Originally appeared in Razorcake 115, April/May 2020
Here is a printable PDF and full text of the article.
Illustrations by Shane Milner
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One Punk’s Guide to Climate Change By Kevin Dunn
We’re so fucked. I don’t say that lightly. I’m definitely not a doom-and-gloom hysteric shouting about the end of the world.
I’m an academic and I’ve become increasingly concerned about the ways environmental problems have been impacting the world, especially in Africa, where I do much of my research. A few years ago, I began telling friends I was reading all the literature on global climate change so they wouldn’t have to. While I haven’t read everything, I’ve read a great deal of it, including scientific studies, UN reports, academic articles, and best-selling books. And I’ve come to the same conclusion pretty much everyone else who has studied this has.
We’re so fucked.
In this One Punk’s Guide, I’m going to share some of the most important information I’ve learned over several years of research. But if you want to skip straight to conclusion, here’s the simple takeaway. For the last two centuries, humans have been burning a shit-ton of fossil fuels, which released greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Those gases trapped excessive heat, which has begun to warm the planet’s atmosphere. This whole time, we’ve had a pretty good idea about the impact this was having on the earth. But instead of doing anything substantial to stop or reverse course, we’ve been increasing our carbon emissions.
The issue isn’t whether or not climate change is real. Only idiots and liars dispute that fact. But neither is it about stopping climate change. It’s way too late for that. What we need to be doing now is working to slow down the warming, prepare for the catastrophes that will only be getting worse, and hope some version of civilization survives. Think I’m being overly pessimistic? Read on.
The basic science behind climate change
You’re probably familiar with the fact that greenhouse gases are the primary contributing factor in climate change. The basic science is that certain gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping. Under normal conditions, these gases capture enough of the sun’s heat so that our planet exists in that sweet spot in the solar system where the surface of the planet is just warm enough to foster life forms like ours, while excess heat escapes back into space. These greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. All are naturally occurring and, when combined with the sun’s radiation, help shape the way our planet’s climate functions.
Across the history of the planet, there have been two major natural forces affecting the climate: volcanic activity and the sun’s energy output. The sun’s energy output is not constant, but ebbs and flows. Volcano eruptions release gases and dust particles that have the effect of shading parts of the globe from incoming solar radiation, thus leading to a cooling in the affected areas. Volcanoes, for example, combined with a decrease in solar activity led to the so-called Little Ice Age between 1650 and 1850. But because the volcanic activity was mostly in the northern hemisphere, only Europe was impacted. Since 1750, the average amount of energy coming from the sun has either remained constant or increased slightly. Natural forces haven’t caused the rising temperatures we’ve experienced since then. We’ve done that by increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is naturally produced from respiration, land use changes, and the burning of fossil fuels. With the advent of the industrial revolution, humans have dramatically increased their burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil. We’ve raised the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last 150 years from 280 parts per million to over 400 parts per million. We’ve also increased the level of methane in the atmosphere, through our cultivation of livestock and agriculture. The levels are relatively low compared to the other gases, but methane is significant because it captures far more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are also significant, but are not naturally occurring. These are synthetic compounds that have now been greatly curbed by international regulations because of their destructive impact on the ozone layer. In fact, the international agreement restricting the use of CFCs (1987’s Montreal Protocol) is evidence international cooperation on environmental concerns is possible if the political will is there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is there are natural forces which impact the planet’s climate and ensure it can sustain life. When that climate changes, the planet’s ecosystems are altered and, in some cases, destroyed. In fact, the earth has experienced five mass extinctions. All but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gases. The Permian Extinction was the worst, occurring 250 million years ago when roughly 96 percent of the world’s species were wiped out when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius. But in the past, those changes were caused by external forces, not by human activity. Currently, we’re adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere ten times faster than occurred with the advent of the Permian Extinction. And remember, that catastrophe almost ended all life on the planet.
But it’s not like we didn’t know all of this.
