By Jesse D. Palmer
I woke up late because it was still dark long after the sun should have come up. When I looked outside, the sky was a dark orange and streetlights were on like at twilight, even though it was the middle of the day — sort of beautiful and like a movie. I had no idea the sky could look like that. I knew it was wildfire smoke, but on a pre-conscious level I just felt fear and dread and doom. Anyone who saw it felt humbled and changed.
Mega-fires and hurricanes. 120 degree heat waves and power cuts. Flooding and drought. People ask, “Is this the new normal?” The scary answer is probably not — we would be lucky if this is as bad as it gets. Climate chaos is likely to get much worse soon if we don’t immediately stop burning all fossil fuels and cut other greenhouse gas emissions like methane. If we continue our present ways for even a few more years, just breathing air, eating food or seeing blue sky will be a luxury or impossible. Rather than 2020 being the hottest year in the last 100 years, we need to start thinking about it as the coolest year in the next 100 years.
Our species doesn’t have to end up this way — destroying itself and taking most other complex life systems with it. None of what we’re currently experiencing is a surprise — it is exactly what scientists have been warning would happen for 30 years. We have alternatives available, but taking them will require massive political and cultural will, right away.
It is an odd twist of timing that the pandemic offers so many lessons relevant to addressing climate change — if we understand and learn from them.
Immediate action or suicidally timid gradualism?
The speed and breadth of the initial global pandemic lockdown in March proved that rapid, dramatic, global change is possible. At least for a short period, planes stopped flying, roads emptied of traffic, and the supposedly unstoppable industrial machines paused. We saw before our eyes that we’ve been told lies about climate our whole lives — the lie that only very gradual change is possible.
The powers-that-be have been setting absurdly mediocre goals — small reductions in fossil fuel dependence by 2050. They are protecting the oil industry, not our lives. Rapid, global, widespread change is possible and can happen if those in power and everyone else wants it to and does something. We can address climate now by abruptly ending combustion of fossil fuels — we don’t have to wait. Just like every sector of society rapidly came up with creative and previously unconsidered alternatives in response to the pandemic, if we wanted to stop emissions we could find a way. There would be a period of disruption and adjustment as we’ve seen with the pandemic. The best historical example of such a rapid change is when most of the world mobilized for world war II — auto factories converted production to tanks and everyone’s lives changed direction in a matter of months.
Systemic change vs. personal change is a false debate
A lot of discussion about climate change is finger-pointing between the need for personal action vs. corporate and government action. As the pandemic has shown, it is a false debate — both are essential simultaneously for a rapid, dramatic, widespread shift. A lot of action to stop the virus, such as mask wearing, has to happen on an individual personal level. And yet social structures are also crucial — individuals cannot invent or deploy tests and vaccines.
A single individual wearing a mask obviously isn’t enough, but if most people do it, then it can make a difference. When wearing a mask, no one will be perfect and wear it all the time, but the more you try, the better. For climate change, just because your personal emissions reductions cannot alone solve the problem, and just because you may not be able to reduce all your emissions all the time right now, it still makes a difference to do your best all the time right now, rather than waiting for others or social structures to change first.
Just like it is more important to wear a mask in a high risk environment like a store or a crowded subway car, individual climate adjustments should be targeted towards the biggest emissions reductions. Knowing and using data is crucial in making everyday decisions. In the US, transportation accounts for 28% of emissions — about 60% of that is private cars. That means the greatest emissions-reduction choice individuals have control over is driving less. You don’t have to be perfect to make a difference — driving a smaller car, driving less miles, driving less often, not idling the engine while you’re looking at your phone — all helps.
Electricity emits 27% — and that is both personal and social, since the decision to burn gas to make electricity vs. use a windmill is beyond individual control, but the decision to leave lights on, run a clothes drier vs. use a clothes line, and waste power is individual. Pressuring the 100 highest emitting companies to switch to zero emissions technology is necessary, but those companies are often filling consumer demands for emissions dependent stuff, so we have to change our behavior, too.
Reducing emissions is like wearing a mask — you do it for other people, not just yourself. Maybe even mostly for others. It doesn’t work unless everyone does it, but it cannot work unless you do it.
The buck-shifting debate between personal behavior and corporate / political action is just an excuse to avoid any change at all. Individuals don’t like change because it is uncomfortable, and systems don’t like change because it’s expensive and more complex than continuing what has worked. But with the climate, burning fossil fuels is suicide. Change is inevitable one way or another. We can make change now, or nature will make the changes for us by wiping us out.
