Polish students part of an international climate strike hold up signs at COP24, the United Nations conference for climate change negotiations in Katowice, Poland.Monika Skolimowska/Getty Images
By Umair Ifran
Umair covers climate change, energy, and the environment.
Before joining Vox, Umair was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News in Washington, DC, where he covered health and climate change, climate policy, business, and energy trends.
In 2016, he received a Sasakawa Peace Foundation fellowship to report on Japan’s energy sector, economy, and culture. In 2014, he was awarded the Arthur F. Burns fellowship to cover Germany’s energy transition.
Negotiators at COP24 in Katowice have finally reached an agreement, but key points on carbon markets are still being debated.
UPDATE, December 15:International climate change negotiators announced late Saturday that they have reached anagreementat COP24 in Poland.
The text charts a path forward for countries to set tougher targets for cutting greenhouse gases under the Paris climate agreement, as well as stronger transparency rules for countries in disclosing their emissions.
However, nations still couldn’t reach an accord on how to use markets to limit carbon dioxide.
Those discussions will continue next year.
Read on for the context around these negotiations and why environmental groups, governments, and private companies were so concerned about the outcome of this conference.
An agreement between 200 nations at a major international climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, is taking longer than expected.
Stop Adani protest at Australian Labor Party Conference Today
The goal of the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to hammer out critical the details of theParis climate agreement.
Under the 2015 accord, countries set out to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100 at most, with a preferred target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
However, the original pledged cuts ingreenhouse gas emissionswould not put the world anywhere near meeting these targets.
So the agreement included provisions for countries to meet regularly and ramp up their ambitions, all of which are voluntary. COP24 is the first time since Paris that countries are actually talking with each other about going beyond their initial commitments. That’s why this meeting is so important. That’s also why scientists and activists are pushing for even more ambitious commitments to reduce emissions in the final days of the negotiations.
“If the Paris agreement is actually going to live up to that model of voluntary bottom-up commitments, … ongoing ratcheting down of those commitments, then it has to happen at this first moment,” said Lou Leonard, senior vice president for climate and energy at the World Wildlife Fund, by phone from Katowice. “And if it doesn’t happen at this first moment, then it will call into question whether this ratcheting will actually work.”
Time to stop opening new coal mines
The outcome of the negotiations became increasingly uncertain afterPresident Trumpin 2017 announced he would withdraw the United States from the accord.
For an agreement that hinges so much on cooperation and good faith, the worry was that without the US, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, the deal would fall apart, that other countries would weaken their ambitions or sign an agreement so full of loopholes as to be useless.
For delegates, the goal is to nail down critical details, like how to verify that countries are actually progressing in cutting greenhouse gases, creating market mechanisms to control emissions, and coming up with ways to help developing countries finance a transition to cleaner energy sources.
It turns out countries are making some progress in tracking their emissions, but are still struggling with many of the financial issues associated with mitigating climate change. It’s yet another example of the tension between the threat of rising average temperatures and the fears of economic strain that hinder ambition in cutting greenhouse gases.
Fighting climate change is only getting harder
The literal and metaphorical backdrops of the COP24 negotiations highlight the enormousness of the challenge. Katowice is in the heart of Poland’scoal countryand the conference is sponsored in part by Polish coal companies. The conference venue is literally festooned with coal.
The side event, which featured representatives from the US government and energy industry, saw panellists insist so-called “clean” fossil fuels had a role to play in tackling global warming.
The Australian Ambassador for the Environment, Patrick Suckling, appeared on a panel for a US government side-event pushing clean coal technologies.
Their presentations suggested innovation and investment in these energy sources would not only make them more competitive, but significantly decrease emissions as well.
Proceedings were interrupted by activists infuriated by the administration’s continued focus on polluting fuels.
The overwhelming majority of qualified experts agree that coal, oil and gas must be rapidly and completely phased out if the world is to stand a chance of meeting its ambitious climate targets and avoid catastrophic environmental consequences.
According to the US State Department, the event was intended to “showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible, as well as the use of emission-free nuclear energy”.
This marks the second year in a row the US government has tried to promote fossil fuels at a UN climate event.
While the event was meant to focus on “clean” fossil fuels,Donald Trumphas made clear his enthusiasm for coal, the dirtiest variety available, very clear.
Even as coal consumption has fallen in the US, the president has attempted to reverse this trend by announcing a rollback of Obama-era standards that would make building new plants easier.
It’s the springof 2043, and Gina is graduating college with the rest of her class. She had a relatively stable childhood. Her parents availed themselves of some of the year of paid family leave they were entitled to, and after that she was dropped off at a free child care program.
Pre-K and K-12 were also free, of course, but so was her time at college, which she began after a year of public service, during which she spent six months restoring wetlands and another six volunteering at a day care much like the one she had gone to.
Now that she’s graduated, it’s time to think about what to do with her life. Without student debt, the options are broad. She also won’t have to worry about health insurance costs, since everyone is now eligible for Medicare. Like most people, she isn’t extraordinarily wealthy, so she can live in public, rent-controlled housing — not in the underfunded, neglected units we’re accustomed to seeing in the United States, but in one of any number of buildings that the country’s top architects have competed for the privilege to design, featuring lush green spaces, child care centers, and even bars and restaurants. Utilities won’t be an issue, either. Broadband and clean water are both free and publicly provisioned, and the solar array that is spread atop the roofs of her housing complex generates all the power it needs and more.
For work, she trained to become a high-level engineer at a solar panel manufacturer, though some of her friends are going into nursing and teaching. All are well-paid, unionized positions, and are considered an essential part of the transition away from fossil fuels, updates about which are broadcast over the nightly news. In any case, she won’t have to spend long looking for a job. At any number of American Job Centers around the country, she can walk in and work with a counselor to find a well-paid position on projects that help make her city better able to deal with rising tides and more severe storms, or oral history projects, or switch careers altogether and receive training toward a union job in the booming clean energy sector.
The AJCs are a small part of the Green New Deal Act of 2021, a compromise plan that was only strengthened in the years that followed. For a brief moment, it looked as if the Supreme Court might strike down large elements of it, but as a plan to expand the size of the court gained popularity with the public, the justices backed down.
Gina might also open her own business. Without having to worry about the cost of day care or health insurance, she can invest everything into making her dream a reality. And the cost of labor for business owners, who no longer have to pick up the health care tab, is reasonable enough that she can afford to pay good wages for the staff that she needs to meet demand.
Whichever she chooses, she’ll work no more than 40 hours a week, and likely far less, leaving ample time to travel via high speed, zero-carbon rail to visit friends elsewhere and go hiking or to the beach; enjoy long, leisurely meals of locally sourced food and drink; and attend concerts in the park, featuring musicians whose careers have been supported by generous public arts grants. As she gets older, paying for health care won’t be a concern, with everything from routine doctor’s visits and screenings, to prescription drugs, to home health aides covered under the public system, as social security continues to furnish her rent, expenses, and entertainment through the end of her life.
