The clock is running on the climate crisis, but we have the tools and knowledge — and the crickets — that we need
The climate crisis is here, and heartbreak is all around us. The early promise of dramatic action from President Biden is sinking in the old mud bog of fossil-fuel politics. Meanwhile, despite 40 years of warnings from scientists and the decline in the cost of clean energy, carbon pollution is still increasing and the world is heating up as fast as ever. The final sentence of last February’s U.N.’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of that warming is stark and unequivocal: “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” Or as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres put it after an IPCC report on the mitigation of climate change was released this month: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
1. Tax carbon.
In February, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse took to the Senate floor for his 280th “Time to Wake Up!” speech about the climate crisis. The centerpiece of Whitehouse’s plan was the need for a tax on fossil fuels. It is an argument that speaks to a truism of economics: to make something scarce, tax it…
2. Electrify everything.
In the U.S. there are roughly 290 million cars and trucks, 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves. What if all those were electrified? Saul Griffith, an Australian American engineer and author of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, thinks electrification can reduce 80 percent of U.S. emissions by 2035…
3. Go local with solar.
It’s now obvious: The future is solar on homes, solar on apartment buildings, solar on malls, solar on parking lots, solar on fast-food joints, burrito stands, and strip clubs. With the sun, small is beautiful. Wasted space becomes a platform for power generation. With solar, cost has always been a problem, but that is ending now as the price of solar panels has plummeted over the past decade. Nobody pretends that you are going to make steel from solar, or that it will be the best way to generate power in every situation,but it is clean and reliable and won’t go down in a blackout like the one in 2021 that left 11 millions Texans freezing in the dark for days and was responsible for as many as 700 deaths…
4. Buy out coal plants.
Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, responsible for 30 percent of global carbon emissions. The biggest coal burner is China, which consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. Here in the U.S., coal is slowly being displaced by cheap gas, wind, and solar. But there are still 179 active coal plants, generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Shutting them down and replacing them with cleaner, cheaper energy is the fastest way to lower carbon emissions and slow the climate crisis. “The transition beyond coal is inevitable,” says Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project. “But the timeline on which it happens isn’t.”
5. Start telling the truth about the climate crisis.
How much is that $2 million house on the beach going to be worth when there’s an octopus swimming through the living room? What’s going to happen to all those refineries on the Gulf Coast as the demand for oil plummets? Banks and corporations face huge financial risks as the age of climate disruption accelerates. One just-published report found around $343 billion in weather- and climate-related economic losses in 2021 alone, the third-costliest year on record. A 2019 study concluded that 215 of the world’s largest companies face nearly $1 trillion in climate-related risk as soon as 2024. Very little of this is disclosed in corporate financial reports. “The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable the United States is to sudden, catastrophic shocks,” Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s nominee to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, wrote in The New York Times. “Climate change poses the next big threat.”
6. Build denser, fairer, more humane cities.
Urban life is far gentler on the planet than suburban life. People who live in cities spend less time stuck in traffic in their SUVs; they have better access to local food; they live in buildings that are more efficient. But cities need a climate upgrade too: more bikes, better public transit, more green space…
7. Get loud and hit them where it hurts.
The biggest roadblock to climate action has always been the cowardice and complicity of our political leaders. For many, the lack of significant accomplishments at last year’s Glasgow climate talks and the failure of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda have been a brutal awakening. “Activists have become jaded because there’s been a lot of promises from politicians without a lot of action to back it up,” says Dana Fisher, an environmental-activism expert at the University of Maryland and author of American Resistance. “A lot of young people are looking at other tactics now.”
8. Fund small-scale geo-engineering research.
Maybe Dr. Evil wants to deliberately fuck with the Earth’s climate, but nobody else does. Nevertheless, it’s probably inevitable, given the risks we face. There are many potential forms of geoengineering, from brightening clouds to stabilizing glaciers, but the technology that gets the most attention is solar engineering, which amounts to scattering particles in the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the Earth. Scientists know it works because it’s essentially what volcanoes do (particles injected into the stratosphere from Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991, cooled the planet 0.6 C for more than a year, until they rained out of the sky)…
9. Eat crickets!
America’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) appetite for meat is barbecuing the planet. Livestock eat up a lot of land, drive deforestation, and are carbon-intensive in their own right. Without reforming industrial agriculture and reducing meat consumption, it will be virtually impossible to limit warming to 2 C, much less 1.5 C…
10. Fight and win the culture war.
Much has been said about the failure of Big Media to cover the climate crisis. It’s too often pigeonholed as an environmental issue rather than a slow-rolling planet-wide catastrophe. Or it’s infused with “both-sidesism,” in which journalists are duped into the false idea that there is any real debate about the fundamentals of climate science. Or it’s just not discussed at all. When Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast late last summer, six of the biggest commercial TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and MSNBC — ran 774 stories about Ida, an analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters found. Only 34 of those stories mentioned climate change. Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, an initiative dedicated to improving climate reporting, calls it “media malpractice.”
As the effects of a warming climate intensify and a sense of impending catastrophe grows stronger, it’s becoming easier to give in to environmental despair. Having spent the past five years studying the Arctic and traveling around Greenland, I feel the pull as well.
Glaciers and sea ice are melting at an alarming rate; temperatures are rising at a steady clip. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s recent efforts to ignore a fact-based, scientific approach — rejecting, for instance, the use of computer projections to assess how a warming world might look after 2040 — leads me to worry that climate denialism is moving from the scientific fringes to the institutional center.
Still, it’s worth considering that things may not be as bad as they appear. I say this with a full understanding that most indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. Yet I also feel we’re in danger of losing sight of two crucial and encouraging aspects of our predicament.
