It’s been little over a month since newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortezjoined some 200 young climate activistsfor a sit-in in soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats back a Green New Deal, a plan to transform the U.S. energy economy in order to stave offclimate changeand promote greater equality.
Since then, support has ballooned for the revolutionary policy plan, with 38 Congresspeople now pledging to back a select committee to develop it, and to renounce donations fromfossil fuelcompanies, according to thelatest tallyfrom theSunrise Movement.
The survey gave a brief explanation of the Green New Deal and then asked respondents, “How much do you support or oppose this idea?”
Eighty-one percent of registered voters either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported it, and, while support was stronger among Democrats, a majority of Republicans were also in favor.
While 92 percent of Democrats supported it, 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of conservative Republicans also thought it was a good idea.
However, there is a catch: The survey did not mention that the Green New Deal has so far been promoted by progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez.
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication explained why this could alter Republican support as the deal and its proponents gain more national attention:
Other research has shown that people evaluate policiesmore negativelywhen they are told it is backed by politicians from an opposing political party. Conversely, people evaluatethe same policymore positively when told it is backed by politicians from their own party.
Therefore, these findings may indicate that although most Republicans and conservatives are in favor of the Green New Deal’s policiesin principle, they are not yet aware that this plan is proposed by the political Left. For any survey respondents who were previously unaware of the Deal, it is likely that their reactions have not yet been influenced by partisan loyalty.
The survey also showed that most of its respondents had not heard of the deal.
Before it offered its paragraph of explanation, the survey’s authors asked if respondents had heard of it. Eighty-two percent answered that they had heard “nothing at all.”
For Yale postdoc Abel Gustafson, who co-authored the report on the survey’s findings, the challenge for the deal’s proponents is how to spread awareness in a way that does not alienate potential supporters.
“Given that most Americans have strong support for the components and ideas of the Green New Deal, it becomes a communication strategy problem,” Gustafson toldThe Huffington Post. “From here, it’s about how you can pitch it so you can maintain that bipartisan support throughout the rest of the process.”
Thegilets jaunesmovement in France is a leaderless political uprising.
It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last.
Occupy, the Arab spring and #MeToo are other recent examples of this new politics.
Some of it is good.
Some of it is not: a leaderless movement, self-organised on Reddit, helped elect Donald Trump.
But leaderless movements are spreading, and we need to understand where they come from, what is legitimate action and, if you want to start one, what works and what doesn’t.
The Arab spring began with the self-immolation ofone despairing young manin Tunisia; the revolt rapidly spread across the region, just as protests have proliferated in France.
In highly connected complex systems, such as the world today, the action of a single agent can suddenly trigger what complexity theorists call a “phase shift” across the entire system.
We cannot predict which agent or what event might be that trigger. But we already know that the multiplying connections of our worldoffer an unprecedented opportunity for the rise and spread of leaderless movements.
Leaderless movements spring from frustration with conventional top-down politics, a frustration shared by many, not only those on the streets.
Polls suggest the gilets jaunes are supported by a large majority of the French public.
Who believes that writing to your MP, or signing a petition to No 10 makes any difference to problems such as inequality, the chronic housing shortage or the emerging climate disaster?
Even voting feels like a feeble response to these deep-seated problems that are functions not only of government policies but more of the economic system itself.
What such movements oppose is usually clear, but what they propose is inevitably less so: that is their nature.
The serial popular uprisings of the Arab spring all rejected authoritarian rule, whether in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria. But in most places there was no agreement about what kind of government should replace the dictators.
In Eygpt, theTahrir Square protestsfailed to create an organised democratic political party that could win an election.
Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, long highly organised and thus prepared for such a moment, stepped into the political vacuum.
In turn, this provoked further mass protest, which eventually brought to power another dictatorship as repressive as Hosni Mubarak’s.
When the demand is for change in social relations– norms more than laws – such as the end of sexual harassment, the results can be as rapid but also more enduring and positive.
The #MeToo movement has provoked questioning of gender relations across the world.
The British deputy prime minister,Damian Green, was forced to resign;in India, a cabinet minister. The effects are uneven, and far from universal, but sexual harassers have been outed and ousted from positions of power in the media, NGOs and governments.
Some mass action has required leadership. The race discrimination that confronted the US civil rights movement was deeply entrenched in both American society and its laws. Martin Luther King and other leaders paid exquisite attention to strategy, switching tactics according to what worked and what didn’t.
King correctly judged, however, that real and lasting equality required the reform of capitalism – a change in the system itself.
In a sense, his objective went from the singular to the plural. And that is where his campaign hit the rocks.
Momentum dissipated when King started to talk about economic equality: there was no agreement on the diagnosis, or the solution.
It succeeded in inserting inequality and economic injustice into the mainstream political conversation – politicians had avoided the topic before. But Occupy couldn’t articulate a specific political programme to reform the system.
I was in Zuccotti Park in New York City, where the protest movement began, when the “general assembly” invited the participants to pin notes listing their demands on to trees. Ideas were soon plastered up, from petitioning Washington DC to replacing the dollar – many of which, of course, were irreconcilable with each other.
This is why a leaderless response to the climate change disaster is tricky.
It’s striking that in Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax rises the gilets jaunes opposed the very thing demanded byExtinction Rebellion, Britain’s newly minted leaderless movement: aggressive policies to reduce carbon emissions to net zero.
Macron’s proposals would have hit the poorest hardest, illustrating that resolving the crises of the environment and inequality requires a more comprehensive, carefully wrought solution to both. But leaderless movements have largely proved incapable of such complicated decision-making, as anyone at Zuccotti Park will attest.
Conventional party politicians, reasserting their own claim to legitimacy, insist that such problems can only be arbitrated by imposing more top-down policy. But when most feel powerless about the things that matter, this may only provoke further protests.
Ultimately, to address profound systemic challenges, we shall need new participatory and inclusive decision-making structures to negotiate the difficult choices.
Inevitably, leaderless movements face questions about their legitimacy.
One answer lies in their methods.
The Macron government has exploited the violence seen in Paris and elsewhere to claim that the gilets jaunes movement is illegitimate and anti-democratic.
Mahatma Gandhi, and later King, realised that nonviolent action – such as the satyagrahasalt marchor theMontgomery bus boycott– denies the authorities this line of attack.
On the contrary, the violence used by those authorities – the British colonial government or the police of the southern US states – against nonviolent protestors helped build their own legitimacy and attracted global attention.
Complexity science tells us something else important.
System-wide shifts happen when the system is primed for change, at so-called criticality.
In the Middle East there was almost universal anger at the existing political status quo, so it took only one match to light the fire of revolt.
