Saving Ourselves in the Era of Climate Consequences

You’ve been told, again and again, that climate change isn’t real. That it’s not caused by humans.

That the planet always goes through these cycles and that scientists disagree. You’ve been told that climate change is beneficial and burning fossil fuels is necessary to lift people out of poverty. You’ve been told that stopping climate change will cost too much money and by the way, it’s cold outside. And now we’re being told that it’s too late. That there’s nothing we can do about climate change except to adapt if you’re wealthy and suffer if you’re not.

You’ve also been told that, if climate change is real, it’s your fault. It’s your responsibility. You are wasting energy, driving a big car, flying in airplanes, eating meat. You need to reduce your carbon footprint, get on a low carbon diet, turn down your thermostat, recycle, and go vegan.

Do you know where the phases came from? Carbon footprint, beyond petroleum, and low carbon diet? They didn’t come from climate activists. These phases all came from oil companies. They spend more money misleading us on climate change than they do on addressing it. Now they are telling us that they are going Net-Zero by 2050 “in their operations.” They need to be out of or in another business completely by then.

What’s even more ironic — polluters are making us pay for their mess. We are responsible for the costs to cap the wells, clean up the air and water pollution, stop the wildfires, and build the dikes. We, our children, need to suffer the consequences on our health from all the pollution — and disadvantaged people need to suffer the most. We, taxpayers, through the government, even need to fund new technologies that will enable the pollution profiteers to sell us ever more dirty fossil fuels.

Bob Perkowitz speaking at the 2022 American Climate Leadership Summit

We’ve been lied to and blamed for climate change for so long that many of us believe these lies. They distract us, confuse and disempower us. They transfer responsibility and the cost of climate change from polluters to us. And, they paralyze us from taking the actions necessary to preserve thriving nature and thriving humanity.

So, all the maliciousness and mendacity, all the years of putting profit before people and the planet, has now led us to the era of climate consequences. The heat death of the planet is all around us. Glaciers and polar ice caps are melting. Ocean currents are slowing. Wildfires, storms, and floods — you know the story.

There’s only one thing we can really do to address those problems — just one thing — stop burning. The latest IPCC Report finds “unequivocal evidence” that any more delays in reducing emissions and “we will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity for a globally livable future.” 

Things don’t look good. Carbon needs to be cut in half by the end of this decade. But instead, emissions are on track to rise by about 14%. Mr. Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, says, “this is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.” 

So, can we still solve climate change and preserve our planet and ourselves, or is it too late? Well, the evidence says that still we have a good chance. Despite strong headwinds, many communities, businesses, activists, and policymakers have made amazing progress over the past decade on the clean energy, finance, products, and policies we need to save ourselves.

In fact, we’re in a better position now to solve climate change than ever before. Ten years ago, we didn’t have competitive clean energy. Now we do. Five years ago, we didn’t have utility-scale batteries. Now we do. Car and truck makers are moving at breakneck speed to go electric. Dozens of countries and thousands of communities and corporations are committed to cutting their emissions in half by 2030 and going real net-zero by 2040 or 2050.

The momentum is on the side of the good guys — us. We’ve lowered the cost of clean energy so much that fossil fuels are uncompetitive. Legacy polluters now need to pass laws to hinder or stop us. They are working ferociously to raise the cost of clean energy and get more subsidies for their dirty energy to keep them competitive in a world that has already rendered them obsolete. America and the world are already rapidly shifting to a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future. We can’t let the fossil fuel companies slow or stop us.

So, we can save ourselves. The real question isn’t about feasibility, it’s about plausibility. Will we save ourselves? The answer to that question is less obvious (see the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook). Technically we just need to stop burning. Electrify everything and get the electricity from clean sources. We need to reduce our emissions by half by 2030. We can clearly do both of those and reap massive benefits.

We just need to deploy; deploy, as John Doerr says, with Speed and Scale. And we really need to focus on ambition, restoration, and justice. Ambition – do what needs to be done, not half measures. Restoration — if we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. And justice — if we take care of people who bear the biggest burden, we will care of all of us. 

This is not a technical challenge – it’s a social challenge, a political challenge. Can we build enough public support and political resolve to overcome the maliciousness and mendacity of the fossil fuel industry? We’ve been working on this ever more aggressively over the years, and it’s clear we have not made enough progress.

Millions of Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change, but as Katharine Hayhoe writes in Saving Us, they don’t know what to do — and if they don’t know what to do, they do nothing. We need to do more than get out the vote in the next election and those that follow. We need to ask and empower all Americans to address climate change in their daily lives, in their workplaces and communities, and with policymakers. We need to engage everyone, every day all around us, in climate solutions.

Bob Perkowitz and Katherine Hayhoe in conversation at the National Faith and Climate Forum

The 2022 American Climate Leadership Summit brought together almost 100 expert speakers to help us all realize that the solution to climate change depends on us. As we listened, we all learned more about why and how we should be talking about climate change to everyone, every day. Live your values. What you do is a sign to others. It shows them how and empowers them to act on climate change. Make part of your job, at work, to encourage your company to make a public commitment and move toward a 50% reduction in emissions as fast as possible. Same with your community. In staff meetings, in community meetings – bring up climate change. ecoAmerica has a variety of straightforward resources that can help guide you.

So, next time someone tells you we can’t stop climate change, that you can’t make a difference, ask them if they vote. People say your vote doesn’t count. The exact opposite is true. Voting is a right and a responsibility. At this point, so is the climate — for all of us.

When it comes to climate solutions, there are a few other things you should know. First, as my favorite Australian Saul Griffith points out, when we switch to renewables, we’ll use a lot less energyWhy? For starters, the largest use of all fossil fuel energy isn’t transportation, industry, or electricity. The largest use of fossil fuels is fossil fuels — extracting, refining, and transporting them. Stop burning fossil fuels and we save 25% of all energy and pollution in the world.

Second, about 40% of all the fossil fuels burned in cars and powerplants don’t produce locomotion or electricity, it produces unused heat. That doesn’t happen with electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels. Stop burning, use clean energy, and save another 40% there. Overall, a commitment to clean electrification makes it substantially easier to meet global energy demands by reducing all that waste. In fact, we could power today’s world with only 42% of the energy we now use if we switch to clean renewables.

Then there’s some big money here. As the price of clean energy continues to go down, and the damages and cost of fossil fuel continue to increase, we’re now measuring the economic benefits of the transition to clean energy not in the billions, not in the tens of billions, or even hundreds of billions of dollars — we’re now measuring the benefits of a transition to clean energy in the thousands of billions of dollars. About 17 trillion dollars to be precise. You can read a brief press release and the whole analysis from Deloitte.

And lastly, let’s talk about human lives. In a paper from last November, David Wallace-Wells points out that right now, about ten million people are dying each year because of the air pollution impacts of burning fossil fuels. That’s 100 million people a decade dying from the exact same thing that causes global warming. And that’s just the deaths from air pollution. Global warming will of course deliver additional punishing and transformative impacts flooding, drought, crop failures; poverty and forced migration, and possibly state collapse; and those hurricanes and wildfires of unprecedented intensity.

Climate change is not your fault, it’s the oil companies’ fault. They still make us pay for it, though, and they keep us from realizing the economic, social, and health benefits of a clean energy future. The problem is accelerating on an exponential curve, but so are the solutions. We’re out of time but we can still fix most of it. The secret is us. 75% of Americans say we’re concerned or very concerned about climate change, but only 14% of us say others around them are. They’re not hearing from us. We all need to work to engage everyone, every day in climate action.

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