The first is the extraordinary value of the climate knowledge we’ve amassed over the past 100 years — a vast archive of data and wisdom that gives us a fine-grained understanding of how the planet is warming and how we can change the trajectory we’re on.
The second is the emergence of potential solutions, the products of a half-century of technological innovation, which may help us avert the worst impacts of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we continue to release into the atmosphere. (Last year carbon dioxide emissions were the highest ever recorded.)
Almost certainly, these tools, if used wisely, could keep global average temperatures from rising 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, from a preindustrial baseline. Even lesser levels of warming are probably hazardous, but that temperature is the point beyond which many scientists believe the planet will suffer irreversible impacts from extreme and dangerous warming.
Recently, the entrepreneur and technologist Saul Griffith undertook a study of energy consumption for the Department of Energy and concluded that, using the United States as an example, “decarbonization is not an unattainable ideal.” In fact, he surmised it would be far easier than one might think, given our wealth and technological know-how.
We don’t need to assume an attitude of fear and dread. Our scientific progress is a story of technological optimism, defined by an extraordinary sense of capability. It shows what might be built and gained in the coming decades, and not merely what could be lost.
First, let’s consider this: For all the terror and gloom that global warming portends, its discovery is one of the greatest achievements of modern science. Technology can now tell us everything from how many tons of ice were shed by the glaciers in Greenland over the past few years to how many millimeters the oceans rose. Indeed, almost every fact or idea that informs the climate debate, from the number of endangered species to the dangers of melting permafrost, results from countless scientists and engineers, working in the field and in laboratories, over the course of a century.
This knowledge derives not only from heroic human expeditions to tropics, oceans, icecaps and deserts, but also from exquisite orbiting satellites that constantly scrutinize natural systems and human impacts on those systems. We know how much we have to fix on this planet, because we’ve figured out how to measure just about everything.
In the past few years, some commentators have warned that modern society’s faith in technology has led to a mistaken belief that it will save the world. They embrace solutions that encourage widespread behavioral changes, like consuming less, traveling infrequently and adopting a plant-based diet. We’re likely to need both technological and personal transformations. But in the end, it’s technology that will save us, not only because it can but also because it will have to.
In many respects, technology is saving us already: by identifying the magnitude of the threat, providing the extraordinary computing power required to run climate models to predict the future, and enabling architects and engineers to design for resilience against tempestuous storms and encroaching seas.
Technology has made possible clean and efficient energy systems that wouldn’t have been achievable a few decades ago, including cheap solar panels, LED lighting and batteries for electric cars. We now have green buildings that reduce energy usage and an emerging class of solar cells known as perovskites that may greatly lower the costs of renewable energy, and we are developing techniques to produce concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide rather than emitting it.
There is even room for techno-skeptics. A movement for “natural climate solutions,” like planting vast forests and using agricultural methods that sequester carbon in the soil, will become increasingly important as technology in the form of “integrated assessment” computer models tells us how much this approach can mitigate warming trends.
The range of hypothetical geoengineering ideas for the Arctic is equally audacious. One is to use wind power in winter to pump water from the depths of the Arctic Ocean to the surface to thicken sea ice so that it is more resistant to melting. Sea ice is critical to cooling the planet, because it reflects sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed by the ocean, heating it. (The downside of this idea, which underscores the scope of the problem, is that 10 million windmills would be needed.)
Another idea is to geoengineer glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica to delay their melting. For instance, a 100-meter-high wall could be built across the five-kilometer-wide fjord in front of the Jakobshavn glacier in western Greenland to block the warm ocean currents that have been melting it. The glacier has contributed more to sea level rise than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, though recently, that has slowed. There’s no proof yet this plan would work, and it would be hugely expensive. But as the idea’s proponents pointed out in the journal Nature, sea walls and flood defenses already cost tens of billions of dollars a year to build and maintain. “At this price, geoengineering is competitive,” they argued.
So, as much as we may be asking whether technology will save us, that’s the wrong question. The right question is: How will we use our current technologies — and our potential to develop new and better ones — to save ourselves?
Adopting a measure of technological optimism is not the same as adopting the blithe and complacent outlook of a techno-utopian. Neither is it to assume that we won’t suffer in the coming years from heat waves, storms and floods — or from elected officials who disregard the urgent need for action.
Rather, it’s to view 20th-century history as an accumulation of hard-won knowledge that arose from using our wits to understand the climate. It’s also to see that important technological and engineering achievements — developing mass transit systems, huge wind farms, even nuclear power plants — are possible when we choose to act, especially through our politics and policies.
Proof of this can be found in the most unlikely places. For the past few years I’ve been tracing the history of scientific discovery on the imperiled Greenland ice sheet. Greenland’s ice is so thick and so old that scientists can drill down and extract samples that contain evidence of what the environment was like thousands of years ago. With the help of lab instruments, researchers can reconstruct ancient temperatures and atmospheric conditions.
Amid the trace chemicals that turn up in the old ice, there is an unmistakable fingerprint of lead from a few thousand years ago — traces from silver smelters in Europe, during the height of the Roman Empire, which released lead into the air that was deposited on the icy surface of Greenland. In more recent records, we can see vestiges of the metal from the fumes of the early years of the Industrial Revolution and, later still, the residue from leaded gasoline.
Think of that the next time dread creeps in. Without question, reducing carbon dioxide is a far bigger challenge than reducing lead, and the stakes are much higher. But we now have a deeper well of knowledge and considerably better technologies. Indeed, if we don’t deploy the resources we now wield, many years into the future our story of failure will simply be this: We understood the threat, we were very smart and exceedingly capable. We had money and we had tools. And we chose not to act.
Jon Gertner is the author of the forthcoming “The Ice at the End of the World.”