Meeting people in colleges and towns across the UK but also in the US (where I lived until recently) you can hear the mounting frustration with a political and economic system that is totally unresponsive to the needs of the 99%, and offers no credible answer to the climate emergency.
There will be more leaderless movements to express this frustration, just as there will be more rightwing demagogues, like Trump or Boris Johnson, who seek to exploit it to their own advantage.
For the right ones to prevail, we must insist on nonviolence as well as commitment to dialogue with – and not denunciation of – those who disagree.
Messily, a new form of politics is upon us, and we must ensure that it peacefully and democratically produces deep systematic reform, not the counter-reaction of the authoritarians.
•Carne Ross is a former British diplomat and author of The Leaderless Revolution
Secretary-General’s remarks at the closing of the High-Level Segment of the Talanoa Dialogue, COP-24 [as delivered]
Ladies and gentlemen,
In my opening statement to this conference one week ago, I told you that this was the most important COP since the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
I warned that climate change is running faster than we are and that Katowice must—in no uncertain terms—be a success, as a necessary platform to reverse this trend.
To achieve it, I said that ambition and compromises were both needed. Never have the stakes been higher.
I left Katowice hopeful, but uncertain.
While I was away, three more reports were added to the long list of warnings signals:
A Special WHO report on impacts to health due to climate change;
A UN Environment Programme report which highlights the opportunities for reducing emissions in the construction sector; and
NASA’s research on the first signs of significant melting of glaciers in East Antarctica.
Returning to Katowice, I see that despite progress in the negotiating texts much remains to be done.
And today, the Presidency is presenting a text as new basis for negotiations.
I’d like to thank the Polish Presidency for its efforts.
I understand it takes an enormous amount of energy and work to organize such a conference.
I also understand the weight of responsibility that this COP carries.
There can be no doubt that it is a moment of truth.
In this regard, key political issues remain unresolved.
This is not surprising—we recognize the complexity of this work. But we are running out of time.
Today, it is only fitting that we meet under the auspices of the Talanoa Dialogue.
I’d like to thank Fiji for initiating this Dialogue.
It’s no coincidence they’re the ones who established the process to discuss ambition to meet a 1.5C° goal.
Small Island States know better than any of us the importance of meeting that goal.
As I said in my opening remarks, for people living on those islands, climate change isn’t a theoretical exercise about the future – it’s a matter of life and death today.
Talanoa’s spirit is exactly how we can achieve a successful result in these last crucial days of COP24.
It is defined by openness, driven by optimism, and focused not on political differences, but on the collective well-being of those living on this planet.
And let me be open and transparent.
The IPCC Special Report is a stark acknowledgment of what the consequences of global warming beyond 1.5 degrees will mean for billions of people around the world, especially those who call small island states home.
This is not good news, but we cannot afford to ignore it.
Over the last 10 days, many of you have worked long, hard hours and I want to acknowledge your efforts.
But we need to accelerate those efforts to reach consensus if we want to follow-up on the commitments made in Paris.
The Katowice package needs to deliver the Paris Agreement Work Program, progress on finance and a strong basis for the revision of National Determined Contributions under the Talanoa Dialogue.
These three components are linked by one central idea—boosting ambition.
Ambition when it comes to predictable and accessible financial flows for the economic transition towards a low-emission and climate-resilient world.
Ambition with respect to climate action.
And ambition with respect to developing a flexible but robust set of rules for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
Let us start by finance.
The financial obligation from developed countries to support efforts of developing countries was established in the Convention when it was adopted in 1992—more than 25 years ago.
It’s very difficult to explain to those suffering from the effects of climate change that we have not managed to find predictable support for the actions that must be taken.
The World Bank announced a new set of climate targets for 2021-2025, doubling its current 5-year investments to US$ 200 billion, both in mitigation and adaptation, in support for countries to take ambitious climate action.
Here at COP24, Multilateral Development Banks announced the alignment of their activities with the goals of the Paris Agreement and in line with the science-based evidence identified by the IPCC.
It represents US$ 35 billion in developing and emerging economies with an additional leverage on US$ 52 billion from private and public sources.
And before the COP, we saw a new Investor Agenda, as well as, for example, an announcement by ING that it would set science-based targets to shift its lending portfolio towards a low-emission future.
These private sector actors are making important progress because they recognize the seriousness of the climate challenge we face and the opportunities related to addressing it.
Failing here in Katowice would send a disastrous message to those who stand ready to shift to a green economy.
So, I urge you to find common ground that will allow us to show the world that we are listening, that we care.
Developed countries must scale up their contributions to jointly mobilize US$100 billion annually by 2020.
And we need to strengthen the Green Climate Fund.
Germany’s pledge to double its contribution in the current replenishment process is a very positive sign that I hope will inspire others to do the same.
I have appointed the President of France and Prime Minister of Jamaica to lead the mobilization of the international community, both public and private, to reach the target of US$ 100 billion in the context of the preparation of the Climate Summit I have convened in September of next year.
Second, the rulebook.
I just arrived from Marrakech.
It reminded me that the deadline to finalize the Paris Agreement Work Program was not one that was imposed upon Parties by anyone—it was a deadline Parties imposed upon themselves at COP22, precisely in Marrakech.
Both the Convention and the Paris Agreement recognize that countries have different realities, different capacities and different circumstances.
We must find a formula that balances the responsibilities of all countries.
This will allow us to have a regime that is fair and effective for all.
To achieve this, and to build the trust that everyone is doing their fair share, we need to have a strong transparency framework to monitor and assess progress on all fronts: mitigation, adaptation and provision of support, including finance, technology and capacity building.
I am aware that this issue is also technically complex and many linkages across different parts of the texts are being considered.
But I have confidence that you will find a way to overcome those challenges.
Third: climate action.
Today, Katowice is the hub of global climate action. The eyes of the world are on us. And more than 32,000 people have come here to find solutions to climate change.
They are inspired, engaged and they want us to deliver. They want us to finish the job.
Katowice must be, Mr. President, the dawn of a new determination to unleash the promise of the Paris Agreement.
We clearly have the know-how and the ability to reach 1.5C.
We see incredible momentum from all segments of society to lower emissions and make the transition from the grey economy to the green.
We have the ways.
What we need is the political will to move forward.
As the IPCC Special Report indicates, the intersection between State and non-State is essential to reaching our climate goals.
This Talanoa Dialogue is an example of how this can all come together.
The IPCC report outlined a catastrophic future if we do not act immediately.
It also clearly states that the window of opportunity is closing.
We no longer have the luxury of time.
That’s why we need to have our work here in Katowice finalized—and finalized in less than three days.
Meeting your deadline means we can immediately unleash the full potential of the Paris Agreement and its promise of a low-emissions climate-resilient future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I understand that none of this is easy. I understand some of you will need to make some tough political decisions.