That’s the world a “Green New Deal” could build, and what a number of representatives and activists are pushing Congress to help set into motion. Led by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., 17 representatives and counting have signed on to ameasurethat would create a select House committee tasked with crafting, over the course of a year, a comprehensive plan to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels by 2030 and accomplish seven goals related to decarbonizing the economy.
On Friday, Ocasio-Cortez and her collaborators gathered outside the Capitol to talk about the increasingly popular program. “The push for a Green New Deal is about more than just natural resources and jobs,” said Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. “It’s about our most precious commodity: people, families, children, our future. It’s about moving to 100 percent renewable energy and the elimination of greenhouse gases. It’s about ensuring that our coastal communities have the resources and tools to build sustainable infrastructure that will counteract rising sea levels, beat back untenable natural disasters, and mitigate the effects of extreme temperature.”
On Monday evening, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hosted a town hall on the issue with Ocasio-Cortez inside the Capitol.
All of this raises a question: What, exactly, would a Green New Deal entail?
Like its 1930s counterpart, the “Green New Deal” isn’t a specific set of programs so much as an umbrella under which various policies might fit, ranging from technocratic to transformative. The sheer scale of change needed to deal effectively with climate change is massive, as the scientific consensus is making increasingly clear, requiring an economy-wide mobilization of the sort that the United States hasn’t really undertaken since World War II. While the Green New Deal imaginary evokes images of strapping young men pulling up their sleeves to hoist up wind turbines (in the mold of realist Civilian Conservation Corps ads), its actual scope is far broader than the narrow set of activities typically housed under the green jobs umbrella, or even in the original New Deal.
“People talk often about the infrastructure investment that has to happen, and new technology,” Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, told me. “But there’s also an industrial plan that needs to happen to build entirely new industries. It’s sort of like the moonshot. When JFK said America was going to go to the moon, none of the things we needed to get to the moon at that point existed. But we tried and we did it.” The Green New Deal, he added, “touches everything — it’s basically a massive system upgrade for the economy.”
In a broad sense, that’s what policymakers in other countries refer to as industrial policy, whereby the government plays a decisive role in shaping the direction of the economy to accomplish specific aims. That doesn’t mean that the state controls every industry, as in the Soviet system; instead, it would be closer to the kind of economic planning that the U.S. practiced during the economic mobilization around World War II, and that is practiced internally today by many of the world’s biggest corporations. Should Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution pass muster, the select committee will convene policymakers, academics, and representatives from the private sector and civil society to hash out next steps. How widely or narrowly that groups defines a Green New Deal — and whether it’ll ever be given space to meet on Capitol Hill — remains to be seen, as supportive lawmakers huddle in Washington this week to try and gain support for writing it into the rulebook for the next Congress. Ultimately, it will be that committee that fleshes out what a Green New Deal looks like. But the proposal itself, American history, and existing research give us a sense for what all it might look like in practice.
The plan itself — or rather, the plan to make the plan — lays out seven goals, starting with generating 100 percent of power in the U.S. from renewable sources and updating the country’s power grid.
As the first two points of the resolution suggest, one of the main goals of any Green New Deal that spurs a complete switch to renewables will be dialing up the amount of total energy demand represented byelectricity, by switching combustion-based activities like heating systems, air conditioners, and automobiles over to electric power. The Energy Transitions Commission estimatesthat 60 percent of energy will need to be distributed via electricity by mid-century, up from just 20 percent today. Making that possible means developing new technology, and also overhauling today’s grid, making it easier for homes and businesses that generate their own power to feed it back into the system. A modern grid — or “smart” grid, per Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal — would also make way for microgrids, which are self-contained renewable energy generation systems that allow small neighborhoods and hospitals, for instance, to continue making their own power even if there are disruptions (say, hurricane-force winds or a wildfire) upstream. Assuming it won’t be entirely sustainable to import all of that capacity, scaling up renewables will also likely mean expanding the country’s renewables manufacturing sector to produce more solar and wind infrastructure, components for which are today sourcedlargelyfrom abroad.
“We build things here in Detroit, and across Michigan, and we’ve got a lot of people here with manufacturing skills who are being left behind by the corporate greed,” incoming Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D- Mich., among the first supporters of the resolution and who campaigned on a Green New Deal, said via email. “Just this week we heard about how GM, a company that has received billions and billions from taxpayers, is planning to cut thousands of jobs here. So it’s really exciting to be talking about rapidly building up our green, renewable energy infrastructure, because these are jobs that can and should go to our workers here in Michigan.
“We were the Arsenal of Democracy and helped save the planet from real darkness decades ago, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t be one of the regions to build America’s green energy infrastructure and help save the planet again in the process.”
Bringing more clean energy online could entail expanding the types of programs that already exist at the state level, too, though they seldom come with much teeth. Renewable portfolio standards require utilities to source a certain amount of their power from wind and solar.New York state, for instance, set a renewable portfolio standard of 29 percent by 2015. The deadline came and went quietly, without much talk of how it would pick up the slack to reach its next goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030.
Those targets would have to be much stricter to get off fossil fuels by 2035. “You say, you hit the target and you reduce emissions 10 percent every year or you go to jail,” says Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute. “That would get their attention.”
That may sound aggressive by today’s standards, but has been par for the course at other points in American history when the country has faced existential threats. During World War II, for instance, the government was largely responsible for administering prices, wages, and sourcing in sectors deemed vital to the Allies. Corporate productivity and profits boomed with demand for tankers and munitions, but companies that refused to go along with mandates sent down from the War Production Board and associated economic planning bodies faced a federal takeover. Among the most iconic images of these changed power relationships was a widely circulated image of Sewell Avery, the president of Montgomery Ward. During World War II, Montgomery Ward, a mail-order corporation, produced everything from uniforms to bullets for soldiers abroad. In 1944, the National War Labor Board ordered Avery, a Nazi sympathizer, to let his employees unionize to ward off a strike, and the ensuing disruption in war production. When he refused, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the National Guard tohaul him off, chair and all, and seize the company’s main plant in Chicago. The government took over operations at the company’s factories in several other cities by the year’s end. And by the end of the war, around a quarter of all domestic manufacturing had been nationalized for the sake of the war effort.
Notably, Green New Deal proponents aren’t pushing for such drastic action. Yet given the collision course between the fossil fuel industry’s business model and a livable future, simply building up more renewable power will almost certainly need to be paired with constraints on the fossil fuel industry. Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, which is backing the Green New Deal proposal, told me, “Given the fossil fuel industry’s role in creating an untenable situation for billions of people around the world, the government should step up and promote winners and create losers, which has happened before in the United States.” Among the provisions of the committee resolution, fittingly, is that politicians who accept donations from coal, oil, and gas companies can’t be appointed to it.