The initiative, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is ambitious, but some in the outdoor industry argue it’s the only hope for saving wild places from climate change
When 27-year-old climate activist Evan Weber thinks about climate change, he thinks about his childhood in Hawaii. He spent those years in the mountains, on beaches, and in the ocean. “Now the beaches that I grew up on don’t exist anymore,” he says. “Sea-level rise has swallowed them into the ocean. The mountains are green for much less of the year. The coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification killing both marine life and surf breaks.”
That’s what brought him, on November 13, to march on soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office with around 150 other activists from a progressive group he cofounded called Sunrise Movement. They were demonstrating for a sweeping policy plan championed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Green New Deal. It is pitched as an economy-wide climate mobilization to connect environmental, social, and economic policies through legislation and would create everything from investment in federal green jobs for all who want them to a massive green-infrastructure program. The end result would be an overhauled national economy run on 100 percent renewable energy.
While these are lofty goals, and many are skeptical of the plan’s feasibility, advocates see it as setting the bar for a sufficient response to climate change that politicians can be held to. And the proposal is already gaining steam in Washington, D.C., as a platform to rally around heading into 2020: more than 40 lawmakers have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a congressional select committee to map out the Green New Deal. Many in the outdoor industry are also paying attention to what could be the best hope to save our ski seasons and protect our public lands.
“It’s an approach that’s so comprehensive that it could be a way for the United States to lead in the direction of stabilizing the climate at two degrees Celsius,” says Mario Molina, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters. According to a climate assessment put out by the federal government last month, warming above that threshold (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) could shorten ski seasons by half in some parts of the U.S. before 2050.
Climate change is already impacting snowpack, and ski resorts across America are scrambling to adapt. This past year, Aspen Snowmass launched a political campaign called Give a Flake to get its customers engaged in climate action, Squaw Valley spent $10 million on snowmaking equipment in 2017, and Vail is pursuing a sweeping program to weatherproof its operations. But, Molina explains, there’s a long way to go to address the ski industry’s fossil-fuel-intensive operations. He believes that something like the economy-wide transition to renewable energy proposed in the Green New Deal is the best way ski resorts will be able to significantly lower their carbon footprints. It would allow them, for example, to hook their resorts up to a central power grid that would spin their lifts with renewable energy and create more sustainable transit options to and from the slopes.
Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), also sees the opportunity to link this kind of large-scale climate action with the outdoor economy, especially when it comes to public lands. An economy powered on 100 percent renewables would obviously erase any incentive for fossil-fuel companies to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Ears National Monument. But the OIA is still watching to see how the politics around the Green New Deal shape up. The early support from lawmakers is encouraging, but they’re mostly Democrats. Roberts insists that policies to protect the climate and public lands need bipartisan support, but she thinks that the outdoor industry can help make that happen. “When you look at who takes part in our activities, whether it’s hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing, there are both Republicans and Democrats,” she says. “That’s an opportunity to unite and bring a compelling message that’s separate and apart from what the environmental community is doing.”
As proof, she points to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. In November, Peach State voters passed the measure, in which sales tax from sporting goods and outdoor equipment is used to fund parks and trails, with 83 percent support. In the same election, the governor’s race was so divided that it went to a recount.
Even with glimpses of bipartisan support for the environment, Molina worries that the main hurdle Green New Deal legislation will face is influence from the fossil-fuel industry. Its lobbyists donated more than $100 million to campaigns in the 2016 election, and in 2018 raised $30 million to defeat a Washington State ballot measure that would have added a modest carbon tax on emissions and used the revenue to fund environmental and social programs. Additionally, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt was tapped to replace Ryan Zinke as interior secretary in December.
But activists like Weber are not giving up. As part of their push for a Green New Deal, they have called for members of the Democratic leadership to reject campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests. And a few weeks after Weber was in Nancy Pelosi’s office, he and more than 1,000 young people were back in Washington, D.C., this time storming Capitol Hill in a daylong push to get lawmakers to endorse the Green New Deal, an effort that resulted in nearly 150 arrests. They remain unfazed by claims that the plan’s goals are too large. “A Green New Deal is the only proposal put forth by an American politician that’s in line with what the latest science says is necessary to prevent irreversible climate change,” Weber says. “It could mean the difference between whether future generations around the world get to have the same formative experiences in nature that I did—or not.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Elizabeth Warren. Beto O’Rourke. Those are just a few of the high-profile names either leading the development of or jumping to endorse today’s environmental cause célèbre, the Green New Deal. Inside congressional halls, at street protests, and, of course, on climate Twitter — it’s hard to avoid the idea, which aims to re-package ambitious climate actions into a single, wide-ranging stimulus program.
The Green New Deal is being promoted as a kind of progressive beacon of a greener America, promising jobs and social justice for all on top of a shift away from fossil fuels. It’s a proposal largely driven by newcomers to politics and environmental activism (and supported, however tentatively, by several potential presidential candidates and members of the Democratic political establishment). The plan aspires to bring together the needs of people and the environment, outlining “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty.”
But within the broader environmental movement, not everyone was initially gung-ho on the Green New Deal — at least not without some stipulations.
To understand the debate surrounding the Green New Deal, you need to look beyond its recent prominence in Beltway political circles to the on-the-ground organizations that make up the environmental justice movement. Newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez may be leading the charge, but grassroots leaders who have spent years advocating for low-income families and neighborhoods of color most impacted by fossil fuels say their communities weren’t consulted when the idea first took shape.
For all the fanfare, there isn’t a package of policies that make up a Green New Deal just yet. And that’s why community-level activists are clamoring to get involved, help shape the effort, and ensure the deal leaves no one behind.