But this is the time for consensus. This is the time for political compromises to be reached. This means sacrifices, but it will benefit us all collectively.
I challenge you to work together for that purpose.
I challenge you to accelerate and finish the job.
And to raise ambition on all fronts.
To waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change.
It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.
This may sound like a dramatic appeal, but it is exactly this: a dramatic appeal.
Let us then carry forth the spirit of the Talanoa Dialogue in these crucial next few days and let us heed its messages.
It’s about more than the future of each country.
I have three young granddaughters. I will not be here at the end of the century. The same probably applies to all of you.
I do not want my granddaughters or anybody else’s to suffer the consequences of our failures.
They would not forgive us if uncontrolled and spiraling climate change would be our legacy to them.
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.”
Rapidglobal warmingcaused the largest extinction event in the Earth’s history, which wiped out the vast majority of marine and terrestrial animals on the planet, scientists have found.
The mass extinction, known as the “great dying”, occurred around 252m years ago and marked the end of the Permian geologic period.
The study of sediments and fossilized creatures show the event was the single greatest calamity ever to befall life on Earth, eclipsing even the extinction of the dinosaurs 65m years ago.
10,000 fruit bats (Flying Fox) die from heat stress during record heatwave in Cairns last week.
Up to 96% of all marine species perished while more than two-thirds of terrestrial species disappeared.
The cataclysm was so severe it wiped out most of the planet’s trees, insects, plants, lizards and even microbes.
Scientists havetheorized causes for the extinction, such as a giant asteroid impact. But US researchers now say they have pinpointed the demise of marine life to a spike in Earth’s temperatures, warning that present-day global warming will also have severe ramifications for life on the planet.
“It was a huge event. In the last half a billion years of life on the planet, it was the worst extinction,” said Curtis Deutsch, an oceanography expert who co-authored the research, published on Thursday, with his University of Washington colleague Justin Penn along with Stanford University scientists Jonathan Payne and Erik Sperling.
The researchers used paleoceanographic records and built a model to analyse changes in animal metabolism, ocean andclimateconditions. When they used the model to mimic conditions at the end of the Permian period, they found it matched the extinction records.
According to the study, this suggests that marine animals essentially suffocated as warming waters lacked the oxygen required for survival. “For the first time, we’ve got a whole lot of confidence that this is what happened,” said Deutsch. “It’s a very strong argument that rising temperatures and oxygen depletion were to blame.”
The great dying event, which occurred over an uncertain timeframe of possibly hundreds of years, saw Earth’s temperatures increase by around 10C (18F). Oceans lost around 80% of their oxygen, with parts of the seafloor becoming completely oxygen-free. Scientists believe this warming was caused by a huge spike in greenhouse gas emissions, potentially caused by volcanic activity.
The new research,published in Science, found that the drop in oxygen levels was particularly deadly for marine animals living closer to the poles. Experiments that varied oxygen and temperature levels for modern marine species, including shellfish, corals and sharks, helped “bridge the gap” to what the model found, Payne said.
“This really would be a terrible, terrible time to be around on the planet,” he added. “It shows us that when the climate and ocean chemistry changes quickly, you can reach a point where species don’t survive. It took millions of years to recover from the Permian event, which is essentially permanent from the perspective of human timescales.”
Over the past century, the modern world has warmed by around 1C due to the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, rather than from volcanic eruptions.
Thiswarmingis already causing punishing heatwaves, flooding and wildfires around the world, with scientistswarningthat the temperature rise could reach 3C or more by the end of the century unless there are immediate, radicalreductionsin emissions.
At the same time, Earth’s species are undergoing what some experts have termed the “sixth greatextinction” due to habitat loss, poaching, pollution andclimate change.
“It does terrify me to think we are on a trajectory similar to the Permian because we really don’t want to be on that trajectory,” Payne said. “It doesn’t look like we will warm by around 10C and we haven’t lost that amount of biodiversity yet. But even getting halfway there would be something to be very concerned about. The magnitude of change we are currently experiencing is fairly large.”
Deutsch said: “We are about a 10th of the way to the Permian. Once you get to 3-4C of warming, that’s a significant fraction and life in the ocean is in big trouble, to put it bluntly. There are big implications for humans’ domination of the Earth and its ecosystems.”
Deutsch added that the only way to avoid a mass aquatic die-off in the oceans was to reduce carbon emissions, given there is no viable way to ameliorate the impact of climate change in the oceans using other measures.
The research group “provide convincing evidence that warmer temperatures and associated lower oxygen levels in the ocean are sufficient to explain the observed extinctions we see in the fossil record”, said Pamela Grothe, a paleoclimate scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
“The past holds the key to the future,” she added. “Our current rates of carbon dioxide emissions is instantaneous geologically speaking and we are already seeing warming ocean temperatures and lower oxygen in many regions, currently affecting marine ecosystems.
“If we continue in the trajectory we are on with current emission rates, this study highlights the potential that we may see similar rates of extinction in marine species as in the end of the Permian.”
On Sunday morning hundreds of politicians, government officials and scientists will gather in the grandeur of the International Congress Centre in Katowice, Poland. It will be a familiar experience for many.
For 24 years the annual UN climate conference has served up a reliable diet of rhetoric, backroom talks and dramatic last-minute deals aimed at halting global warming.
But this year’s will be a grimmer affair – by far.
As recent reports have made clear, the world may no longer be hovering at the edge of destruction but has probably staggered beyond a crucial point of no return.
Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable. We have simply left it too late to hold rising global temperatures to under 1.5C and so prevent a future of drowned coasts, ruined coral reefs, spreading deserts and melted glaciers.
One example was provided last week by aUN reportthat revealed attempts to ensure fossil fuel emissions peak by 2020 will fail.
Indeed the target will not even be reached by 2030.
Another, by theWorld Meteorological Organization, said the past four years had been the warmest on record and warned that global temperatures could easily rise by 3-5C by 2100, well above that sought-after goal of 1.5C. The UK will not be exempt either. The Met Office said summer temperatures could now be5.4C hotter by 2070.
At the same time, prospects of reaching global deals to halt emissions have been weakened by the spread of rightwing populism. Not much to smile about in Katowice.
Nor will the planet’s woes end in 2100. Although most discussions use the year as a convenient cut-off point for describing Earth’s likely fate, the changes we have already triggered will last well beyond that date, said Svetlana Jevrejeva, at the National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool. She has studied sea-level rises that will be triggered by melting ice sheets and expanding warm seawater in a world 3-5C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times, and concludes these could reach 0.74 to 1.8 metres by 2100. This would be enough to deluge Pacific and Indian Ocean island states and displace millions from Miami, Guangzhou, Mumbai and other low-lying cities. The total cost to the planet could top £11trillion.