At a press conference announcing additional support for the resolution, Ocasio-Cortez spelled out the conflict of interest: “This is about the fact that if we continue to allow power to concentrate with corporations to dictate the quality of our air, to … tell us that we can keep burning fossil fuels — to dupe us — people will die,” she said, “and people are dying.”
Evan Weber, of the Sunrise Movement, put it in similar terms. “Dealing with climate change in the way that we need to is not just about passing a suite of policies that will transform our society to both end the causes of climate change and prepare society for the climate change that is already baked in,” he said. “It’s also changing our conception of what government is and who its for.”
Especially under the Trump administration, plenty of government policy has been written for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry. According to a2018 analysis by Oil Change International, the U.S. government annually spends about $20 billion on direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; the richest “G7” nations overall spend about$100 billion. This in itself is a kind of industrial policy already in place, and a Green New Deal might at the very least remove those subsidies and redirect them toward the clean energy sector, where wind and solar already enjoy a much smaller degree of subsidization through the production and investment tax credits, respectively.
While winding down fossil fuel production and scaling up renewables will of course be a considerable part of any Green New Deal, so too will investing in the research, development, and manufacturing capacities to get especially difficult-to-decarbonize sectors, like airlines and steel, off fossil fuels over the next several decades, as Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal notes. The latter requires a still largely experimental process called electrolysis, which targeted investments could subsidize research into. In Sanders’s town hall Monday night, Ocasio-Cortez appeared to reference economist Mariana Mazzucato’s work, which lays out the existing progress and potential of using public investment to finance early-stage research that venture capital funds are too risk-averse to support. (Ocasio-Cortez and other members of her team have met with Mazzacuto.)
“For far too long,” she said, “we gave money to Tesla — to a lot of people — and we got no return on the investment that the public made in new technologies. It’s the public that financed innovative new technologies.”
Such a policy umbrella, though, could be just as much about decarbonization as about building out sectors of the economy which simply aren’t carbon-intensive, but are essential to a healthy economy, such as teaching and nursing. A federal job guarantee, which is cited in the draft resolution and a hot topic among 2020 presidential hopefuls, might put people to work remediating wetlands and tending community gardens while providing an alternative to low-paid work bound up in hugely carbon-intensive supply chains. Walmart, for instance, is thebiggest employerin 22 states, paying an entry-level wage of $11 per hour. McDonald’s, another major employer, is estimated to have at some point employed1 in 8 American workers and has consistently resisted calls to institute a $15 minimum wage. A federal jobs guarantee that paying that much, as outlined by several proposals, would effectively create a national wage floor, compelling retail and fast food chains to either raise their wages or risk having their employees enticed into better-paid jobs that improve their communities and make them more resilient against climate impacts.
For extractive industry workers, whose wages are traditionally high thanks to decades of labor militancy, $15 an hour may not be too big of a draw, meaning other programs could be needed to finance what’s widely referred to as a just transition, making sure that workers in sectors that need to be phased out — like coal, oil, and gas — are well taken care of and that communities which have historically revolved around those industries can diversify their economies. Spain’s social democratic government recently sponsored a small-scale version of this, investing the relatively tiny sum of $282 million, with the support of trade unions, to help coal workers transition into other work while shuttering the last of the country’s coal mines.
With the right investment, new jobs won’t be hard to come by. Research from theInternational Labour Organization finds that while a concerted transition to renewable energy could cost as many as 6 million jobs around the world in carbon-intensive sectors, it could create 24 million jobs, or a net gain of 18 million, and far more than the profound job loss that would stem from unchecked climate change.
It’s not hardto imagine cries from Republicans and Democrats alike about how much such a program might cost, and of the dangers of blowing up the deficit. Worth noting is the cost that 13 federal agencies have said are likely if we do nothing, according to theNational Climate Assessmentquietly released on Black Friday. By 2100, heat-related deaths could cost the U.S. $141 billion. Sea-level rise could rack up a $118 billion bill, and infrastructure damages could cost up to $32 billion. Along the same timeline, the report’s authors found, the financial damages of climate change to the U.S. could double those caused by the Great Recession.
By comparison, the 1 to 2 percent of gross domestic product that Pollin has said a Green New Deal would cost seems pretty cheap, never mind the fact that putting millions of people to work would bolster tax revenues and consumer spending. Pollin calls it “equitable green growth,” coupled with “degrowth down to zero of the fossil fuel industry.” Incumbent fuel sources, and coal in particular, aren’t exactly saving anyone money. A recent analysis from the group Carbon Tracker has found that 42 percent of coal capacity worldwide is already unprofitable, and that figure could spiked to 72 percent by 2030.
“The question is, ‘What policy do you use to build up the public investment and incentivize private investment?’” Pollin said. “You can’t just have these private sector incentive programs. That’s just not going to get it.”
As several proponents have pointed out, though, so-called pay-for questions are rarely asked of public spending programs designed to further national interests, be that getting out of a recession or fighting a war. “If we were threatened by an invader, we would mobilize all the resources we have at our disposal to deal with that security threat,” says U.K.-based economist Ann Pettifor. “As in those circumstances, you cannot rely entirely on the private sector.”
Pettifor was among the first people to start thinking seriously about a Green New Deal just after the financial crisis. Then working at the New Economics Foundation, a progressive think tank, she helped convene a series of meetings in her living room that would eventually coalesce into the Green New Deal group. The group produced several reports on the subject. But with European sovereign debt crisis about to plunge the continent’s lawmakers into full-blown austerity hysteria, any public discussion of a big, expansionary spending package faded. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to Labour Party leadership helped change that. And this past March, Chakrabarti, working on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign at the time, showed up on her doorstep wanting to hear more.
For Pettifor, as for many Green New Deal advocates on this side of the pond, the funding question is less about how to reconcile line items than about reconfiguring what goals the economy is working toward — that is, to make it do something other than simply grow GDP by some fixed percentage each year.
Economists’ and policymakers’ fixation on unlimited economic growth as the metric for measuring economic prosperity is a really recent invention, developed in large part by the exponential returns that were being brought in by a ballooning financial sector–and not to that point factored into economic accounts. “If I work hard every day and night I have a weekly wage. If i gamble and win a load of money, I get rich quick,” she explains. “And the finance sector has moved its focus into making money in that way and not in investing in productive activity.” That shift toward measuring growth above all else started to displace an earlier focus on full employment in the 1960s, making multiplying profits and consumption the goal rather than ensuring people’s basic needs were met. As a result, carbon emissions spiked.
It’s why Pettifor largely rejects the premise of debates among environmentalists about growth and degrowth. For the green movement to talk about growth at all, she says, “is to adapt that OECD framing of what the economy should be about” and “to adopt the framing of a neoliberal idea of the economy. I would prefer to us to talk about full employment.”