Something Old, Something New
Although the term “Green New Deal” has evolved over time, its current embodiment as a complete overhaul of U.S. energy infrastructure was spearheaded by two high profile entities: progressive darling and first-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement, an organization formed in 2017 by young people hellbent on making climate change the “it” issue.
In November 2018, Ocasio-Cortez, with support from Sunrise, called for a House select committee to formulate the package of policies. More than 40 lawmakers signed on to support the draft text. Then shortly before the end of the year, Nancy Pelosi, now the speaker of the House, announced the formation instead of a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.”
It wasn’t exactly a win for the leaders of the new environmental vanguard. Sunrise tweeted its displeasure at the committee’s pared-down ambition, taking umbrage with its lack of power to subpoena (a condition for which Ocasio-Cortez had advocated) and the fact that politicians who take money from fossil fuel interests would not be excluded from sitting on it.
The fuss over who gets a say in the formation of the Green New Deal goes back further than Ocasio-Cortez’s or Sunrise’s friendly-ish feud with establishment Democrats. The Climate Justice Alliance, a network of groups representing indigenous peoples, workers, and frontline communities, says its gut reaction to the Green New Deal was that it had been crafted at the “grasstops” (as opposed to the grassroots).
Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez put out her proposal for a select committee, the alliance released a statement largely in support of the concept, but with a “word of caution”: “When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about, the launch of the GND.”
Leaders at the alliance surveyed its member organizations — there are more than 60 across the U.S. — and put together a list of their concerns. Unless the Green New Deal addresses those key points, the alliance says, the plan won’t meet its proponents’ lofty goal of tackling poverty and injustice. Nor will the deal gain the grassroots support it will likely need to become a reality.
“What we want to do is strengthen and center the Green New Deal in environmental justice communities that have both experience and lived history of confronting the struggle against fossil fuel industries,” Angela Adrar, executive director of the alliance, told Grist.
Grist asked several indigenous and environmental justice leaders: If the Green New Deal is going to make good on its promises, what will it take? Here’s what they said.
A more inclusive and democratic process that respects tribal sovereignty
As details get hashed out on what a Green New Deal would actually include, longtime environmental justice organizers say their communities need to be the ones guiding the way forward. “The way that the plan was developed and shared is one of its greatest weaknesses,” Adrar says. “We want to be able to act quickly, but we also want to act democratically.”
She adds that involving the grassroots is especially important in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, which ushered in many new congressional members pledging to focus on the underrepresented communities they come from. The Climate Justice Alliance is calling for town halls (with interpreters for several languages) to allow communities to help flesh out policies to include in the Green New Deal.
Some of the disconnect could be generational, says Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Many of the leaders espousing the Green New Deal are young people. He says that he and his colleagues were caught off-guard when they saw the plan on social media and that when his network reached out to its members, there was little familiarity or understanding of the Green New Deal.
“Maybe the way of communication of youth is different than what we’ve found in the environmental justice movement and our native movement around the value of human contact — face-to-face human contact,” he says. “We’re asking that leadership of the Green New Deal meet with us and have a discussion how we can strengthen this campaign with the participation of the communities most impacted.”
Any retooling of America’s energy infrastructure will undoubtedly venture into Native American tribes’ lands, where there are already long-standing battles over existing and proposed pipeline expansions, as well as fossil fuel facilities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before developers begin any project on their land. So indigenous environmental groups say there needs to be respect for tribal sovereignty and buy-in from tribes for a Green New Deal to fulfill its promise of being just and equitable.
Green jobs should be great jobs
There has been a lot of talk in Green New Deal circles about uplifting poor and working-class communities. Advocates have floated ideas ranging from a job-guarantee program offering a living wage to anyone who wants one to explicitly ensuring the rights of workers to form a union.
But as workers’ rights organizations point out, energy and extractive industries have provided unionized, high-paying jobs for a long time — and they want to make sure workers can have the same or a better quality of life within green industries.
“There’s been a long history of workers that have been left hanging in transition in the past,” says Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which has been working to bridge divides between labor and environmental issues. “For that reason, there’s quite a bit of skepticism in the labor sector.”
Joseph Uehlein, who founded the Labor Network for Sustainability, adds that there needs to be more than just the promise of jobs to entice labor to support a Green New Deal. “Every presidential candidate in my lifetime talks about job creation as their top priority,” he says. “Over the last 40 years, those jobs have gotten worse and worse. A lot of jobs are not so good, requiring two or three breadwinners to do what one used to be able to do.”
Uehlein hopes an eventual Green New Deal will ensure not just jobs that guarantee a living wage, but will go one step further. “We always talk about family-supporting jobs,” he says. “It’s not just about living, it’s about supporting families.”
Do No Harm
Any version of a Green New Deal would likely ensure that the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy — with Ocasio-Cortez setting the bold target of the nation getting 100 percent of its energy from renewables within 10 years.
But defining what exactly counts as “renewable energy” has been tricky. There are plenty of sources of energy that aren’t in danger of running out and don’t put out as many greenhouse gases as coal or oil, but are still disruptive to frontline communities. Garbage incineration is considered a renewable energy in some states, but it still emits harmful pollutants. And when it comes to nuclear energy or large-scale hydropower, the associated uranium extraction and dam construction have destroyed indigenous peoples’ homes and flooded their lands.
The Climate Justice Alliance is also pushing to exclude global warming interventions like geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration, which they believe don’t do enough to address the root causes of global warming. Both technologies have to do with re-trapping or curbing the effects of greenhouse gases after they’ve been produced. “Carbon capture and sequestration, it’s a false solution from our analysis,” Goldtooth says. The focus needs to be on stopping greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, he and other critics argue.