Even then the seas will not stop rising, Jevrejeva added. “They will continue to climb for centuries even after greenhouse-gas levels have been stabilised. We could experience the highest-ever global sea-level rise in the history of human civilisation.”
Vast tracts of prime real estate will be destroyed – at a time when land will be needed with unprecedented desperation. Earth’s population stands at seven billion today and is predicted to rise to nine billion by 2050 and settle at over 11 billion by 2100 – when climate change will have wrecked major ecosystems and turned farmlands to dust bowls.
Unfortunately many experts believe Earth’s population will actually peak well beyond 11 billion. “It could reach 15 billion,” said Sarah Harper, of Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing. “All sorts of factors suggest women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will still want to have relatively high numbers of children and this might keep the world’s population approaching 15 billion rather than 12 billion.”
The world will have double its present numbers – but with hugely reduced areas of fertile land to provide food. We will be living in a shrunken, scorched planet bursting with human beings. Somaliland gives a grim vision of this future.
In the past few years climate change has killed 70% of its livestock and forced tens of thousands of families to flee from its scorched interior to live in refugee camps. “You can touch it, the climate change, in Somaliland. It is real. It is here,” the country’s environment minister, Shukri Ismail Bandare, said in theFinancial Timeslast week.
Sudan and Kenya are also victims of a drought that has dried the Horn of Africa faster than at any other time in the past 2,000 years. Similarly, in Vietnam, thousands a year are abandoning the once fertile Mekong Delta as rising seawater pollutes paddy fields. By 2050, the World Bank says more than 140 million will become climate refugees.
It will be bad for humans, but catastrophic for Earth’s other inhabitants. Arctic ice loss threatens polar bears, droughts imperil monarch butterflies, and koala habitats are being destroyed by bush fires. In all, about a sixth of all species now face extinction, say scientists, although in the end no creature or plant will be safe. “Even the most resilient species will inevitably fall victim as extreme stresses drive ecosystems to collapse,” said Giovanni Strona of Europe’s Joint Research Centre in a report last week on climate change.
Scientists warned more than 30 years ago that such a future lay ahead, but nothing was done to stave it off. Only dramatic measures are now left to those seeking to save our burning planet, and these can have grim political consequences. In France, for example, President Macron’s new levies on fossil fuels, introduced to cut emissions and to fund renewable energy projects,triggered riots. Had only modest changes been enacted a few decades ago there would be no trouble today, say analysts.
But the most telling example is provided by the US, which has emitted about a third of the carbon responsible for global warming. Yet it has essentially done nothing to check its annual rises in output. Lobbying by the fossil fuel industry has proved highly effective at blocking political change – a point most recently demonstrated by groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute, which helped persuade President Trump to pull out of the Paris agreement, thus dashing the planet’s last hope of ecological salvation. “The coalition used its power to slow us down precisely at the moment when we needed to speed up,” said the environmentalist Bill McKibben in theNew Yorker. “As a result, the particular politics of one country for one half-century will have changed the geological history of the Earth.”
No region of the US has more to lose from climate change than southern Florida. If scientists’ worst predictions are realised, an entire metropolitan area, currently inhabited by more than six million people, is likely to be swamped by a 1.5-metre sea-level rise before the end of this century, a rise that could see the tourist mecca of Miamisimply disappear.
It’s a doomsday scenario that has united the leaders of Miami-Dade county and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach in an attempt to find solutions to the most severe effects of rising oceans before it is too late. Their plan to combat the physical, economic and social challenges of climate change, as part of the global100 Resilient Citiesprogramme, will play a key role in determining whether the low-lying region will still be habitable in the coming decades or surrendered to the ever-rising Atlantic.
“It’s a problem that can be managed, it’s not a problem that can be fixed and you walk away from,” said Susanne Torriente, chief resilience officer for Miami Beach, where hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars have already been spent elevating roads, constructing higher sea walls and investing in modern, high-capacity pumps and stormwater drainage systems.
“Every generation will add to the work that we have begun,” Torriente says. “We are always learning, it’s a constant process of learning, re-evaluating and improving.”
Up to a million Florida homes, worth an estimated $371bn (£290bn, are at risk of tidal flooding by 2100,one recent studycalculated, but the threats facing the greater Miami region are not just coastal. Hurricanes are becoming more powerful because of global warming, say scientists, who point to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Michael in October, while the combination of a low water table and high “king” tides – occurring in autumn – causes regular inland flooding even on dry days.
This means that the newjoint action planbeing worked on by city and county officials has to be further-reaching than anything that has preceded it, Torriente says. “Our resilience journey began with the climate work, the storm water, [but] this strategy will be much broader and will be defining resilience not only in terms of climate and flooding, but also mobility and housing, property, and how to recover quickly in the event of a hurricane in south Florida.”
These moves reflect the sense of urgency being felt in Florida, where the state leadership has been criticised for neglecting the environment. Its newly elected senator, Rick Scott, banned staff from using the term climate change during his time as governor of Florida, and will be a close Washington ally of President Donald Trump, who took the US out of the Paris climate agreement.
“We’ll be much more successful if we have more cooperation and more attention at all levels of government, [because] it’s a problem for all of us,” Torriente says. “But we do what we can. Everything we are doing is funded locally, so we can continue to invest.”
Richard Luscombe, Miami
It’s a 45-minute canoe journey along the coast from regional capital Morombe to Kivalo in south-west Madagascar. Children frolic in the water, palm trees sway, and fishing nets hang along the beach. This tranquillity is deceptive, however – for Madagascar is ranked as one of the countriesmost vulnerable to climate change. Higher temperatures, extended drought periods in the south, intensification of cyclones and rising sea levels are all forecast. For good measure, the country’spervasive povertyrestricts its capacity to adapt to such changes.
In Kivalo, this is already a familiar picture. “The southern wind used to start in January and last until July,” says Bikison Thomas, a fisherman. “But it’s still going now in November.” On very windy days, he cannot put out to sea. “There is also more fog,” he adds. Overfishing, higher sea temperatures and the loss of mangrove, a crucial habitat for fish stocks, are also reducing catches.
The Madagascar government is aware of the country’s vulnerability and has ratified the Paris agreement.Climate changeis listed in every major policy document but budgets usually fall short of producing effective measures, a point that is demonstrated dramatically down the coast in the town of Morondava, where hotels are grappling with sea-level rise.
Two years ago, Chayune Badouraly bought the Coco Beach hotel. It had a few bungalows and a lovely beach. Badouraly added more bedrooms, a reception area and a restaurant.
But in September, powerful tides destroyed two of his bungalows, and the sea has not returned to its previous level. “We used to have 150 metres of beach,” he says bitterly. “Now it’s minus five.”