That’s not to suggest there aren’t nuts and bolts funding issues that can be easily worked out. In contrast to state governments, which rely in large part on tax revenues, the federal government has plenty of tools at its disposal for financing a Green New Deal — tools it deployed to great effect during the financial crisis. It could also set up a National Investment Bank to furnish lines of credit for green investment. A polluter fee or carbon tax could provide some revenue, as well, but perhaps more importantly would punish bad behavior in the energy sector. Loan guarantees of the sort used in the stimulus package could help to build out clean energy as they did then, before getting scrapped when Republicans took control of the House in 2010. (While Solyndra, the most infamous of those loan recipients, failed, the program overall made a return on investment greater than those enjoyed by most venture capital funds.)
In a piece co-authored by Greg Carlock, author of a Green New Deal prospectus for the upstart think tank Data for Progress; and Andres Bernal, an adviser to Ocasio-Cortez; and Stephanie Kelton, former chief economist on the Senate Budget Committee, the writers explain, “When Congress authorizes spending, it sets off a sequence of actions. Federal agencies … enter into contracts and begin spending. As the checks go out, the government’s bank — the Federal Reserve — clears the payments by crediting the seller’s bank account with digital dollars. In other words, Congress can pass any budget it chooses, and our government already pays for everything by creating new money.”
A Green New Deal, moreover, “will actually help the economy by stimulating productivity, job growth and consumer spending, as government spending has often done,” Kelton, Bernal, and Carlock add. “In fact, a Green New Deal can create good-paying jobs while redressing economic and environmental inequities.”
Green New Dealadvocates also have no illusions about just how flawed the original New Deal was in terms of inequities, given that it largely left Jim Crow in place. “It threw black and brown people under the bus,” Chakrabarti said, noting that Roosevelt gave up on enshrining civil rights into its programs in order to win the support of white supremacist southern Democrats. Among the most infamous examples of this dynamic was theFederal Housing Administration, which guaranteed mortgages and subsidized large housing developments for whites on the condition that African-Americans couldn’t live there. African-Americans who applied for assistance to buy homes in predominantly white neighborhoods were refused. It’s from these same policies that the term redlining first emerged, a reference to New Deal-era planning maps which used literal red lines to designate areas where the federally backed Home Owners’ Loan Corporation would and would not insure mortgages.
“Right off the bat,” Chakrabarti says of the Green New Deal plan, “we’ve put trying to fix the injustices that have been perpetrated on black and brown communities front and center. Unless you have targeted investments in communities that have had their wealth stripped from them for generations, it’s going to be very difficult for communities that have faced redlining to enjoy economic prosperity.”
The detritus of FHA-style discrimination serves to make a transition harder, and will need to be overcome to make any new New Deal a success. Dense, transit-connected cities are on the whole more sustainable than the car-centric suburban sprawl encouraged by a mix of mid-century development schemes, segregationist policies and white flight. Yet the home solar market is oriented largely around rooftop installations, which creates obvious barriers to entry for renters in multi-unit buildings, where landlords have little incentive to upgrade. The New York City Housing Authority, accounting for about a fifth of the country’s public housing, could be a model for retrofitting public and affordable housing in cities around the country, but is currently sitting in about $17 billion of debt and remains in dire need of basic updates and repairs.
As sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen points out, density alone doesn’t make a city low-carbon. While they pride themselves as green for buying organic and taking the train, luxury high-rise inhabitants — with their taste for carbon-intensive imports, summer homes, and first-class business trips — have the largest footprints in their cities, which account for around three-quarters of carbon emissions worldwide. “When it comes to the carbon emissions of New York’s individual residents, as calculated in terms of consumption, Manhattan is the worst borough. Because it’s the richest,” hewrites. “Crowded but well-to-do West Villagers’ carbon footprints are comparable to sprawling suburbanites’ all over the country.” Beyond Manhattan,Oxfam Internationalhas found that the world’s richest 10 percent produce about half of its carbon emissions. “It is only residents of Manhattan’s less-gentrified neighborhoods,” Aldana Cohen continues, “who have really low carbon footprints. They reside by the island’s northwest and southeast tips, in zip codes anchored by public housing. … Public housing, well-stocked libraries, accessible transit, gorgeous parks: these are democratic low-carbon amenities. And they’re the political achievements of working-class New York.”
Dense, affordable housing is the key to making a low-carbon city. And with the right investments, NYCHA could cut its emissions by three-quarters or more, “while using the renovation process to clean out mold, seal the cracks and crevices where pests now thrive, and increase leaf canopy. With these and other measures, NYCHA could become the world’s largest—albeit decentralized—green city,” Aldana Cohen adds. A Green New Deal could sponsor similar improvements in towns and cities around the country, rendering cities greener, more equitable, and infinitely more livable.
Beyond redressing some of the ills of the original New Deal, those pushing for its redux are also keenly focused on the people who could be on the losing end of both climate policy and the climate crisis itself. “We know that if we are really going to make it out of the years and decades ahead, we need a government that cares for people and is of, by and for the people and acts to protect the most marginalized amongst us,” Weber, of Sunrise, says. “When we have things like extreme weather events and increased migration because of climate change, we take a more humanitarian approach to responding to those than what we’re seeing from our federal government, which is saying we need to build walls and lock people in cages.”
In the coming decades, climate change is likely to bring about the largest mass migration in human history, both within and between countries. Already, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that as many as 21.5 million people have been displaced thanks to climate-related impacts, and the civil war in Syria that has led many refugees to flee that country is owed at least partially to climate-induced drought and agricultural crisis. Largely, governments in the global north have treated these flows as a problem. But the Green New Deal could adopt a different approach.
“We’re going to need tens or hundreds of millions of jobs,” Chakrabarti said, projecting that there could even be a labor shortage. “What that’s going to result in is that, yes, we’re going to have to retrain and invest in the current American workforce. But we’re probably going to be begging for more immigration.” He referenced the influx of labor needed to build up the interstate highway system in the 1950s. “It’s not just that we had an open immigration policy. We were actively recruiting.” Chakrabarti’s father, he said, immigrated after visiting an American recruitment center in West Bengal. “They were pitching them on the American dream to try to get them to come to America and build the country together.”
As the immigration question highlights, climate change isn’t an issue that confines itself narrowly to borders. The US represents about 15 percent of global emissions, so acting alone won’t get us too far. Coal is on a steady decline here, but Asia accounts for around three-quarters of global coal consumption, which has actually risen overall in the last 2 years. And while China has backed what might be the world’s most ambitious green spending package, it’s also continuing to finance coal plants domestically and throughout the global south, encouraging other countries to pursue a path to economic development based on a fuel source that climate science is increasingly clear should be zeroed out. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal frames this problem delicately, setting out an intention to make green “technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely carbon neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.”