The bastards always knew
As far back as 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius argued the burning of fossil fuels could change the climate, drawing a correct correlation between the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and global temperature. In the 1950s, American scientist Charles Keeling’s work on CO2 concentrations in Antarctica ice cores confirmed the greenhouse effect. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when the U.S. Senate began holding public hearings on climate change, the general population really became aware of the impact human activity was having on the planet’s climate. The United Nations in response created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists and experts dedicated to providing the world with objective, scientifically-validated information about climate change. I’ll talk more about them later, but at this point you should know that the IPCC is the internationally accepted authority on climate change. They don’t conduct original research, but merely report on what’s generally accepted by the larger scientific community, and their reports are the result of compromises between hundreds of climate scientists and government officials, which makes them very conservative and cautious in their claims.
The other thing you should know is that fossil fuel companies had been well aware of climate change for some time. As early as 1959, the American Petroleum Institute was paying attention to carbon dioxide emissions and taking their consequences seriously. By the late 1970s, Exxon was spending millions of dollars on research, concluding by 1982 that their own dire estimates had been too low. Other fossil fuel giants, like Shell, had also been doing the research and knew what was going on. When NASA scientist James Hansen made global warming a public issue in 1988, oil companies had already started building their ocean platforms higher to deal with the rising sea levels they knew were coming and that they were causing. They also began buying exploration rights in frozen and inaccessible areas in anticipation of global warming, making these regions accessible in the future.
Nathaniel Rich lays all of this out in his book Losing Earth, based on research in the archives of fossil fuel companies. Rich points out that, “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. It was, if anything, better understood… [B]y 1979 the main points were already settled beyond debate, and attention turned from basic principles to a refinement of the predicted consequences” (Rich 2019, 3). And during the late 1980s, there was an opportunity to do something about it. The world ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to regulate the use of CFCs (and because they did so, the hole in the ozone layer has almost entirely disappeared). If the U.S. government had endorsed the proposal that had broad bipartisan support at the end of the 1980s—freezing of carbon emissions with the goal of reducing them by 20 percent by 2005—global warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees and you wouldn’t be reading zines like this one now.
But that’s not how shit went down, and for that you can thank the fossil fuel industry and a handful of Republican politicians. Instead of honestly addressing the issue they knew they were complicit in creating, the fossil fuel industry embarked on a massive misinformation campaign. According to a 1988 Exxon internal memo, the strategy was to “emphasize the uncertainty” in the scientific data. The fossil fuel industry created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to launch disinformation campaigns and undermine the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first attempt to address the problem of climate change. They knew the science was totally correct, but they launched a strategy of what environmental writer Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay”—blocking or slowing needed change in order to continue reaping massive profits. And those profits helped fund a disinformation campaign via the GCC they knew was based on lies.
Eventually the public pressure (especially in Europe) forced the GCC to disband, but they had already succeeded in their goal. The damage was done. As late as 2017, almost 90 percent of Americans didn’t know there was scientific consensus on global warming. By then the Republican Party had become defined by its stubborn commitment to climate change denialism and its tight embrace of the fossil fuel industry (Do I need to list all the GOP politicians who have direct ties to the oil industry, from Dick Cheney to Rick Perry?). Even though the GCC closed up, the fossil fuel giants have continued to fund climate change deniers. Exxon helped found and fund groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute, which puts up billboards comparing climate scientists to serial killers. Between 2000 and 2016, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $2 billion, more than ten times as much as was spent by environmental groups, to defeat climate change legislation.
Every time I see an ad by BP or ExxonMobil championing their green energy policies, I can barely contain my anger. Because this deserves to be stressed: when global climate change became a public issue in the 1980s, we could have made massive progress on solving it. Instead, the fossil fuel giants and their political lackeys created a massive lie to thwart finding any solution. Since then, our carbon emissions have skyrocketed, turning a serious problem into something that now puts the entire global ecosystem and the future of its species at risk. For the past thirty years, instead of reducing our emissions and finding solutions, we have been producing carbon dioxide at mind-numbing levels and have wasted our time and energy in a debate about whether or not global warming is a hoax—and, as climatologist Bill McKibben effectively screams in his writing, it was “a debate in which both sides knew the answer from the beginning.”
I have a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1989 in which Calvin is freaking out to his mom when he hears about the greenhouse effect for the first time. He shouts, “Sure, you’ll be gone when it happens, but I won’t! Nice planet you’re leaving me!” The mom responds, “This from the kid who wants to be chauffeured any place more than a block away.” If we’d addressed the issue when that comic strip came out, we would’ve avoided global warming. Sure, we can blame the fossil fuel bastards for their criminally deceitful denial campaign, but I read that comic strip and I was pretty sure the greenhouse effect was real. But like Calvin, I didn’t really change how I lived my life. And with that, I became part of the problem.