Although there are plans to build sea defences, Badouraly says that could take months, even years, so he’s taken the problem into his own hands and built a 60-metre-long sea wall, a mixture of stone blocks, steel rods and sandbags. “I knew we had coastal erosion problems, but I didn’t think it would be that bad,” he adds. “I would never have bought.”
Emilie Filou, Madagascar
It is hard to get a grip of the sheerscale of theThwaitesglacierin west Antarctica. It’s more than 300 miles long and 200 wide – and more than a mile thick. It drains an area of ice that is larger than England and stealthily slides towards the sea by several metres every day. Only from satellite images have we understood the shape and power of this ice monster.
These now show the beast is waking up. Thwaites’s uptake of falling snow was once matched, fairly finely, by snow and ice being lost as icebergs. Now it has begun to flow faster, along with some of its neighbouring glaciers. More ice is being lost into the ocean than is being replaced, speeding up global sea-level rise.
The cause of the disruption at Thwaites is straightforward, researchers have discovered. Increasing amounts of warm ocean water coming from the north have been melting the floating parts of the glacier and this, in turn, is letting the inland glacier run more quickly into the sea. This much we know, but we have still to understand how this process is likely to accelerate. At present, Thwaites contributes around 4% of observed sea-level rise, but it is widely agreed that this could grow exponentially. Indeed, some glaciologists believe that a complete collapse of the Thwaites glacier over coming centuries is now inevitable – and that would raise global sea level by several metres, drowning coastal ecosystems around the world, damaging coastal investments and displacing millions of people.
Research on the ice and frigid waters around Thwaites Glacier is urgently needed but carrying that out is tough. Even by Antarctic standards, this area is cold and remote. I have been working in Antarctica for more than 30 years, and I’ve never managed to reach Thwaites. However, the UK and US governments have agreed to send in scientists as part of theInternational Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. We are finally going to get the chance to understand this waking monster. At the moment, it is merely yawning and stretching. The question we must answer, urgently, is whether it is about to wake up and roar.
David Vaughan, British Antarctic Survey
Great Barrier Reef
Coral reefs cover a mere 0.1% of the world’s ocean floor but they support about 25% of all marine species. They also provide nature with some of its most beautiful vistas. For good measure, coral reefs protect shorelines from storms, support the livelihoods of 500 million people and help generate almost £25bn of income. Permitting their destruction would put the planet in trouble – which is precisely what humanity is doing.
Rising sea temperatures are already causing irreparablebleaching of reefs, while rising sea levels threaten to engulf reefs at a faster rate than they can grow upwards. Few scientists believe coral reefs – which are made of simple invertebrates related to sea anemones – can survive for more than a few decades.
Yet those who have sounded clear warnings about our reefs have received little reward. Professor Terry Hughes, a coral expert at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, recently studied the impact of El Niño warmings in 2016 and 2017 on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef and its largest living entity – and wept when he saw the damage.
“The 2016 event killed 30% of corals, the one a year later killed another 20%. Very close to half the corals have died in the past three years,” he said recently.
For his pains, Hughes has faced demands from tourist firms for his funding to be halted because he was ruining their business. “The Australian government is still promoting new developments of coal mines and fracking for gas,” Hughes said, after being namedjoint recipient of the John Maddox prize, given to those who champion science in the face of hostility and legal threats. “If we want to save the Great Barrier Reef, these outdated ambitions need to be abandoned. Yet Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising, not falling. It’s a national disgrace.”
This grim picture is summed up by the ethnographer Irus Braverman in her bookCoral Whisperers: “The Barrier Reef has changed for ever. The largest living structure in the world has become the largest dying structure in the world.”
If you’ve heard anything about last week’s huge White House climate report, it might be that climate change could dent the economy up to 10 percent by 2100 — more thantwice the impact of the Great Recession.
However, that number is a strange one to highlight.
Yes, climate change hurts the economy — the hurricanes of the past two years alone have causednearly half a trillion dollars of damages— but projecting that forward 80 years into the future is awash with unnecessary uncertainty.
Those of us who talk about climate change for a living should be focusing our dialogue on the immediate danger of climate change in human terms, not making it even more abstract and distant than it already seemingly is.
If an asteroid was going to hit the Earth in 2030, we wouldn’t be justifying the cost of the space mission to blast it out of the sky.
We’d be repurposing factories, inventing entire new industries, and steering the global economy toward solving the problem as quickly and as effectively as we can — no matter the cost.
Climate change is that looming asteroid, except what we’re doing right now is basically ignoring it, and in the process actually making the problem much, much worse and much harder to solve.
Understandably, Americans’ views on climate change are sharply polarized andhave become even more soduring the Trump era.
In that polarized environment, dry economic analysis doesn’t seem like enough to matter. It’s the human stories that give people visceral moral clarity and firmly establish contentious issues as important enough for a shift in society.
There’s proof of this: In the aftermath of every recent climate disasterGoogle searches for climate change spike, heartbreaking images of survivors lead national news coverage, and my own Twitter account is flooded with messages from readers asking what they can do to help.
Searching for human remains after recent fires in California
If we are going to take heroic action on climate change in the next decade, it will be because of an overwhelming outrage that our fellow citizens are literally being burned alive by record-breaking fires — not a potential decline in GDP in 2100.
The National Climate Assessment warns of increasing extreme rainfall events, like the storm that flooded communities across a large swath of Louisiana in 2016. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The U.S. government’s climate scientists issued a blunt warning on Friday, writing that global warming is a growing threat to human life, property and ecosystems across the country, and that the economic damage—from worsening heat waves, extreme weather, sea level rise, droughts and wildfires—will spiral in the coming decades.
The country can reduce those costs if the U.S. and the rest of the world cut their greenhouse gas emissions, particularly the burning of fossil fuels. Capping global greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F) or less would avoid hundreds of billions of dollars of future damages, according to theFourth National Climate Assessment, written by a science panel representing 13 federal agencies.
The report, like a recent comprehensiveassessment issued by the United Nations, signaled the mounting urgency for governments to act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before locking in high risks. And it underscored, without saying so directly, how the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction.
The agencies write that global warming is:
Intensifying and increasing the frequency ofextreme rainstormsthat cause devastating flooding and crop losses.
Putting people and economies at risk astemperatures rise: Increases in extreme heat waves could kill up to 2,000 more people per year in the Midwest alone by 2090, and Chicago’s climate could be more like Phoenix, with temperatures reaching 100°F on 50 to 60 days in summer.
HarmingU.S. forests, making them more vulnerable to fire and insects, disrupting their watersheds and wildlife habitat, and also reducing their ability to store carbon.