Aside from turning the US into a major exporter of clean energy — rather than, say, oil — that might involve US capital opening up a path to development for other countries that’s based on renewable energy and not coal or gas, in ways similar to the Marshall Plan shaped the course of economic rebuilding and development in post-war development. The approach wouldn’t be all that dramatic of a departure from current U.S. energy policy in the U.S.; the Trump Administration has repeatedly stated its intent to help bring coal to the rest of the world, including at last year’s UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany, and almost certainly at their event this year at COP 24. But extending the Green New Deal beyond the narrow confines of U.S. borders would also involve upending thetraditionally obstructive rolethe U.S. has played in international climate talks, stymying ambition and binding pledges. As Naomi Klein noted last week, the U.S. taking the climate crisis seriously — adopting what could be the world’s most ambitious decarbonization plan, in its most dominant economy — would have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the rest of the world, and more narrowly in the talks themselves as countries figure out how to ratchet up their commitments to the Paris agreement in the coming years.
All of the above is only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a brief and entirely non-exhaustive list of some other issues that might fall under a Green New Deal: farm and agricultural policy; reforming the National Flood Insurance Program and developing a coherent plan for relocating coastal communities away from flood zones; formally honoring indigenous sovereignty and tribal land rights; ensuring democratic participation in clean energy planning and ending eminent domain; a universal basic income; wildfire management; trade policy; building up infrastructure to sequester carbon; fully extending broadband wireless to rural communities; rare earths and mineral procurement; overhauling FEMA; sweeping campaign finance reform; and “Medicare for All” — to name just a few.
Needless to say,the Green New Deal faces an uphill battle on the Hill. Aside from complaints about feasibility, the pushback from other Democrats so far has been largely procedural, Weber says, citing a fear voiced by some House members that should the select committee be empowered to draft legislation, it would undermine the authority of other established committees. As he points out, the resolution outlines only that the committee be allowed to draft legislation, and wouldn’t pre-empt that legislation first going through another body before moving to a floor vote. Moreover, Weber added, “We actually do need a committee that goes beyond the very narrow focus of the existing ones. What we’re talking about is something that effects every aspect of society. A select committee that can have the purview over the issues that all of these existing committees and more is exactly the type of vehicle that Congress — if it want to take climate change seriously — should be creating.”
I contacted several incoming members of Congress that were outspoken in their campaigns about climate change but have not yet signed on to the Green New Deal resolution to ask about their positions. As of yet, no one has responded, although one — Rep.-elect Mike Levin, D-Calif. — announced his support last week.
In the coming days and weeks, House Democrats are expected to release the first version of their rules package for the next Congress, in which supporters hope that a version of the select committee on the Green New Deal will appear. “Whether we get it or we don’t get it, the biggest thing we need to have is a movement backing this stuff,” Chakrabarti said. “The movement needs to keep pushing it and making a plan to go all the way. If we don’t get the committee, it’s up to us to figure out how to do it.”
Three trends will combine to hasten it, warn Yangyang Xu, Veerabhadran Ramanathan and David G. Victor.
Devastating wildfires ravaged California last month. Credit: Gene Blevins/Reuters
Prepare for the “new abnormal”. That was what California Governor Jerry Brown told reporters last month, commenting on the deadly wildfires that have plagued the state this year.
He’s right. California’s latest crisis builds on years of record-breaking droughts and heatwaves.
The rest of the world, too, has had more than its fair share of extreme weather in 2018. TheLancetCountdown on health and climate changeannounced last weekthat 157 million more people were exposed to heatwave events in 2017, compared with 2000.
Such environmental disasters will only intensify. Governments, rightly, want to know what to do. Yet the climate-science community is struggling to offer useful answers.
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)released a reportsetting out why we must stop global warming at 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, and how to do so1. It is grim reading. If the planet warms by 2 °C — the widely touted temperature limit in the 2015 Paris climate agreement — twice as many people will face water scarcity than if warming is limited to 1.5 °C. That extra warming will also expose more than 1.5 billion people to deadly heat extremes, and hundreds of millions of individuals to vector-borne diseases such as malaria, among other harms.
But the latest IPCC special report underplays another alarming fact: global warming is accelerating. Three trends — rising emissions, declining air pollution and natural climate cycles — will combine over the next 20 years to make climate change faster and more furious than anticipated. In our view, there’s a good chance that we could breach the 1.5 °C level by 2030, not by 2040 as projected in the special report (see ‘Accelerated warming’). The climate-modelling community has not grappled enough with the rapid changes that policymakers care most about, preferring to focus on longer-term trends and equilibria.
Policymakers have less time to respond than they thought. Governments need to invest even more urgently in schemes that protect homes from floods and fires and help people to manage heat stress (especially older individuals and those living in poverty). Nations need to make their forests and farms more resilient to droughts, and prepare coasts for inundation. Rapid warming will create a greater need for emissions policies that yield the quickest changes in climate, such as controls on soot, methane and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases. There might even be a case for solar geoengineering — cooling the planet by, for instance, seeding reflective particles in the stratosphere to act as a sunshade.
Climate scientists must supply the evidence policymakers will need and provide assessments for the next 25 years. They should advise policymakers on which climate-warming pollutants to limit first to gain the most climate benefit. They should assess which policies can be enacted most swiftly and successfully in the real world, where political, administrative and economic constraints often make abstract, ‘ideal’ policies impractical.
Speeding freight train
Three lines of evidence suggest that global warming will be faster than projected in the recent IPCC special report.
First, greenhouse-gas emissions are still rising.
In 2017, industrial carbon dioxide emissions are estimated to have reached about 37 gigatonnes.
This puts them on track with the highest emissions trajectory the IPCC has modelled so far.
This dark news means that the next 25 years are poised to warm at a rate of 0.25–0.32 °C per decade. That is faster than the 0.2 °C per decade that we have experienced since the 2000s, and which the IPCC used in its special report.
Second, governments are cleaning up air pollution faster than the IPCC and most climate modellers have assumed.
For example, China reduced sulfur dioxide emissions from its power plants by 7–14% between 2014 and 2016 (ref.).
Mainstream climate models had expected them to rise. Lower pollution is better for crops and public health. But aerosols, including sulfates, nitrates and organic compounds, reflect sunlight. This shield of aerosols has kept the planet cooler, possibly by as much as 0.7 °C globally.
Third, there are signs that the planet might be entering a natural warm phase that could last for a couple of decades. The Pacific Ocean seems to be warming up, in accord with a slow climate cycle known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. This cycle modulates temperatures over the equatorial Pacific and over North America. Similarly, the mixing of deep and surface waters in the Atlantic Ocean (the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation) looks to have weakened since 2004, on the basis of data from drifting floats that probe the deep ocean. Without this mixing, more heat will stay in the atmosphere rather than going into the deep oceans, as it has in the past.