In fact, more than half of humanity’s carbon emissions have been produced since the publication of that comic strip. Let this fact sit with you for a second: since we all realized our carbon emissions were causing catastrophic climate change, we’ve actually produced more emissions than in the entire history of humankind before then. More than half of all the greenhouse gases emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution have been generated by our burning of fossil fuels since the release of Bad Religion’s Suffer and Naked Raygun’s Jettison.
So, if you’re looking for another reason to hate your parents, global climate change is pretty much the creation of a single generation. If your parents had been able to keep their emissions at the level they were when they were born, we wouldn’t have the terrifying future that we do. But aim some of that hatred at yourself, too, because you’ve undoubtedly contributed to this situation. Global climate change is our creation. And we’re still creating it. We’ve raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to over 400 parts per million over the past two hundred years. But if we maintain our present trajectory, we’re well on our way to 700 parts per million or more.
Two degrees of warming? Fuck that lie.
When world leaders came together to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the hope was to avoid a two-degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warming by voluntarily curbing carbon emissions. But the agreement had no teeth and accomplished nothing. Two decades after Kyoto, we produced more emissions than in the two decades beforehand. When world leaders met to negotiate the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, two degrees of warming had become the best-case scenario. Why are we talking about two degrees? Because that’s generally considered a tipping point for climate change, virtually guaranteeing the collapse of the planet’s ice sheets and flooding on a massive scale.
But there’s almost no chance in hell that we’ll get only two degrees of warming. The UN’s IPCC most recent report (and remember, they’re a cautious, conservative group) predicts that we’re likely to get about 3.2 degrees of warming, but only if we’re able to take action soon. Let me stress this: If we are able to follow all of the commitments made in the Paris Accord, the best-case scenario is a warming of 3.2 degrees by the end of the century, which is well above what scientists predict will cause catastrophic impacts on the climate and society.
So, the good news is that we’re currently looking at a three-to-four degree warming with catastrophic consequences, if we’re able to slash our emissions. Let’s set aside the fact that it’s now clear that past predictions were overly cautious and the shit is hitting the fans a lot faster than predicted. The real problem is that these best-case predictions rest on the assumption that we’ll slash our emissions. But we’re not. We’re increasing our emissions at a stunning rate. We’re gonna blow past that two-degree threshold and are heading towards a four-degree warming, with no apparent plan at stopping there.
Who the fuck cares about a few degrees?
What’s the big deal between a degree or two? Scientists agree just one degree Celsius of warming will produce a 25-30 percent increase in Category four and five hurricanes. According to the rather conservative IPCC, the difference between 1.5-degree warming and two-degree warming is the likely death of hundreds of millions of people, 150 million killed from air pollution alone. You may well be one of them.
But let’s draw out some scenarios about what’s at stake. A two-degree warming will cause the ice sheets to collapse, the sea levels to rise, 400 million more people will suffer water scarcity, equatorial cities will become unlivable while heat waves in the northern hemisphere will kill thousands every summer. Remember, this was our best-case scenario that’s now out of reach.
At three degrees, we’re talking about constant droughts across much of the currently inhabitable earth, with widespread wildfires. As humanity, we would experience suffering beyond anything we’ve witnessed before. And that’s what we were looking at a few years ago, if we had been able to act decisively.
At four degrees, we can expect global crop failures and permanent food crises, coupled with widespread diseases, and further increases in flooding and droughts. A normal summer in North America will be similar to the 2003 heat wave that killed 2,000 Europeans a day.
At five and six degrees, whole parts of the globe become uninhabitable for humans and we’re having honest conversations about the extinction of the human species. At seven degrees, in much of the world the human body would literally be cooked to death from both inside and out within a few hours.