As the alliance sees it, a future in which the planet survives requires a complete transition away from fossil fuels and an extractive economy, and toward a regenerative economy with less consumption and more ecological resilience.
Goldtooth and his colleagues are calling for solutions that rein in damaging co-pollutants on top of greenhouse gases. And they support scalable solutions — like community solar projects — that are are popping up in some of the neighborhoods that are most affected by climate change.
A good start
Even though the Green New Deal faces many political obstacles, its proponents are still pushing forward at full speed. “We are calling for a wartime-level, just economic mobilization plan to get to 100% renewable energy ASAP,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on New Year’s Day.
Scientists recently estimated that the world has only 12 years to keep average global temperatures from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the upper limit which many agree we can’t surpass if we want to avoid a climate crisis. The urgency around the latest climate change timeline has brought a lot of new advocates to the table.
According to John Harrity, chair of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and a board member at the Labor Network for Sustainability, the labor movement is becoming more willing to engage on ways to address climate change. “I think the Green New Deal becomes a really good way to put all of that together in a package,” he says. “That evokes for a lot of people the image of a time when people did all pull together for the common good.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, steering committee co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization, UPROSE, which works on issues cutting across climate change and racial justice, calls the Green New Deal “a good beginning for developing something that could really have lasting impacts and transformation in local communities and nationwide.”
Since the alliance put out its recommendations, Yeampierre says she’s been in regular contact with both the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez’s office. “To their credit they were responsive and have made themselves available to figure out how we move forward in a way that doesn’t really step over the people,” she explains.
The language in Ocasio-Cortez’ draft proposal has already changed — it now includes clauses to “protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations” and “recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize.” The document has doubled in length since it was put out in November (at time of publication, it is 11 pages long) and will likely include new edits in the coming days.
Varshini Prakash, a founding member of the Sunrise Movement (and a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer), says she agrees with the Climate Justice Alliance’s recommendation that a Green New Deal prioritize the needs of workers, frontline communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. “Their critiques,” Prakash tells Grist, “are fully valid, and I appreciate what they’re bringing.”
The broad overview of a Green New Deal in Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee, Prakash says, was hashed out quickly after the representative’s team approached Sunrise late last year. (Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately respond to Grist’s inquiry). “This was very rapid fire, it happened on an extremely tight timescale,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of time to do the broad consultation we wanted.”
But Prakash, Yeampierre, and other leaders in the movements for environmental and climate justice are working to make sure there are more folks on board moving forward.
“Climate change isn’t just going to threaten our communities — it’s also going to test our solidarity, it’s going to test how we build relationships with each other,” Yeampierre says. “So I think the Green New Deal can be used as an opportunity to show that we can pass that test.”
Two years ago this weekend I was in British Columbia, with two must-see items on my agenda. I had spent the previous five days, courtesy of the Canadian government, visiting first Toronto and then Vancouver. The consulate in Denver, where I live, wanted journalists and others to see and hear about all the wondrous things being done in Canada’s two marquee cities to quell greenhouse gas emissions.
After our final Vancouver visit, on my own agenda and on my own dime, I rented a car and drove up the Sea-to-Sky Highway. In Whistler, I wanted to see how the ski company was helping save the planet. And in Squamish, 40 minutes why of Whistler, along Howe Sound, I wanted to see where a great experiment was underway that might help save Whistler’s snow. My curiosity about the Squamish project was well founded as recent news shows.
In Whistler, I was graciously given a tour of the mountain, the Peak 2 Peak gondola, the bike park, and more. Our last stop, the Fitzsimmons Creek run-of-the-river hydroelectric project, was the most important to me. Though it wasn’t all that much to look at, it represented perhaps the most important effort up until then of a ski company taking responsibility for its role in this giant energy challenge facing humanity.
Despite the Fitzsimmons hydroelectric project, despite the new solar farm that makes the Colorado ski area of Wolf Creek 100 percent solar powered, despite all the wondrous things Vancouver and Toronto are doing, we’re still speeding into an unmapped climatic wilderness.
In April, we tripped across the threshold of 410 parts per million, a 130 ppm increase since the start of the industrial age two centuries ago. Most of that increase has occurred since I was born in the 1950s. We’re accelerating our emissions, almost triple the annual rate from when I was a youngster, learning to ride a clunker of a bicycle. In the process we’ve already elevated our temperatures by 1.2 to 1.3 degrees C.
Now we’re racing toward 450 ppm. Unless we slow our emissions, says Scientific American, we’ll hit that mark in about 18 years.
Climate scientists don’t know for sure that anything calamitous will happen at 450 ppm. It could be just another increment, like a hair of once-brown head turning gray: deeper droughts, longer heat waves, more powerful typhoons and hurricanes. And, of course, warmer. Or it could be much worse, a big spurt of change. Some of the uncertainty has to do with the feedback mechanisms, such as the thawing of methane, a far more powerful heat-trapping gas, in the Arctic tundra. These are the unexpected, nonlinear, and frightening outcomes that scientists warn could result from pushing the climate system too hard.
Ice cores extracted from glaciers in Greenland, Antarctica, and elsewhere provide surprisingly insightful mirrors of the past. For example, the Greenland ice from 1,700 to 2,500 years ago shows levels of lead that indicate lead and silver mining and smelting by the Greeks and Romans. Ice cores also show CO2 in the atmosphere. Those now are 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine last year, Jon Gertner noted the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were as elevated as now, three million years ago, sea levels were most likely 45 feet higher and giant camels roamed above the Arctic Circle.
That’s where Squamish and geoengineering comes in. Many scientists have concluded that the only way to avert the perhaps intolerable climatic changes is to conduct massive geoengineering, to reverse the effects of global warming. Geoengineering is an umbrella word, kind of like snow sliding, for two broad categories of activities.