These three forces reinforce each other. We estimate that rising greenhouse-gas emissions, along with declines in air pollution, bring forward the estimated date of 1.5 °C of warming to around 2030, with the 2 °C boundary reached by 2045. These could happen sooner with quicker shedding of air pollutants. Adding in natural decadal fluctuations raises the odds of blasting through 1.5 °C by 2025 to at least 10% (ref.). By comparison, the IPCC assigned probabilities of 17% and 83% for crossing the 1.5 °C mark by 2030 and 2052, respectively.
Scientists and policymakers must rethink their roles, objectives and approaches on four fronts.
Assess science in the near term.Policymakers should ask the IPCC for another special report, this time on the rates of climate change over the next 25 years. The panel should also look beyond the physical science itself and assess the speed at which political systems can respond, taking into account pressures to maintain the status quo from interest groups and bureaucrats. Researchers should improve climate models to describe the next 25 years in more detail, including the latest data on the state of the oceans and atmosphere, as well as natural cycles. They should do more to quantify the odds and impacts of extreme events. The evidence will be hard to muster, but it will be more useful in assessing real climate dangers and responses.
Rethink policy goals.Warming limits, such as the 1.5 °C goal, should be recognized as broad planning tools. Too often they are misconstrued as physical thresholds around which to design policies. The excessive reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’ (that take up CO2) in the IPCC special report shows that it becomes harder to envision realistic policies the closer the world gets to such limits. It’s easy to bend models on paper, but much harder to implement real policies that work.
Realistic goals should be set based on political and social trade-offs, not just on geophysical parameters. They should come out of analyses of costs, benefits and feasibility. Assessments of these trade-offs must be embedded in the Paris climate process, which needs a stronger compass to guide its evaluations of how realistic policies affect emissions. Better assessment can motivate action but will also be politically controversial: it will highlight gaps between what countries say they will do to control emissions, and what needs to be achieved collectively to limit warming. Information about trade-offs must therefore come from outside the formal intergovernmental process — from national academies of sciences, subnational partnerships and non-governmental organizations.
Design strategies for adaptation.The time for rapid adaptation has arrived. Policymakers need two types of information from scientists to guide their responses. First, they need to know what the potential local impacts will be at the scales of counties to cities. Some of this information could be gleaned by combining fine-resolution climate impact assessments with artificial intelligence for ‘big data’ analyses of weather extremes, health, property damage and other variables. Second, policymakers need to understand uncertainties in the ranges of probable climate impacts and responses. Even regions that are proactive in setting adaptation policies, such as California, lack information about the ever-changing risks of extreme warming, fires and rising seas. Research must be integrated across fields and stakeholders — urban planners, public-health management, agriculture and ecosystem services. Adaptation strategies should be adjustable if impacts unfold differently. More planning and costing is needed around the worst-case outcomes.
Understand options for rapid response.Climate assessments must evaluate quick ways of lessening climate impacts, such as through reducing emissions of methane, soot (or black carbon) and HFCs. Per tonne, these three ‘super pollutants’ have 25 to thousands of times the impact of CO2. Their atmospheric lifetimes are short — in the range of weeks (for soot) to about a decade (for methane and HFCs). Slashing these pollutants would potentially halve the warming trend over the next 25 years.
There has been progress on this front. At the Global Climate Action summit held in September in San Francisco, California, the United States Climate Alliance — a coalition of state governors representing 40% of the US population —issued a road mapto reduce emissions of methane, HFCs and soot by 40–50% by 2030. The2016 Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which will go into force by January 2019, is set to slash HFC emissions by 80% over the next 30 years.
Various climate engineering options should be on the table as an emergency response. If global conditions really deteriorate, we might be forced to extract large volumes of excess CO2 directly from the atmosphere. An even faster emergency response could be toinject aerosols into the atmosphere to lower the amount of solar radiation heating the planet, as air pollution does. This option is hugely controversial, and might have unintended consequences, such as altering rainfall patterns that lead to drying of the tropics. So research and planning are crucial, in case this option is needed. Until there is investment in testing and technical preparedness — today, there is almost none — the chances are high that the wrong kinds of climate-engineering scheme will be deployed by irresponsible parties who are uninformed by research.
For decades, scientists and policymakers have framed the climate-policy debate in a simple way: scientists analyse long-term goals, and policymakers pretend to honour them.
Those days are over.
Serious climate policy must focus more on the near-term and on feasibility.
It must consider the full range of options, even though some are uncomfortable and freighted with risk.
Fifteen Democrats have committed to the proposal touted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
More and more Democrats are committing to supporting a sweeping, historic green effort that would transform the U.S. economy in an effort to fight climate change, in the latest indicator that environmental issues will be a dominant force in 2019.
As of Wednesday morning, the Sunrise Movement, a climate group led by young people, said at least 15 Democrats are willing to sign onto supporting the formation of a select committee to create a “Green New Deal” endorsed by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The most recent supporter, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), voiced her supportwith a statementon Tuesday.
“We don’t need another report to tell us climate change is a threat to our health, environment and economy,” the congresswoman wrote. “We must take urgent action to end our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and stop the damage greenhouse gases have done to our way of life.”
“The Green New Deal is an important blueprint for us to fight this crisis on all fronts. Congress should not leave any thoughtful climate change solution unexplored,” she continued.
Pingree, an organic farmer and a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, highlighted the impact of climate change on her state, Maine, where warming waters are threatening the lobster industry and the state’s economy.
“I see the crisis of climate change every day in my state and believe a new committee dedicated exclusively to this crisis can support the long-standing work of other House committees and help to fast-track solutions,” she wrote.
Pingree’s not alone. Other senior party members have since the midterms voiced their support for urgent climate action. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)quickly gave a Green New Deal his supportthe week before Thanksgiving, handing activists a major win. In the time since, the list of backers has grown — Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) endorsed the proposal on Monday, shortly before Pingree gave her support.
In addition to those lawmakers, Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (CA), Carolyn Maloney (NY), Jared Huffman (CA), Jose Serrano (NY), Ted Lieu (CA), and Earl Blumenauer (OR) have all voiced support, as have Reps.-elect Deb Haaland (NM), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ilhan Omar (MN), and Joe Neguse (CO).
Increasingly, the Green New Deal is becoming a litmus test for Democrats grappling with a massive shift in the party.
A wave of progressive newcomers will join the House of Representatives in 2019 as Democrats take over, many of whom have taken the unusual step of highlighting climate issues, which rarely garner significant attention from either party.
A draft resolution of what a blueprint for the deal might look likehas already circulated. Proposed by Ocasio-Cortez, the Sunrise Movement, and the left-wing political action committee Justice Democrats, the draft establishes a select committee with the authority to create a “detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan” allowing the United States to swiftly become carbon-neutral.
Calling for input from business and labor along with state and local governments, the draft nonetheless gives a timeline of no more than a decade for the deal’s execution.