I’m not trying to scare you with the worst-case scenario. Eight degrees is a serious possibility. But the conservative IPCC currently offers a median prediction of over four degrees, if we continue along our current path. Some models suggest a one-in-three chance that we’ll experience a rise of five degrees or more. Whatever number we hit depends upon what we, as humanity, decide to do right now. There’s no more kicking the can down the road. What we decide in the next decade or two literally determines the fate of the world. As David Wallace-Wells observes in his excellent book The Uninhabitable Earth, “If we do nothing about carbon emissions, if the next thirty years of industrial activity trace the same arc upward as the last thirty years have, whole regions will become unlivable by any standard we have today as soon as the end of this century” (Wallace-Wells 2019, 15).
It’s fucking here already
Global climate change isn’t waiting for us around the corner. It’s here already. The evidence is right in front of our eyes. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heat waves. Today, pollution kills nine million people a year, far more than AIDS, malaria, TB, and warfare combined.Rates of flooding have quadrupled since 1980 and doubled since just 2004. Crop yields are already stagnating globally, but as temperatures continue to rise, crop yields for corn and wheat are going to start dropping dramatically.
We’re already damaging our oceans with overfishing (since 1950, we’ve wiped out perhaps 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean) and poisons (from plastics to fertilizers), but our carbon emissions are making things far worse. Consider this: as our earth heats up, about 93 percent of the extra heat goes into the seas. The deep seas are currently warming about nine times faster than they did in previous decades. The Great Barrier Reef is rapidly being killed off. It’ll all be gone in your lifetime. For real. All of the world’s coral reefs are predicted to be gone by 2050.
The world is already dealing with millions of climate refugees. Twenty-two million since 2008, though it’s hard to get accurate numbers. Sometimes the climate is the clear cause (like refugees fleeing the destruction of a hurricane), but often it’s just one of many contributing factors. It’s likely that we’ll see at least 200 million climate refugees by 2050 (though some experts put the estimate closer to a billion). Building fences and walls won’t stop the flow of climate refugees and it certainly won’t address the cause of the problem.
Already, climate change is costing the U.S. economy about $240 billion/year and the world $1.2 trillion/year. That’s nothing compared to what it’s going to be very, very soon. This morning I read how Key West must raise their roads to compensate for the rising oceans, but they simply can’t afford to raise them all, so vast sections of the islands and their developments will have to be sacrificed.
We now are living in the “Anthropocene” era, the term people have come up with to reflect the unprecedented change in the continued livability of planet earth caused by humans. This is the first time in geological history that a species has irrevocably altered the planet. We are a destructive geologic force just by the way we go about our daily lives.
Make no mistake; we are currently witnessing a global mass extinction of our own making. As I said, there have been five mass extinctions on the planet so far in geological history. You are now living in, and causing, the sixth. Under normal conditions, experts expect a certain amount of species die-off, what they call the “background extinction rate,” where one species disappears every seven hundred years and one amphibian species every thousand years or so. Currently, amphibians are going extinct at a rate of as much as 45,000 times higher than at the background rate. Fifty-two percent of the planet’s species went extinct between 1970 and 2010. Did you just shudder? If not, go back and read that sentence again.
We can longer meaningfully use the phrase “based on past history,” because the planet we have now is essentially a different planet than it was before, or will be in the very near future. There’s no longer a static baseline upon which to base our predictions.
What you can fucking expect in the near future
Most of the scientific debate isn’t about what is going to happen, but rather about when and how. Predictions are difficult because it’s hard to calculate cascading effects and feedback loops. Cascading effects are when one thing triggers or speeds up the process of other effects, like rising oceans increasing the weight on the earth’s crust, which causes an increase in volcanoes and earthquakes, which trigger other crises, and so on. Feedback loops are when our responses to a problem exacerbate that problem, which leads to an increase in the response, causing things to spiral. For example, rising temperatures will undoubtedly lead to the running of more air conditioners, which puts more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which will make things hotter, which leads to more ACs and more emissions, and on and on.
But even though they debate the when and how, climate scientists are pretty sure of what we can expect as the world warms. Here are a few of the things that keep me up at night.
Ice reflects the sun’s rays back out to space. Seawater absorbs the sun’s heat. So when the Arctic ice melts, not only does the sea level rise, but what once reflected now absorbs, making things progressively warmer. That’s a fucking doozy of a feedback loop.