Puttingwater suppliesand water quality at risk, with “significant changes already evident across the country,” including more pollution runoff from extreme rainfall that, along with warmer water, fuels and toxic algae blooms.
Creating multiple threats forcoastal communities, including significant shifts in fish populations, ocean acidification, direct flooding damage from rising sea level and tropical storms. Along the coasts, $1 trillion in public infrastructure and private property are threatened by flooding, rising sea level and storm surges.
Threateningindigenous peoples’livelihoods and economies by affecting fishing, agriculture and forestry.
The reportlooks at the damage already happening and what’s ahead in each region, describing damage from wildfires and the impact of ocean acidification on shellfish in the Northwest; rising temperatures thawing permafrost in Alaska; coral reef damage in Hawaii; hurricanes, coastal flooding and mosquito-borne diseases in the Southeast; extreme rainfall destroying crops and eroding farm soil in the Midwest;flash droughtsin the Northern Plains; and the dwindling of the snowpack and the Colorado River that the Southwest relies on.
U.S. temperatures have already risen about 1.8°F (1°C) since the start of the Industrial era, and that warming has been accelerating in recent decades. “Recent record-setting hot years are projected to become common in the near future for the United States,” the report says.
“It drives home the fact that climate change isn’t a far off threat,” said Pennsylvania State University Climate researcher Michael Mann.
The report also shows how global warming impacts will be multiplied by disruptions to energy, transportation and other infrastructure that cascade across economic sectors, saidNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist David Easterling, a lead author for the climate science section.
For example, heat waves and droughts can cut energy production if there is not enough water to cool power plants, which can limit manufacturing and even affect health care in hospitals. Hurricane Harvey’s damage to power infrastructure affected water treatment plants and refineries, shutting down 11 percent of U.S. oil refining capacities and causing a temporary spike in gas prices.
Industries that rely on natural resources are especially vulnerable.
“Without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, extinctions and transformative impacts on some ecosystems cannot be avoided, with varying impacts on the economic, recreational, and subsistence activities they support,” Easterling said.
Huge Economic Costs, and They’re Rising
With detailed projections for geographic regions, scientists can now also project the multibillion-dollar costs of global warming impacts based on robust data, said Philip Mote, a climate researcher at the University of Washington who worked on the report.
“We’re finally seeing a lot more economic data. In the past, we could talk about, well this is going to happen, there will be lower streamflow(s), there will be more invasive species, this might happen, that might happen,” he said. Now, more economic studies show the rising costs. In the worst-case, high-emissions scenario, global warming costs could total 10 percent of U.S. GDP by the end of the century, according to the report.
“Decisions that decrease or increase emissions over the next few decades will set into motion the degree of impacts that will likely last throughout the rest of this century, with some impacts (such as sea level rise) lasting for thousands of years or even longer,” the report says. “Early mitigation can reduce climate impacts in the nearer term (such as reducing the loss of perennial sea ice and effects on ice-dwelling species) and, in the longer term, prevent critical thresholds from being crossed (such as marine ice sheet instability and the resulting consequences for global sea level change).”
The release of the report suggests federal science has fared better then expected in the past two years, “due in part to some degree of bipartisan resolve that still remains when it comes to governmental support for science,” Mann said.
But that doesn’t offset the harm caused by the dismantling of environmental protections and green-lighting of climate-unfriendly energy policies at the Departments of Energy and Interior and elsewhere, he said.
The severe damage caused by recent record floods from Hurricanes Harvey and Florence, as well as thecatastrophic California wildfires, also suggest that “models aren’t completely capturing the physics relevant to understanding and projecting these unprecedented weather extremes,” Mann said.
Atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth, with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also said that climate impact assessments in general tend to under-emphasize the effect of global warming on climate extremes.
“A lot more is attributable than is generally accepted,” Trenberth said, citing recent research he worked on showing links between deep ocean heat content and the damaging floods from Hurricane Harvey. In the Pacific, global warming is likely to intensify El Niños, with “bigger and with stronger droughts and floods around the world.”
And the U.S. is still behind the curve when it comes to responding to the growing threat.
Up to now, “neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades,” the report concludes.
Farms and Food System at Higher Risk
The report stressed that American farmers and ranchers are already feeling the effects of climate change, and that those effects will worsen dramatically, with more extreme rainfall, flooding and drought.
“The farm and food system as we know it is transforming before our eyes, and the productivity we’ve benefited from is in jeopardy,” explained Marcia DeLonge, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re going to lose commodity crops—due to different growing seasons, droughts, floods, and the costs to farmers and ranchers—and taxpayers—will be huge. And we’re likely underestimating them.”
Climate change will hit the Corn Belt particularly hard. Under a high-emissions scenario, the Midwest will see greater increases in warm-season temperatures than anywhere else in the country, with the frost-free season projected to increase by an average of 10 days from 2016 to 2045.
A rise in temperatures in the Midwest is “projected to be the largest contributing factor to declines in the productivity of U.S. agriculture,” the report says. Agricultural productivity could drop to 1980s levels by 2050, the report said, essentially wiping out gains made in recent decades from improved technologies.
Millions of People Become More Vulnerable
World Resources Institute scientist Andrew Light, an author of the mitigation chapter, said it’s clear the report is at odds with the administration’s policy and with what President Trump says about climate change.
But that doesn’t change the fact that millions of people are becoming more vulnerable to global warming impacts.
“We need to be reaching a point in this country where we are arguing about the best solutions, not over whether a problem exists. This report creates very clear terrain around which one could have this discussion,” Light said.
He said some of the regional findings make it clear what’s at stake for people. In New England, under a high emissions scenario, the distinctive seasons of New England could disappear, altering the region’s fundamental character.
“It’s hard to imagine there won’t be distinct seasons. That indelibly changes the place,” he said.
And in his native state of Georgia, the report identifies a growing risk of wildfires.
“That’s incredibly distressing. It’s not part of our annual cycle, we don’t have a forest fire season in the Southeast, so it’s horrible to imagine those kinds of impacts if you think about what we’re seeing in California right now.”
The2016 wildfirethat burned through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a prime example of how communities can be caught unaware of the risks.
“The people were not ready at all, and the changes that create this type of risk could happen quickly,” Light said.
The release of the report was originally scheduled for early December, but the date was moved up to the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, sometime during the past week, leading to concerns that the Trump administration meant to bury the report by publishing it during a holiday weekend. That drew scorn from some politicians.
“No matter how hard they try, the Trump administration can’t bury the effects of climate change in a Black Friday news dump – effects their own federal government scientists have uncovered,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island.
“This report shows how climate change will affect every single one of our communities,” he said. “The president says outrageous things like climate change is a hoax engineered by the Chinese and raking forests will prevent catastrophic wildfires, but serious consequences like collapsing coastal housing prices and trillions of dollars in stranded fossil fuel assets await us if we don’t act.”