Creating jobs is a core element of the plan, but the deal also emphasizes “social, economic, racial, regional, and gender-based justice and equality” in any final draft.
Now, those talking points are moving closer to reality, albeit not without resistance.
Green New Deal Democrats have faced pushback from entrenched Democrats wary of broad action on climate issues, including Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the incoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone has declined to turn down donations from fossil fuel companies, a central demand of many Democrats embracing climate justice.
As part of the momentum building behind calls for a Green New Deal, a policy group is also being formed to support the effort. The New Consensus, a 501c(3) non-profit, is emerging as the muscle supporting Green New Deal efforts.
AnE&E report on Tuesday noted that the group is building a “climate mobilization office” in order to create a hub for fleshing out and administering the plan.
That rapid mobilization is giving heart to environmental activists, who are used to seeing climate action downplayed by lawmakers, or postponed to a future date. Mere weeks after the midterm elections, climate issues are still dominating conversations for Democrats, a trend green groups hope will continue into 2019.
Still, any Green New Deal that emerges requires votes, something it won’t have in the near future, with both the Senate and the White House controlled by Republicans who have largely signaled an opposition to climate action. But activists and lawmakers in the House plan to lay the foundation for future efforts now before pushing them through once an opportunity opens up, potentially after the 2020 election.
They also have an added incentive. The congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment (NCA), released last week, shows that every region of the country is currently suffering the impacts of climate change,with far worse crises set to followwithout immediate action. For Green New Deal Democrats, the report’s warnings only underscore the need for action.
“People are going to die if we don’t start addressing climate change ASAP. It’s not enough to think it’s ‘important.’ We must make it urgent,” Ocasio-Cortezwroteon Twitter. “That’s why we need a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, & why fossil fuel-funded officials shouldn’t be writing climate change policy.”
This weekend theG20 are meeting in Argentina, with the aim (they say) of ‘building consensus for fair and sustainable development’. Since they collectively generate 85% of global GDP, whether they do or don’t transform their economies will profoundly affect us all. So how close to theDoughnut’s safe and just space are the G20?
Here’s one way of assessing it, using the pioneeringnational doughnut analysisby Dan O’Neill, Andrew Fanning, Julia Steinberger and Will Lamb at the University of Leeds. Using the best-available, internationally comparable data, they scaled the global concept of the Doughnut down to the national level for over 150 countries (only including those for which there were sufficient data – as a result, Saudi Arabia is unfortunately missing from this G20 analysis. The EU28 group is also not available for this analysis).
In essence, national doughnuts aim to reflect the extent to which a country is meeting its people’s essential needs while at the same time ensuring that its use of Earth’s resources remains within its share of the planet’s biophysical boundaries.
Since Argentina is hosting the talks, let’s take its national doughnut as an illustration. The aim is to fill the centre circle in blue, while not overshooting the green ring of the biophysical boundary. Like many countries worldwide, Argentina is both falling short on some social dimensions while already overshooting multiple biophysical boundaries.
The methodology for these national doughnuts is a work in progress, of course, but the indicators and data underlying them are improving year-on-year, and when taken as an overview of 150 countries, the initial analysis reveals some valuable 21stcentury insights.
In the chart below (made in collaboration with Andrew Fanning), humanity’s sweet spot – living in the Doughnut – lies in the top left-hand corner: a place where all social thresholds are met, without transgressing any biophysical boundaries.
So what does this 150 country overview reveal? Three insights jump out.
1. We are all developing countries now. The Doughnut challenge turns all countries – including every member of the G20 – into ‘developing countries’ because no country in the world can say that it is even close to meeting the needs of all of its people within the means of the planet. (If you are wondering which is that one country closer than the rest, it’s Viet Nam – but is it heading for the Doughnut, or moving straight past it?)
2. New development pathways need new names. There are currently three broad clusters of countries making very different 21st century journeys, as labeled in the version of the diagram below:
A.Countries that are barely crossing any planetary boundaries, but are falling very far short on meeting people’s needs, including G20 members India and Indonesia. The development path that these nations must now pursue has never taken before. Copying the degenerative industrial path of today’s high-income countries (Group C), would most likely collapse Earth’s life-supporting systems.
B.Many middle-income, ‘emerging’ economies – including G20 members like Brazil, Russia, China, Argentina and South Africa – are both falling short on social needs while already crossing biophysical boundaries. These countries are now making future-defining investments in urbanization, energy systems and transport networks. Will these infrastructural investments take them further away from the doughnut, or start bringing them towards it?
C.Today’s high-income countries – including G20 members like the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU 28 itself – cannot be called developed, given that their resource consumption is greatly overshooting Earth’s boundaries and, in the process, undermining prospects for all other countries. These high-income nations, too, are on an unprecedented developmental journey: to sustain good living standards while moving back within Earth’s biophysical boundaries.
D.No country is yet in sweet-spot cluster D (for Doughnut!) – so how many years until some are there, and which will make it there first?
Given that the labels ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ no longer make sense in the 21stcentury context, how can we best rename these four clusters of countries? In comments on this blog, and on Twitter, please do share suggestions for inventive and memorable names for these very different country clusters facing the Doughnut challenge. Naming is framing, so let’s rename and reframe the future of development…
3. Transformative goals demand transformative approaches.Given that none of these three development paths have been pursued before – let alone have yet been achieved – it would be bizarre to think that last century’s economic theories, policy prescriptions and business models would equip us for what lies ahead. Getting into the Doughnut is our generational challenge and it demands transformational mindsets, models and action in economics, policymaking, and business.
As the world’s major economies, the G20 should be leading this transformation, with countries starting in all three country clusters. But since a key current criterion of G20 membership is having a large GDP, each country is geopolitically locked in to pursuing GDP growth to keep its place in the annual G20 Family Photo. So for leadership on the Doughnut Challenge, look, instead, to the Wellbeing Economy Governments, or #WeGO, an emerging grouping of countries – among them New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland – that arefocusing on economic wellbeingand have a far greater chance of putting regenerative and distributive policies into practice.
Let me leave the G20 with the question that this summit should be asking:
A recent visit to the cinema to see the excellentFirst Man, which follows astronaut Neil Armstrong on his path to immortality, reminded me of the big anniversary coming up next year.
I find it hard to believe, but 2019 will see the 50thanniversary of the first moon landing, way back in July 1969. I was a schoolboy at the time and remember it vividly. In many ways, this seminal event was the beginning of the end for the hugely ambitious US space programme. Despite another five landings following, and all the drama of the Apollo 13 emergency, the final two moon missions were scrapped, along with plans for a moon base and manned mission to Mars in the 1980s. There has been no return to the Moon and – notwithstanding wildly optimistic ravings from Elon Musk and other internet billionaires with more money than sense – a human presence on the red planet seems as far away as ever.