As the permafrost melts, it’ll release untold amounts of trapped methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing even more warming. We don’t know how much is trapped in the permafrost, but we know it’s pretty significant. You know what else is trapped in the permafrost? Bacteria and viruses. In 2016, as the Siberian permafrost melted, an anthrax-infested reindeer carcass thawed and infected 2,000 reindeer as well as local humans, including a twelve-year-old boy who died. Get used to stories like that. There are vast amounts of microbes and viruses trapped in the permafrost, including the plague and ones humans probably haven’t encountered in millennia, and they’re going to be released as the ice melts.
The tropical regions of the planet will get ridiculously hotter. Areas that currently have one day of truly oppressive heat a year can expect 100 to 250 such days annually by 2070. It will get increasingly worse. By the end of the century, the World Bank estimates the coolest months in tropical regions will be hotter than our current warmest months. Remember that our response will probably be to run our ACs more, which already account for ten percent of the global electricity consumption, creating a diabolical feedback loop.
Arid areas of the planet are going to get more dry and droughty. Even if we manage to peak at 2 degrees of warming, a quarter of the earth can expect serious drought and desertification. The basic rule of thumb for cereal crops is that with every degree of warming, yields decrease by ten percent. So, if estimates about century’s end are correct, we’ll have as many as fifty percent more people to feed with fifty percent less grain. At a 2.5-degree warming, droughts and heat will result in a global food deficit where humanity needs more calories than we can actually produce.
As some of you readers well know, droughts and water crises are already regular occurrences. In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa came ridiculously close to running out of water as a drought dried up its water reserves. It’ll happen again and they probably won’t be so lucky next time. Across the globe, lakes are drying up. The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes, has lost over ninety percent of its volume in recent decades. Go find Lake Chad on a map of Africa. That map fucking lies. It pretty much isn’t there anymore and I’ve fucking watched it disappear in my lifetime. Shit, go drive out to Lake Mead in Nevada and see how things are faring there.
Speaking of water, let me just point out that because oceans make up seventy percent of the earth’s surface, they’re doing some heavy lifting in dealing with our carbon emissions. About a quarter of greenhouse gases are sucked up by the oceans and, for the past several decades, they’ve absorbed about ninety percent of the excess heat caused by global warming. As our emissions have skyrocketed in recent years, so have these figures. Today’s oceans are carrying at least fifteen percent more heat than they did in 2000. We understand so little about oceanic life, so scientists don’t have a detailed picture of what is happening. But what we do know freaks me the fuck out. We’re causing mass extinction of aquatic life. I’ll be honest, I actively avoid reading about what’s happening to our oceans because it’s too depressing, even for me.
One of the ironies of climate change is that, as the dry areas of the planet get drier, the wet areas are going to get a lot wetter with rain deluges and regular massive floods. According to projections, we should expect to lose at least two percent of the planet’s land area to rising sea levels caused by melting ice. That might not sound like much, but that two percent is home to over ten percent of the world’s population and generates ten percent of the gross world product. Well, that was the assumption anyway. Turns out shit is gonna be way worse. According to a recent (Oct. 2019) report by the science organization Climate Central, the loss of land will likely be about three times worse, with rising seas erasing many of the world’s great coastal cities by 2050, putting hundreds of millions of people below the high-tide line. Unless substantial seawalls are erected, Southern Vietnam is likely to disappear, as will Alexandria, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Miami.
Barring a sudden global reduction of emissions, sea levels will likely rise somewhere between four and eight feet by 2100. Catastrophic flooding will be the new norm for a significant portion of the world’s population. The New York Academy of Sciences estimates that Los Angeles will need to spend as much as $6.4 billion to fortify itself against impending coastal flooding. I keep talking about the end of the century as a benchmark, but please realize things aren’t going to suddenly stop then. Sea levels will continue to rise. If we’re truly heading to a four-degree warming, it’s worth remembering the last time the earth was that warm, there was no ice on either pole and the oceans were 260 feet higher than they are now. That may seem like an absurdly unlikely scenario, but greenhouse gases work on an incredibly long timescale. We’re at the beginning of a long process of a changing climate and a changing earth. As David Wallace-Wells observes, “The 260-foot rise is, ultimately, the ceiling—but it’s a pretty good bet that we will get there eventually.”
I know many Razorcake readers live in and around L.A., so rising sea levels might not seem as urgent as wildfires. Each year, we’re breaking records for the number, size, and destructive intensity of wildfires in the U.S., as well as in other parts of the world. Yes, the current fires in the Amazon rainforest are likely caused by developers taking advantage of the neofascist government now in power in Brazil, but climate change is a contributing force for most of the fires breaking out across the globe.