Ignoring science won’t work
Pretending a natural / physical / chemical / biological crisis isn’t real won’t make it go away — and will almost certainly make it worse. The US’s magical thinking about the pandemic has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, whereas other countries that paid attention to science have had much lower death rates. If the US had treated Covid-19 seriously in March, we wouldn’t still all be on lockdown. We could be like the rest of the world — our kids in school, living with some safety measures, and able to be with others in public.
Even from a mainstream, money-focused perspective, the economic cost of ignoring science is higher — for both pandemics and climate change. Idiots argued it was more profitable to open businesses back up quickly, but it is now obvious that the longer-term costs have been far worse.
With climate change, those who want to pretend it isn’t real or is “too expensive” to address now are making the same mistake, except with much higher stakes and more tragic consequences. Human-caused climate change is real and every day we wait to address it now will cost lives later.
So what now?
We must not let the dramatic disruptions of the pandemic go to waste. The pandemic has been stressful because all our routines are disrupted, we’re facing danger, and none of us know what will happen next. But with the pandemic, it will eventually subside. With climate change, once the climate is too broken to grow enough food, there will be no light at the end of the tunnel and no going back to normal. So the pandemic is an emotional and social preview of what life looks like when everything goes to pieces. It’s a red alert warning that there’s not much more time before it is too late.
Immediately stopping emissions now gives us a tiny change of averting greater chaos and destruction, but the window may have already closed, and if not, it is rapidly closing.
A fundamental problem is psychology. Climate change is much less immediate and in your face than the pandemic. Regarding the US’s failure to handle the pandemic compared to other countries, it has been scary how many people take pride in not wearing masks and how many subscribe to conspiracy theories or baseless miracle cures. This will all be a factor addressing climate — there will be plenty of people clinging to gas guzzlers and claiming windmills cause cancer — but we need to try anyway.
The pandemic started as a health crisis, but triggered an economic depression that is on the verge of unleashing mass evictions. Given all the disruption, there is a desperate need for progressive collective action with a positive, hopeful, inclusive and compassionate vision to heal not only bodies, but the economic and social landscape. Rather than bailing out polluting greedy businesses, now is the time to shut them down, retrain their workers and re-purpose their machines and buildings towards supplying the things people need without burning fossil fuels.
The idea of a Green New Deal is not just building windmills, solar panels, and new green infrastructure — its about employing people who have lost their jobs and re-directing work away from unjust, unsustainable industry and towards a future worth living in.
We don’t want to get back to normal.
The GDP has fallen dramatically during the pandemic and we don’t want it back. Rather, let’s all have more leisure time and redistribute the work that has to get done. We could all be working 20 hours a week if we got rid of bullshit jobs and stopped consuming stuff we don’t need. The 40 hour week was won during the Great Depression 90 years ago — its been obsolete for years. At least during the initial phase of lockdown, you could hear the birds and take a moment to reflect. That seems like a vague memory now, but it’s worth remembering that life doesn’t have to be this hectic all the time.
I don’t know how it is all going to work, and maybe it won’t. But even if we are not successful, fighting for a world worth living in feels like the best way I can think to spend the time we may have left. Now is the time to do something, or better yet, stop doing something that is emitting CO2. We cannot keep living the way we are living.
Sidebar on cutting emissions
Everyone can take an inventory of emissions — personal and social — and figure out what to reduce first.
The EPA’s Annual Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions breaks sources down like this:
Electricity 27 %
Commercial and residential 12%
So the highest priorities are transport (60% are private cars) and electricity. Electricity generation is beyond individual control, but economically and technologically it is already possible to cut emissions to zero by generating power with wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and wave energy, and existing carbon free sources like hydro-power and nuclear. All these sources have environmental problems on their own — there’s no free lunch. But many are less harmful or easier to manage than emitting CO2. For instance wind power kills some birds, but engineers were just able to reduce bird deaths by 70% by painting one of the blades black. Many more innovations like this are possible. With fossil fuels, their harms feel invisible because they are familiar, but the harms are always higher than alternatives.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that households accounted for 21.8% of total energy consumption in the US in 2014. In 2019 electricity accounted for 41% of household end-use energy consumption while natural gas accounted for 44%. While electricity can become carbon free, natural gas combustion will always emit CO2 as well as a lot of methane when it is fracked, drilled and transported. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
So on an individual level, a high priority project is to get rid of all household appliances that burn gas, and replace them with electric. Electricity is already getting less carbon intensive every year almost everywhere as wind and solar comes on line. In the San Francisco Bay Area, 86% of electricity is already generated from carbon free sources.
The EIA breaks down US energy use like this:
19% water heating
8% air conditioning
3% all other
For many houses, the two biggest uses are fueled by gas and can be converted to electricity very easily right now. In the case of water heating, its relatively cheap and easy to switch to solar. I installed solar water heating over 10 years ago and the system has already paid for itself with energy savings.