It is probably not entirely a coincidence that interest in space and reaching out to other worlds began to fade at a time when concerns over our own was growing. Today, few in their right mind would prioritise space exploration over putting our house in order down here on Earth.
A house that is in severe danger of being trashed beyond repair by a conspiracy of climate breakdown, environmental degradation and mass extinction. Notwithstanding this, space still has a major role to play down here on the surface. Specialist satellites play a key part in observing and tracking many of the features that flag up how quickly our world is falling apart, including ice cover, sea-surface temperatures and land use. The Apollo programme, in particular, also taught us a vital lesson; just how quickly something can be accomplished if it is wanted badly enough. This is encapsulated in a short clip from the now famous speech President Kennedy made in 1962, during which he announced the intention to put a man on the Moon.
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.
Swap ‘stop climate breakdown’for ‘go to the Moon’ and these few sentences describe perfectly the can-do thinking that a war on climate change requires.
It may be Kismet, but Kennedy’s speech was made seven years before the first moon landing; the same length of time over which Extinction Rebellion demands that UK carbon emissions reach net zero.
So, it seems obvious.
What we need is an Apollo Programme for climate change.
An all-embracing crusade that strives to cut emissions to the bone within seven years.
To do this will require retooling the economy and rebooting our wasteful lifestyles to make falling carbon outputthemeasure of the success of our society; not rising GDP, the number of families with two cars, or how many fighter jets we have sold to Saudi Arabia.
The driver for the Apollo programme was simple and straightforward – get to the Moon before the ‘Russkies’ do.
When the alternative is global catastrophe, an Apollo Programme for climate change shouldn’t really need to be incentivised.
Knowing that we will bequeath to our children and their children a world that is not desecrated beyond redemption should be sufficient.
Nonetheless, there are welcome incentives too.
A zero carbon world will be a cleaner, safer and – almost certainly – a happier one.
So what’s not to like.
The sooner we start the better.
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.
This Friday, November 30, thousands of Australian students will go on strike, demanding their politicians start taking serious action on climate change.
The movement,School Strike 4 Climate Action, has been inspired by a 15-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, who started boycotting classes before parliamentary elections in her nation on September 9, and continues to skip school every Friday. She also has a particular message for Australia.
Students in each state capital and across 20 regional Australian centres will walk out of their classrooms this week to tell politicians that more of the same climate inaction is not good enough.
Here are some of the lessons they hope to teach.
‘If we really want a better planet Earth’
Lucie Atkin-Bolton, 11, who will soon graduate as school captain at Sydney’s Forest Lodge Public School, says Australia should be sourcing 100 per cent of its electricity from solar power: “I can’t understand why it hasn’t been done yet.”
“Right now the political leaders aren’t doing very much at all,” Lucie says. “They’re more promoting coal-sourced energy when, if we really want to have a better planet Earth, we need renewable energy.”
Climate change “is a crisis”, she says. “It’s not going to happen in two or three decades – it’s happening now.”
Lucie says “whole islands will disappear” as warming lifts sea levels, and the time for thinking is running out.
“We can’t just talk about it, we have to act,” she says. “We have to make a change.”
While Lucie hopes to attend the main strike event at NSW Parliament, school principal Stephen Reed has been supportive, she says. Students remaining behind are expected to be involved in school-wide activities.
‘Fear’ is a motivator
Vivienne Paduch isn’t waiting for Friday’s gathering – where the Manly Selective school student will also be a speaker – to get active. This Sunday, she’ll be busy at a “Crafternoon”, creating banners and honing her speech.
The 14-year-old says Australia needs to cut its carbon footprint “dramatically” and soon. The run of “crazy, extreme weather events” – from the NSW drought to destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and recent unusual fires within the Arctic Circle – are part of her motivation.
“Firstly it’s fear,” Vivienne says. “I’m really scared for me and for my generation and the generations that are going to come after me from the implications of what climate change will mean.
“It’s only going to get worse if we don’t take action now.
“Striking for climate action is more important [to me] than missing a day of school.
“With all the support we’ve got this year, I can see it happening again next year,” Vivienne says. “It’s very important to keep pressure on the politicians.”
‘Young people have to step up’
For Aisheeya Huq, a year 10 student at Auburn Girls High School, the School Strike is a natural extension of her volunteer work for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
The 16-year-old says her generation can’t ignore climate change and environmental destruction and the justice issues that flow from them.
“We’re going to have to face the consequences [from the work of] a lot of the policymakers and politicians … due to their lack of understanding and perhaps care for the future,” Aisheeya says.
“Young people have realised that because we are going to be affected, we have to step up, and we have to do something about it.”
Politicians talk about the importance of education and shouldn’t be surprised when students join the climate dots. “If you care so much about our education and what you’re teaching us, why aren’t you doing anything about it?” she says.
Tully Boyle, a 15-year-old at Castlemaine Secondary College, has already taken part in several school boycotts, and this week took a train into Melbourne with other students to deliver demands to politicians.
“It’s a massive emergency,” Tully says. “We want all governments to take it seriously.”
She says heatwaves, flooding and worsening bushfires are a portent of much worse to come if temperature rises reach 4-5 degrees – the course they are now on.
Tully would like to see support for renewable energy and greater promotion of electric vehicles given priority.
“Climate change matters more for us,” she says. “We need to fight for our future.”
Callum Neilson-Bridgefoot, an 11-year-old student at Castlemaine Primary School, has also taken part in four strike activities already.
“Sacrificing a little bit of my education will help in the long term,” Callum said. “I work really hard when I’m at school.
“Any political leader can really make a difference – they have much more power than we do,” he says. “Right now what they are doing is not enough.”
Greta’s actions were a key inspiration. “I was really moved,” Callum says. “It was really brave and very powerful.”
‘It was so easy’
Greta Thunberg has seen her Friday vigils for action on climate change copied in many parts of the world, including Finland, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Canada and Britain. “And Australia of course!” she says.
“The thing I think surprised me the most was that it was so easy,” she tells Fairfax Media, via email.
“I remember thinking before I started ‘why has no one ever done this before?'”
The solution, she says, is to keep climate change in front of the public’s attention.
“All we need to do is treat it like a crisis with headlines and news reporting all the time. And I mean A L L the time,” she writes. “As if there was a war going on.”
Greta wants her Australian acolytes to know she is aware of their actions: “I would tell them that they are making a huge difference. I read about them in newspapers up here in Europe and it’s hopeful beyond my imagination.
“And Australia is a huge climate villain, I am sorry to say. Your carbon footprint is way bigger than Sweden and we are among the worst in the world.”
Greta says leading by example is important, as is “saying the things that are too uncomfortable to say”.
“We may not like that we have to change some of our habits, like flying or eating meat and dairy. But we do have to. Because our carbon budget has been spent and there is nothing left for future generations or the ecosystems we rely on,” she says.