One type of geoengineering seeks to deliberately tinker with the climate, to reverse existing and continued effects. One such idea, for example, would attempt to replicate the effect of volcanoes. In 1991, for example, Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines, exploded, pushing a plume of gas and ash—including nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide—into the atmosphere, eventually reaching an altitude of 39 kilometers. The most particulates went skyward since the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze, cooling global temperatures.5 degrees C in the years 1991-93. Krakatoa had had a similar effect, depressing temperatures by as much as 1.2 degrees C in the northern hemisphere and also helping produce 38 inches of rain in Los Angeles, which averages 15 inches.
All manner of ideas have been formulated to intentionally disrupt the climate. One idea would have us deploying mirrors, perhaps in deserts or perhaps in outer space, to reflect back light into space. Another idea is to brighten clouds, to make them more reflective. Still another idea, crudely employed, would be to scatter materials over glaciers, once again to reduce the albedo effect of the native snow and ice. Then others have toyed with dumping iron into the ocean, to spur the growth of carbon-sucking algae. None of these ideas have gotten very far.
The second major type of geoengineering seeks to withdraw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The International Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report surprised many by identifying 116 scenarios in which global temperatures could be prevented from rising more than 2 degrees C. Of these, 111 scenarios involve sucking massive quantities of CO2, from the atmosphere. As Wired magazine noted in a story last December, the goal is to attain “negative emissions,” perhaps lowering CO2, emissions below 400 ppm, even down to 350 ppm, as Bill McKibben proposes.
Trees suck carbon, but they do grow slowly, don’t they? Other ideas involve growing plants and then harvesting them, burning them, and producing energy in that way. Such ideas have generally been dismissed as impractical for the kind of carbon reduction needed in the next 30 years, simply because of the space required. As Wired noted, just growing the crops needed to fuel these bio-energy plants would require a landmass one to two times the size of India—and this transformation would have to occur within the lifetimes of the millennial generation.
In Squamish, a relatively new company called Carbon Engineering is capturing air then using industrial processes to remove the carbon dioxide. Several similar processes are being tried in other experiments around the world.
David Keith, now of Harvard University, founded the company in 2015. He obtained funding from two billionaires, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Norman Murray Edwards, who has a big stake in the oil sands of Alberta and also owns the Fernie, Kimberley, Kicking Horse, and other resorts of British Columbia.
Being of a different income class than these billionaires, I stayed at the hostel in Squamish, sharing a room with about 35 other guys. (There are times, if rare, when I am actually glad for my hearing loss.) The next morning I drove around Squamish, visiting the Sikh temple, watching immigrant families frolic on the waterfront, and admiring the giant rock formation overlooking the town. Only later, after returning to Vancouver, did I learn that a base jumper had leaped to his death from the granitic monolith of the Stawamus Chief at almost precisely that same time. The parachute of the victim, an ex-Marine, had failed to deploy.
At length, I found Carbon Engineering on a sliver of land jutting into Howe Sound. Peering over the locked gate of the chain-link fence that Sunday morning I saw a long metal shed, several tanks, pipes, and a shaft.
A story in the Guardian described the great challenge of this alchemy using the example of M&Ms. If you were allowed to eat every red M&M in a bag, it would be easy to do so if they were but one of every 10 in a bag. But, if the concentration fell to one in every 2,500—the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere—you might just give up on the red M&M’s.
Carbon Engineering in its plant at Squamish has modified old processes to address this challenge. The process uses a strong hydroxide solution to capture CO2 in a structure modeled on an industrial cooling tower and convert it into a carbonate. Next small pellets of calcium carbonate are precipitated from the carbonate solution. The calcium carbonate, once dried, is then heated, to break apart the CO2 and residual calcium oxide.
According to the company website, the plan is to move to commercialization, creating industrial-scale air-capture facilities outside of cities and on non-agriculture land.
But there’s more. Carbon Engineering’s vision combined this direct air capture technology with water electrolysis and fuels synthesis to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels. In this process, the CO2 and hydrogen are thermocatalytically reacted to produce syngas and reacted again to produce hydrocarbons. In principle, a wide variety of hydrocarbons can be generated, but the company says it intends to focus on providing a product that replaces diesel and jet fuel. The plant at Squamish has been producing a barrel a day of synthetic fuel.
“If we’re successful at building a business of carbon removal, these are trillion-dollar markets,” Adrian Corless, then chief executive of Carbon Engineering, told Kolbert.
But could it do so cost-effectively? That has been the big question facing Carbon Engineering and every other company organized to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Cost estimates had run up to $600 a ton or even more.
Scale is what matters. Can the process be scaled? That was the chief criterion in Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge. He offers $25 million for the first scalable solution for removing greenhouse gases. So far, the money has been unclaimed.
On June 7, Carbon Engineering announced publication of a peer-reviewed paper in the energy journal called Joule that declares that the process tested at Squamish since 2015 has been refined such that it can done for as low as $94 per metric ton. The news—if not all the paper’s qualifying statements about financial assumptions and so forth—was quickly splashed around on BBC and other international news organizations.
“Imagine driving up to your local gas station and being able to choose between regular, premium or carbon-free gasoline,” offered the National Geographic.
The BBC, after describing the “tangle of pipes, pumps, tanks, reactors, chimneys and ducts on a messy industrial site,” concluded that the process underway at Squamish “could just provide the fix to stop the world tipping into runaway climate change.”
“I hope this changes views about this technology from being this thing which people think is a magic savior, which it isn’t, or that it is absurdly expensive, which it isn’t, to an industrial technology that is do-able and can be developed in a useful way,” David Keith, a founder of Carbon Engineering, told BBC News.
