us to our limits— geopolitically, environmentally, and psychologically. After centuries of colonialism, intensive resource extraction, and narrow, short-term thinking, the chickens have come home to roost. But what if we could feed three birds with one scone?

Following the release of climate reports, such as the recent IPCC assessments, we often observe a surge of doomism. When headlines proclaim it’s “now or never” to limit warming, some assume we won’t do what’s needed in time. And if you think there’s nothing we can do, why bother trying? Some well-meaning people can be weaponized by those who stand to benefit if we throw up our hands in surrender rather than challenging the fossil fuel industry’s social license. We must stress the urgency. There is clearly no time to waste. But there is agency too. The problem with “now or never” is that it implies a hard threshold at 1.5°C that if we fail to achieve, it’s game over. But this game will never be over. There is no point beyond which we shouldn’t keep trying to limit warming. Every fraction of a degree matters to the level of suffering climate disruption will rain down on us.

We are reaping what we’ve sown in a world that has remained dependent on fossil fuels for far too long. Bad actors like Russia and Saudi Arabia (which have done everything they can to block global climate action) have gained tremendous wealth and influence from our dependence on fossil fuels. And they have long held the world hostage with their leverage over oil and gas markets. They have weakened our ability to respond to their various aggressions from a place of strength.

With so many crises competing for our attention and concern, how can we prioritize the greatest threats when the more immediate ones so often displace the most important? Someone needs to be thinking about the future, and fittingly, those who will inherit it, are. More than 80 percent of young people are worried about climate change. And they are angry, as well they should be. Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villaseñor, Vanessa Nakate, and other leaders of the youth climate movement are fueled with righteous anger against those who have stood by and watched as the world burned.

Interesting thing about anger; turns out it’s a more useful emotion than anxiety or depression when it comes to climate action. It engages and empowers. There is good cause for righteous anger. There is a villain in this story. The fossil fuel industry, the richest in human history, has known for decades the climate damage its products would do. Its own scientists told them decades ago. But instead of releasing the scientific findings and charting a different course, it bankrolled a massive disinformation campaign designed to thwart action on climate change. The industry, and the politicians it supports to do its bidding, have been largely successful in blocking effective measures to rein in climate change.

These coal and oil barons say they’re just supplying people with what they want. But we don’t want fossil fuels. What we want is cold beer and hot showers, services like convenient ways to get around and good food to eat. If we can get those in a way that doesn’t destroy our planet’s life-support system, we’d surely prefer that. The IPCC’s latest report, on climate change mitigation, that is, reducing future climate change by cutting heat-trapping gas emissions or increasing their uptake from the air, tells us that this is entirely possible, using current technologies. Many such actions are on the so-called “demand side,” because they reduce energy demand rather than increasing its supply. The IPCC found that demand-side strategies could reduce 40 to 70 percent of heat-trapping gas emissions across all sectors by 2050. A pretty astounding finding, and as investigative journalist Amy Westervelt bemoans, why wasn’t this a headline in every paper?

Let’s return to our three birds: war in Ukraine, climate change, and the economy. A broader and more integrated approach sees these not as three separate crises but as one with a single win-win-win solution. Now is the time to tackle these related crises and seize the opportunity to move with determination into the clean energy future. The U.S. is in a good position to do so; we’re not starting from scratch. The U.S. is second (to China) in both wind and solar. Fossil fuel companies can use their expertise, work force, and other resources to become broader energy companies. Their experience in geology can be turned to geothermal energy, which has tremendous untapped promise. Their experience in offshore oil can be turned to offshore wind, a resource with enormous potential, and in which the U.S. lags far behind a dozen other nations. Peabody coal owns extensive lands that can be used for solar farms and other renewable energy development.

These companies have long been agents of denial and delay on climate action. Even now, big fossil fuel companies continue to explore for oil and gas and build new infrastructure, with the support of big banks. The top four banks making these investments are American: JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America. New oil and gas projects are being planned and approved as we speak. The world is on track to produce twice the fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with the internationally agreed upon 1.5°C target. The time has come for the fossil fuel industry and the banks that fund it to be held accountable and have their social license revoked.

The only path to lasting security is to get off fossil fuels, once and for all. Let this be the moment that the U.S. takes the lead in solving the related challenges before us, helping propel the world toward a climate safe, politically secure, and economically prosperous future. It is in our hands.

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