InsideClimate News reporter Georgina Gustin contributed to this report.
Amid raging California wildfires, rising sea levels, and a sudden wave of Democratic power in Congress, the idea of a Green New Deal to create millions of new jobs combating the climate crisis is surging.
In her first day of orientation as a new member of Congress, on November 13, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood with around 200 protesters in Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding just such a deal in the upcoming Congress. “This is about uplifting the voice and the message of the fact that we need a Green New Deal and we need to get to 100 percent renewables because our lives depend on it,” shetold reportersoutside Pelosi’s office.
As news of the protest proliferated, Pelosi soon backed the move via Twitter, albeit in general terms. “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change. The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide,” wrote Pelosi. Despite Pelosi’s friendly words, 51 young Sunrise Movement activists were arrested and later released.
Since then, Sunrise Movement, which has been waging feisty actions to propel the Green New Deal forward, has kept up the momentum—and the pressure. On November 19, Sunrise activists in Rhode Island disrupted a speech by Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, demanding that party leaders “pledge and adopt a #GreenNewDeal into the party platform.” Today, hundreds of young people will be fanning out across the country, protesting at congressional representatives’ offices, as part of a national day of action.
Support for a Green New Deal is building, both on the streets and inside Congress. In the past week, nearly a dozen members of the House—mostly newcomers like Representative Rashida Tlaib, but also a handful of sitting representatives like Ro Khanna, John Lewis, and Jared Huffman—have backed aproposalby Ocasio-Cortez for a select committee for a Green New Deal. This committee would be tasked with drafting a 10-year green jobs and infrastructure plan to radically reduce carbon emissions while expanding living-wage jobs. As detailed on Ocasio-Cortez’s website, “The select committee shall have authority to develop a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan…for the transition of the United States economy to become carbon neutral and to significantly draw down and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans.”
It’s an ambitious plan and an inspiring one, even as questions abound: What exactly would this Green New Deal look like?
Will Democrats and their leadership make this blend of environmental salvation and economic justice a top priority and lend it all their political will?
Or will they remain far behind the climate-change curve, soft-pedaling moderate reforms? And even if they push it forward, what’s Plan B when the Republicans stifle it in the Senate?
As the Green New Deal hoopla builds, it’s important to understand what it actually means.
More than a decade in the making, the Green New Deal has many iterations, spanning from technocratic to transformational.
It’s a giant policy bucket that includes “clean tech” job incentives and credits, energy-system overhaul, massive expansion of renewable energy, green urban public works, agroforestry, and more.
The immense potential of green jobs is well-documented.
According to a 2018 report by Data for Progress, an expansive plan could generate “10 million new jobs over 10 years” through a mix of employment and training programs. In fact, one study, by the International Trade Union Confederation, estimates that “spending 2 percent of annual GDP on the green economy could create over 15 million green jobs in 5 years.”
For sheer job creation, green economy and clean energy production far outflank fossil fuels, the report found that “In 2017, there were 800,000 Americans employed in low-carbon emission generation technologies, and 2.25 million employed in energy efficiency. This compares to only 92,000 for coal-fired generation.” Solar industry jobs “have grown 168 percent over the past seven years.”
These jobs run the gamut from “entry-level” to highly trained work and include everything from tree planting and building weatherization to wetlands restoration, sustainable agriculture and soil restoration and modernizing and expanding renewable energy grids. Refuting facile stereotypes of green jobs as an elite privilege, a 2016Brookings Institution reportconcluded, “The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a Green New Deal committee builds on these ideas. While she is not the first to put forward the notion—in 2007, Pelosi established a select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that covered some similar terrain (until it was killed by Republicans in 2011)—her proposed committee offersconsiderably more muscle, including legislative authority and investigative powers.
The goals laid out by Ocasio-Cortez’s plan are bold and expansive: generating 100 percent of the nation’s power from renewable sources, building a national, energy-efficient “smart” grid, and “upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety.”
True to her democratic-socialist roots, she also infuses the plan with a call to “mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth”—a dictum that was not lost on Emma Bouton, co-coordinator of Sunrise Rhode Island. “The focus on equity within the resolution is particularly exciting,” Bouton said in a press release. “By explicitly addressing racial and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth and connecting the ‘Green New Deal’ to other policies such as a federal jobs guarantee and universal healthcare, the plan has the potential to be transformative.”
Yet, for all the promise of Ocasio-Cortez’s plan—and of a Green New Deal more broadly—it remains to be seen whether Democrats will rise to the opportunity. Along with the support, there has been some pushback, even among progressives in Congress, likeRepresentative Raúl Grijalva(D-AZ), who toldHuffPost, “The resolution is a wonderful statement of urgency, you’ve got to take this seriously and you’ve only got 10 years to do it…. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the mechanisms of how you’re going to get this done. A select committee? Great. Now what?”
At the same time, competing priorities (to say nothing of raw political calculation) have a way of crowding out even the most promising ideas. In September, for instance, Pelosi “[p]reemptively boxed in any potential left-populist agenda on Capitol Hill by backing reinstatement of a ‘pay-go’ rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts,” according to a “Democratic Autopsy” report. This austerity-minded agenda, along with the Democrats’ chronic support for bloated military spending, threatens to hamstring a Green New Deal along with other essential domestic progress toward economic equality and ecological sustainability.
No less ominous: Earlier this year the Democratic National Committee dropped its ban on fossil fuel–industry campaign contributions earlier—clogging the political path to a Green New Deal and climate-related reforms with yet more energy-industry dollars.
Still, Democrats would be smart to embrace Ocasio-Cortez’s Select Committee proposal—and with it, the kind of Green New Deal that would deliver both massive carbon reduction and nationwide jobs stimulus. It’s not only vitally important, it’s also smart politics. For one thing, surveys show strong majorities of Americans support investments to create green jobs that address the climate crisis.
More important, a Green New Deal could create living-wage jobs in states that are especially dependent on (or prolific in) fossil-fuel extraction—such astop coal-producersWyoming, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and oil and gas behemoths Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, and North Dakota. Most of these top energy-producing states also lead the way inper capita energy consumption, meaning they are locations of environmentally destructive production and consumption.
Creating environmentally beneficial living-wage jobs in fossil-fuel states where so many industrial workers are struggling should be a no-brainer.
One way to pay for this green, job-generating stimulus would be a carbon tax, as has been proposed in the recent past by Representative Jim McDermott and Senator Bernie Sanders, among others. As theCarbon Tax Centerexplains, taxing America’s 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year could raise $250 billion—a heap of cash that could be spent on a range of ecological public works, renewable energy grid expansion, and more.
