In response to Monday’s release of the IPCC report on the climate crisis – which warned that “unprecedented” changes were needed if global warming increases 1.5C beyond the pre-industrial period – a standup comic I know posted this plaintive request on her Facebook: “Damn this latest report about climate change is just terrifying. People that know a lot about this stuff, is there anything to be potentially optimistic about? I think this week I feel even worse than Nov 2016 and I’m really trying to find some hope here.”
A bunch of her friends posted variations on “we’re doomed” and “it’s hopeless,” which perhaps made them feel that they were in charge of one thing in this overwhelming situation, the facts. They weren’t, of course. They were letting understandable grief at the news morph into an assumption that they know just how the future is going to turn out. They don’t.
The future hasn’t already been decided. That is, climate change is an inescapable present and future reality, but the point of the IPCC report is that there is still a chance to seize the best-case scenario rather than surrender to the worst. Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a gulag for his work with Soviet dissident Andrei Sarkovsky, recalls his mentor saying, “They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.” Right now living as decent people means every one of us with resources taking serious climate action, or stepping up what we’re already doing.
Climate action is human rights, because climate change affects the most vulnerable first and hardest – it already has, with droughts, fires, floods, crop failures. It affects the myriad species and habitats that make this earth such an intricately beautiful place, from the coral reefs to the caribou herds. What we’re deciding now is what life will be like for the kids born this year who will be 82 in 2100, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. They will curse the era that devastated the planet, and perhaps they’ll bless the memory of those who tried to limit this destruction. The report says we need to drop fossil fuel consumption by 45% by 2030, when these kids will be 12. That’s a difficult but not impossible proposition.
Taking action is the best way to live in conditions of crisis and violation, for your spirit and your conscience as well as for society. It’s entirely compatible with grief and horror; you can work to elect climate heroes while being sad. There are no guarantees – but just as Sakharov and Sharansky probably didn’t imagine that the Soviet Union would dissolve itself in the early 1990s, so we can anticipate that we don’t exactly know what will happen and how our actions will help shape the future.
The histories of change that have made me hopeful are often about small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition. Whether they were taking on slavery in antebellum USA or human rights in the Soviet bloc, these movements grew exponentially and changed consciousness and then toppled institutions or regimes. We also don’t know what technological breakthroughs, large-scale social changes, or catastrophic ecological feedback loops will shape the next 20 years. Knowing that we don’t know isn’t grounds for confidence, but it is fuel against despair, which is a form of certainty. This future is as uncertain as it’s ever been.
There have been countless encouraging developments in the global climate movement. The movement was small, fragmented, mild a dozen years ago, and the climate recommendations then were mostly polite, with too much change-your-lightbulbs focus on personal virtue. But personal virtue only matters if it scales up (and even individual acts depend on collective decisions – I have, for example, 100% renewable electricity at home because other citizens pushed our amoral power company to evolve, and it’s more feasible for me to ride a bike because there are now bike lanes all over my city).
The other thing I find most encouraging and even a little awe-inspiring is how profoundly the global energy landscape has already changed in this century. At the beginning of the 21st century, renewables were expensive, inefficient, infant technologies incapable of meeting our energy needs. In a revolution at least as profound as the industrial revolution, wind and solar engineering and manufacturing have changed everything; we now have the technological capacity to largely leave fossil fuel behind. It was not possible then; it is now. That is stunning. And encouraging.
Astoundingly, 98% of the energy Costa Rica generates is from non-fossil fuel sources. Scotland closed its last coal-fired power plant two years ago and overall emissions there are half what they were in 1990. Texas is getting more of its energy from wind than from coal – about a quarter on good days and half on a great day recently. Iowa already gets more than a third of its energy from wind because wind is already more cost-effective than fossil fuel, and more turbines are being set up. Cities and states in the USA and elsewhere are setting ambitious goals to reduce fossil fuel consumption or go entirely renewable. Last month California committed to make its electricity 100% carbon-free by 2045. There are stories like this from all over the world that tell us a transition is already under way. They need to scale up and speed up, but we are not starting from scratch today.
The IPCC report recommends urgent work on many fronts – from how we produce food and to what use we put land (more forests) to how we generate and use energy (and the unsexy business of energy efficiency also matters). It describes four paths forward, three of which depend on carbon-capturing technologies not yet realized, the fourth includes the most radical reductions in fossil-fuel use and planting a lot of trees.
The major obstacles to this withdrawal are political, the fossil fuel and energy corporations and the governments obscenely intertwined with them. I called up Steve Kretzmann, the longtime director of the climate policy-and-action group Oil Change International (on whose board I sit), and he reflected on the two approaches to climate action – changing consumption and changing production.
Going after production often gets neglected, and places like Alberta, Canada, like to boast about their virtuous energy consumption projects while their energy production – in Alberta’s case, the tar sands – threatens the future of the planet. Addressing production means going after some of the most powerful and ruthless corporations on earth and the regimes that protect them and are rewarded by them – or, as with Russia and Saudi Arabia and to some extent the US are indistinguishable from them.
Five countries – Belize, Ireland, New Zealand, France and Costa Rica – are already working on bans on new exploration and extractionSteve told me, “We have to be real about this: this is the oil industry and wars are fought over it. There’s a lot of political power here and there’s a lot of people defending that power.” But he also noted, “The moment it’s clear it’s inexorably on the wane, it will pop.” You can hasten the popping by cutting the enormous subsidies, and by divesting from fossil fuel corporations – to date the once-mocked divestment movement has gotten $6tn withdrawn. As Damien Carrington reported for the Guardian last month, “Major oil companies such as Shell have this year cited divestment as a material risk to its business.”
We also need to shut down production directly, with a just transition for workers in those sectors. Five countries – Belize, Ireland, New Zealand, France and Costa Rica – are already working on bans on new exploration and extraction, and the World Bank sent shockwaves around the world last December when it announced that after 2019 it would no longer finance oil and gas extraction.
Given that the clean energy comes with lots of jobs – and jobs that don’t give people black lung and don’t poison surrounding communities – there’s a lot of ancillary benefit. Fossil fuel is, even aside from the carbon it pumps into the atmosphere, literally poison, from the mercury that contaminates the air when coal is burned and the mountains of coal ash residue to the toxic emissions and water contamination of fracking and the sinister chemicals emitted by refineries to the smog from cars. “Giving up” is often how fossil fuel is talked about, as though it’s pure loss, but renouncing poison doesn’t have to be framed as sacrifice.
Part of the work we need to do is to imagine not only the devastation of climate change, and the immense difference between 2 or 3 degrees of warming and 1.5 degrees, but the benefits of making a transition from fossil fuel. The fading away of the malevolent power of the oil companies would be a profound transformation, politically as well as ecologically.
I don’t know exactly if or how we’ll get to where we need to go, but I know that we must set out better options with all the passion, power and intelligence we have. A revolution is what we need, and we can begin by imagining and demanding it and doing what we can to try to realize it. Rather than waiting to see what happens, we can be what happens. And by the way, the comedian I mentioned: she’s already organizing fundraisers for climate groups.