In 2010, I had met Keith in Calgary, where he was then teaching, with dual appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Calgary. This was on the tail-end of a trip to Fort McMurray, also courtesy of the Canadian government, designed to show-and-tell why the oil/tar sands were not such a terrible thing.
To my surprise, the Canadian consulate media liaison in Denver—a former bump-skier from Vail—had wanted us to meet with David Keith. I was impressed, because even then I was aware of some of Keith’s big-picture thinking.
Keith, now 54, comes across as somebody deeply loving of the same things as most people in mountain towns do. He grew up in Canada, the son of a researcher with the Canadian Wildlife Service who did groundbreaking work on the insidious effects of pesticides; his mother was a historian.
After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in physics, Keith took journeys to the Arctic. In the first trip he camped alone in a remote region of Labrador for three weeks. Then he spent four months living in a plywood shack in the middle of the Arctic Archipelago, tracking walruses with a polar bear biologist. He has said it was one of the happiest times of his life.
He continues to seek out solitude in wonderful places. On a recent honeymoon he went backpacking in northern British Columbia. Protecting the climate of existing ecosystems and places clearly drives him.
Some of that thinking has been at meetings convened during the 1990s at the Aspen Global Change Institute. One of the speakers Keith heard had been a proponent of using nuclear devices for massive earth-moving goals, such as digging new canals. But the speaker by then was talking about geoengineering as a way of addressing the massive challenge of carbon dioxide emissions.
As a civilization, we’ve done our best to tinker with weather. Jeff Goodell, in his 2010 book “How to Cool the Planet,” offers a delightful history of the flimflam artists of the early 20th century who promised they could deliver rain to soak farmers’ fields and fill reservoirs in San Diego. After World War II, such efforts became more scientific, with the deliberate seeding of clouds with silver iodide and other substances to produce rain and snow.
Vail, the ski area operator, has been paying to seed clouds over Vail Mountain since a disastrous drought in 1977 as well as other of its properties. So do major water utilities, such as Denver. This is despite a major, 10-year study bankrolled by Wyoming that found only marginal success of cloud seeding.
The U.S. government, through a program called Project Plowshare, in the 1960s and early 1970s explored the idea of using nuclear devices to move massive amounts of Earth. One of the ideas was to thoroughly shake up the subterranean in order to unloose natural gas encased in tight rocks. Call it nuclear fracking. One of those blasts occurred west of Aspen and Vail in 1969, near the town of Parachute. It created rubble, all underground, but no natural gas worth anything. It was radioactive. At last, the U.S. government pulled the plug, in what one Cold War analyst says “the reluctant admission that a nuclear utopia was not imminent.”
In Calgary, Keith wouldn’t singularly bad-mouth the tar sands. (Because this was a Canadian government trip, it was always “oil sands,” and that’s what Keith said, too). But what stands out from my notes almost eight years later is his insistence that all our efforts to that day had been largely symbolic. “For the United States and Canada, motivation for action that goes beyond symbolic is very low,” he said.
“It’s important to be realistic about this,” he added.
In his 2013 book, “The Case for Climate Engineering,” Keith articulated the same thought about a disconnect between efforts and outcome. “Why has the spending on clean energy produced such meager results?” he asked. “Either the cost of cutting emissions is much higher than analysts’ estimates of what’s needed or the money is getting grossly misspent. Carbon emissions are so large that deep cuts can only be realized by actions that are cost-effective and scalable.”
Cost effective and scalable remain the key words. The paper in the journal published last week described a rate of “levelized cost per tonne of CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranging from $94 to $232.”
That is still a wide range, and, in any event, it’s well above the world’s highest carbon tax, British Columbia’s $35 per tonne; it is set to reach $50 a tonne by 2021. The point is that the price of carbon emissions must rise substantially or the cost of removing it must be lowered substantially before there will be any traction.
Keith has also been working in the other realm of geoengineering. Keith and another Harvard scientist, Frank Keutsch, had planned to launch a high-altitude balloon, tethered to a gondola with propellers and sensors, to spray a fine mist of materials such as sulfur dioxide, alumina, or calcium carbonate into the stratosphere above Arizona. The sensors, as he told MIT Technology Review, would measure the reflectivity of the particles, the degree to which they disperse or coalesce, and the way they interact with other compounds in the atmosphere.
Should we even pretend to think that technology can come to our aid? Conferences and papers so far debate this very question. Some see it as akin to setting off bombs underground in Colorado. Even Keith has said repeatedly that geoengineering is secondary to reducing our emissions.
Many scientists have argued we shouldn’t even try. Even if successful, would it then allow us to dither on this path toward making a giant energy transition? We could just spew more and more carbon into the atmosphere. As the fracking revolution has taught us, we’re a very inventive species at figuring out how to get carbon from underground.
What about unintended consequences? When inventors in the Silicon Valley were creating smart phones, they probably weren’t imagining that people would be reading their phones as they drove down highways. For that matter, when Henry Ford began mass-producing cars in Detroit, he could not have imagined that one day transportation, primarily from cars and trucks, would be the leading emitter of CO2, emissions. He was creating a greater good, not a greater problem.
Then again, do we have a choice? We’re disrupting the climate through our small, unseen emissions of carbon dioxide millions and millions of times each day across the planet. We’ve already jumped off a cliff. Like the base jumper at the Chief, we had better hope we have a parachute to deploy. It’s too soon to say whether the industrial process for removing carbon dioxide from the air in the metal building in Squamish will be that parachute. But keep your eye on it. It’s terribly important.
On Wednesday, scientists at the University of California in San Diego confirmed that April’s monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration breached 410 parts per million for the first time in our history.