As climate chaos bears down on us, and as millions of Americans struggle with economic insecurity and precariousness, despite some glittery top-level job numbers, Democrats need to offer a bold vision, not just defensive postures. The Green New Deal may seem a dazzling political mirage, but it’s utterly essential, and politically wise. President Trump and the Republican Senate will reject anything the Democrats put forward. So why not try to save the planet, and create millions of living-wage jobs in the process?
With wildfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels, large tracts of the earth are at risk of becoming uninhabitable. But the fossil-fuel industry continues its assault on the facts.
By Bill McKibben
All this has played out more or less as scientists warned, albeit faster.
What has defied expectations is the slowness of the response.
The climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of human-caused climate change thirty years ago.
Since then, carbon emissions have increased with each year except 2009 (the height of the global recession) and the newest data show that 2018 will set another record.
Simple inertia and the human tendency to prioritize short-term gains have played a role, but the fossil-fuel industry’s contribution has been by far the most damaging.
Alex Steffen, an environmental writer, coined the term “predatory delay” to describe “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” The behavior of the oil companies, which have pulled off perhaps the most consequential deception in mankind’s history, is a prime example.
As journalists at InsideClimate News and the Los AngelesTimeshave revealed since 2015, Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, understood that its product was contributing to climate change a decade before Hansen testified.
In July, 1977, James F. Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, addressed many of the company’s top leaders in New York, explaining the earliest research on the greenhouse effect. “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon-dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” he said, according to a written version of the speech which was later recorded, and which was obtained by InsideClimate News.
In 1978, speaking to the company’s executives, Black estimated that a doubling of the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by between two and three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as ten degrees Celsius (eighteen degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.
Exxon spent millions of dollars researching the problem. It outfitted an oil tanker, the Esso Atlantic, with CO2 detectors to measure how fast the oceans could absorb excess carbon, and hired mathematicians to build sophisticated climate models. By 1982, they had concluded that even the company’s earlier estimates were probably too low. In a private corporate primer, they wrote that heading off global warming and “potentially catastrophic events” would “require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
An investigation by the L.A.Timesrevealed that Exxon executives took these warnings seriously. Ken Croasdale, a senior researcher for the company’s Canadian subsidiary, led a team that investigated the positive and negative effects of warming on Exxon’s Arctic operations. In 1991, he found that greenhouse gases were rising due to the burning of fossil fuels. “Nobody disputes this fact,” he said. The following year, he wrote that “global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs” in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling season in the Arctic, he correctly predicted, would increase from two months to as many as five months. At the same time, he said, the rise in the sea level could threaten onshore infrastructure and create bigger waves that would damage offshore drilling structures. Thawing permafrost could make the earth buckle and slide under buildings and pipelines.
As a result of these findings, Exxon and other major oil companies began laying plans to move into the Arctic, and started to build their new drilling platforms with higher decks, to compensate for the anticipated rises in sea level.
The implications of the exposés were startling.
Not only did Exxon and other companies know that scientists like Hansen were right; they used hisNASAclimate models to figure out how low their drilling costs in the Arctic would eventually fall.
Had Exxon and its peers passed on what they knew to the public, geological history would look very different today. The problem of climate change would not be solved, but the crisis would, most likely, now be receding. In 1989, an international ban on chlorine-containing man-made chemicals that had been eroding the earth’s ozone layer went into effect. Last month, researchers reported that the ozone layer was on track to fully heal by 2060. But that was a relatively easy fight, because the chemicals in question were not central to the world’s economy, and the manufacturers had readily available substitutes to sell. In the case of global warming, the culprit is fossil fuel, the most lucrative commodity on earth, and so the companies responsible took a different tack.
A document uncovered by the L.A.Timesshowed that, a month after Hansen’s testimony, in 1988, an unnamed Exxon “public affairs manager” issued an internal memo recommending that the company “emphasize the uncertainty” in the scientific data about climate change. Within a few years, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco, and others had joined the Global Climate Coalition, “to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate” on global warming. The G.C.C. coördinated with the National Coal Association and the American Petroleum Institute on a campaign, via letters and telephone calls, to prevent a tax on fossil fuels, and produced a video in which the agency insisted that more carbon dioxide would “end world hunger” by promoting plant growth. With such efforts, it ginned up opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, the first global initiative to address climate change.
In October, 1997, two months before the Kyoto meeting, Lee Raymond, Exxon’s president and C.E.O., who had overseen the science department that in the nineteen-eighties produced the findings about climate change, gave a speech in Beijing to the World Petroleum Congress, in which he maintained that the earth was actually cooling. The idea that cutting fossil-fuel emissions could have an effect on the climate, he said, defied common sense. “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be affected whether policies are enacted now, or twenty years from now,” he went on. Exxon’s own scientists had already shown each of these premises to be wrong.
On a December morning in 1997 at the Kyoto Convention Center, after a long night of negotiation, the developed nations reached a tentative accord on climate change. Exhausted delegates lay slumped on couches in the corridor, or on the floor in their suits, but most of them were grinning. Imperfect and limited though the agreement was, it seemed that momentum had gathered behind fighting climate change. But as I watched the delegates cheering and clapping, an American lobbyist, who had been coördinating much of the opposition to the accord, turned to me and said, “I can’t wait to get back to Washington, where we’ve got this under control.”
He was right. On January 29, 2001, nine days after George W. Bush was inaugurated, Lee Raymond visited his old friend Vice-President Dick Cheney, who had just stepped down as the C.E.O. of the oil-drilling giant Halliburton. Cheney helped persuade Bush to abandon his campaign promise to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Within the year, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant for Bush, had produced an internal memo that made a doctrine of the strategy that the G.C.C. had hit on a decade earlier. “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community,” Luntz wrote in the memo, which was obtained by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based organization. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
The strategy of muddling the public’s impression of climate science has proved to be highly effective. In 2017, polls found that almost ninety per cent of Americans did not know that there was a scientific consensus on global warming. Raymond retired in 2006, after the company posted the biggest corporate profits in history, and his final annual salary was four hundred million dollars. His successor, Rex Tillerson, signed a five-hundred-billion-dollar deal to explore for oil in the rapidly thawing Russian Arctic, and in 2012 was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship. In 2016, Tillerson, at his last shareholder meeting before he briefly joined the Trump Administration as Secretary of State, said, “The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.”
It’s by no means clear whether Exxon’s deception and obfuscation are illegal.
The company has long maintained that it “has tracked the scientific consensus on climate change, and its research on the issue has been published in publicly available peer-reviewed journals.” The First Amendment preserves one’s right to lie, although, in October, New York State Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood filed suit against Exxon for lying to investors, whichisa crime.
What is certain is that the industry’s campaign cost us the efforts of the human generation that might have made the crucial difference in the climate fight.