We know a lot about how to track these changes. The Earth’s carbon dioxide levels peak around this time every year for a pretty straightforward reason. There’s more landmass in the northern hemisphere, and plants grow in a seasonal cycle. During the summer, they suck down CO2, during the winter, they let it back out. The measurements were made at Mauna Loa, Hawaii — a site chosen for its pristine location far away from the polluting influence of a major city.
Increasingly though, pollution from the world’s cities is making its way to Mauna Loa — and everywhere else on Earth.
In little more than a century of frenzied fossil-fuel burning, we humans have altered our planet’s atmosphere at a rate dozens of times faster than natural climate change. Carbon dioxide is now more than 100 ppm higher than any direct measurements from Antarctic ice cores over the past 800,000 years, and probably significantly higher than anything the planet has experienced for at least 15 million years. That includes eras when Earth was largely ice-free.
Not only are carbon dioxide levels rising each year, they are accelerating. Carbon dioxide is climbing at twice the pace it was 50 years ago. Even the increases are increasing.
That’s happening for several reasons, most important of which is that we’re still burning a larger amount of fossil fuels each year. Last year, humanity emitted the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions in history — even after factoring in the expansion of renewable energy. At the same time, the world’s most important carbon sinks — our forests — are dying, and therefore losing their ability to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it safely in the soil. The combination of these effects means we are losing ground, and fast.
Without a bold shift in our actions, in 30 years atmospheric carbon dioxide will return back to levels last reached just after the extinction of the dinosaurs, more than 50 million years ago. At that point, it might be too late to prevent permanent, dangerous feedback loops from kicking in.
This is the biggest problem humanity has ever faced, and we’ve barely even begun to address it effectively. On our current pace, factoring in current climate policies of every nation on Earth, the best independent analyses show that we are on course for warming of about 3.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, enough to extinguish entire ecosystems and destabilize human civilization.
Climate change demands the urgent attention and cooperation of every government around the world. But even though most countries have acknowledged the danger, the ability to limit our emissions eludes us. After 23 years of United Nations summits on climate change, the time has come for radical thinking and radical action — a social movement with the power to demand a better future.
Of the two dozen or so official UN scenarios that show humanity curbing global warming to the goals agreed to in the 2015 Paris Accord, not one show success without the equivalent of a technological miracle. It’s easier to imagine outlandish technologies, like carbon capture, geoengineering, or fusion power than self-control.
Our failed approach to climate change is mostly a failure of imagination. We are not fated to this path. We can do better. Yes, there are some truly colossal headwinds, but we still control our future. Forgetting that fact is sure to doom us all.
On Tuesday, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million (it was 410.28 ppm in case you want the full deal). Carbon dioxide hasn’t reached that height in millions of years. It’s a new atmosphere that humanity will have to contend with, one that’s trapping more heat and causing the climate to change at a quickening rate.
In what’s become a spring tradition like Passover and Easter, carbon dioxide has set a record high each year since measurements began. It stood at 280 ppm when record keeping began at Mauna Loa in 1958. In 2013, it passed 400 ppm. Just four years later, the 400 ppm mark is no longer a novelty. It’s the norm.
“Its pretty depressing that it’s only a couple of years since the 400 ppm milestone was toppled,” Gavin Foster, a paleoclimate researcher at the University of Southampton told Climate Central last month. “These milestones are just numbers, but they give us an opportunity to pause and take stock and act as useful yard sticks for comparisons to the geological record.”
Earlier this year, U.K. Met Office scientists issued their first-ever carbon dioxide forecast. They projected carbon dioxide could reach 410 ppm in March and almost certainly would by April. Their forecast has been borne out with Tuesday’s daily record. They project that the monthly average will peak near 407 ppm in May, setting a monthly record.
Carbon dioxide concentrations have skyrocketed over the past two years due to in part to natural factors like El Niño causing more of it to end up in the atmosphere. But it’s mostly driven by the record amounts of carbon dioxide humans are creating by burning fossil fuels.
“The rate of increase will go down when emissions decrease,” Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “But carbon dioxide will still be going up, albeit more slowly. Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off initially.”
Even when concentrations of carbon dioxide level off, the impacts of climate change will extend centuries into the future. The planet has already warmed 1.8°F (1°C), including a run of 627 months in a row of above-normal heat. Sea levels have risen about a foot and oceans have acidified. Extreme heat has become more common.
All of these impacts will last longer and intensify into the future even if we cut carbon emissions. But we face a choice of just how intense they become based on when we stop polluting the atmosphere.
Right now we’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century.
Lisa Dilling, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the new director of the Western Water Assessment (WWA), an applied research program that addresses societal vulnerabilities related to climate, particularly in the area of water resources.
WWA is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at CU-Boulder, and is funded primarily by NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program.
Dilling is also a CIRES Fellow and a member of CIRES’ Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at CU-Boulder. Her research focuses on decision making, the use of information and science policies related to climate change, adaptation, geoengineering and carbon management. Her current projects examine drought in urban water systems, water governance and climate change, municipal adaptation to hazards, decision making in public lands management, and knowledge for adaptation in Tanzania. Dilling has authored numerous articles and is a co-editor of the book Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating climate change and facilitating social change from Cambridge University Press.
WWA is based in Boulder but works across the Intermountain West in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Its mission is to identify and characterize regional vulnerabilities to and impacts of climate variability and change, and to develop information, products, and processes to assist decision makers throughout the Intermountain West. For example, WWA staff are producing a Climate Change in Colorado report for the state of Colorado; helped author the National Climate Assessment released this spring; and are conducting work to understand how emergency managers and others use (or do not use) NOAA streamflow forecasts.
Kristen Averyt, WWA’s previous director, will now focus on her position as Associate Director for Science at CIRES, and she will continue to conduct research and lead projects for the WWA.