Every year brings levels of wildfires that we once thought were unimaginable, but in a decade, we’ll be fondly remembering the fires of today as the “good old days,” because shit is about to get a lot worse. Wildfires in the U.S. alone burn twice more land today than they did in 1970 and those levels will likely double again by 2050. We’re experiencing astonishingly high levels of regular and destructive forest fires across the globe, across the increasingly hot equator, but also throughout the Arctic Circle, from Sweden to Siberia. As I write this, there’s a massive wildfire thirty-seven miles wide just outside of Sydney, Australia. And their annual bushfire season hasn’t even begun yet.
Yes, forest fires are horrible in and of themselves. But let me remind you that forests are one of the most important natural tools we have for combating climate change. We refer to them as “carbon sinks” because they draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But when the forests burn, they unleash all of that stored gas back into the atmosphere. Not only are we losing our carbon sinks, we’re turning them into carbon sources. That creates a feedback loop that speeds up climate change and makes it harder to combat. The cascading chaos that wildfires unleash causes me ulcers.
The good news
Sorry, but there isn’t any good news. Except that, in the long haul, the earth will be fine. We live on an incredibly resilient planet. The problem is, the current inhabitants of that planet, including us, aren’t as resilient. As we’re discovering, the planet’s flora and fauna can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with the speed with which we’re altering the climate. As the Sixth Great Mass Extinction unfolds around us, we can only hope that we’re not one of the species our own actions have doomed to the dustbin of history.
That raises the issue of adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation refers to the actions needed to reduce or eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions causing global climate change. Adaptation refers to the actions we need to take to survive the changes taking place. Or, to think about it another way, mitigation deals with the causes of climate change while adaptation deals with its impacts. We’re past the point of debating whether climate change is real or not, or even if we can avoid it. We’re now in the realm of mitigation and adaptation, and we need to do both. Immediately.
But yet another of the painful ironies of climate change is that the most horrific effects will hit those least able to respond, and are the least responsible for the problem in the first place. The wealthy countries of Europe and North America have generated most of the carbon emissions so far (though China and India are playing their part now as well). Yet it will be the world’s poorest countries (along with Australia) that will warm the most. And at the individual level, the wealthiest among us will have the resources and opportunities to better adapt to climate change—up to a point. They might be able to buy bigger air conditioners, flood-plain insurance, and beach houses on stilts. But they will still suffer droughts, flooding, wildfires, pollution, and disease.
One of the ways to mitigate climate change is to switch to green, renewable energy. In fact, we’ve made enormous strides in green energy. Over the last 25 years, the cost per unit of renewable energy has fallen dramatically. For example, solar energy costs have fallen more than 80 percent in just the last decade. But during those last 25 years, the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not budged. That’s because we’re using more of all types of energy. We haven’t retired dirty energy sources, like coal-fired plants, and replaced them with clean ones. We’ve merely added the new, greener energy sources alongside the old ones. We’re now burning 80 percent more coal than we were in 2000. That’s fucking suicide.
And part of the reason is political. In the U.S., traditional utility companies and Republican politicians have been actively thwarting the move to renewables. For example, the Arizona utilities started charging customers who used solar panels ridiculously high fees in a transparent attempt to undermine the development of the solar power industry (in sunny Arizona, for fuck’s sake), and they succeeded. I could rattle off numerous examples of the ways politicians have been roadblocks to mitigation and adaptation. Democrats are definitely complicit, but Republicans are the only major political party in the world that denies human-made climate change. But know that things under Trump got so much worse, with rollbacks of regulations left and right. If you were trying to speed up climate change, you’d have a hard time dreaming up anything more effective than the Trump Administration.
So what the fuck can I do?
We can’t avoid a two-degree warming at this point. But we can stop our emissions right now. We were poised to politically address that goal in the 1980s but failed. We’re not waiting around for some miracle technology to save us. As David Wallace-Wells writes in the Uninhabitable Planet, “We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture” (2019: 226-7). What we’re lacking is the political will to do anything.
There are a lot of things you and I can do. Stop relying on destructive fossil-fuel forms of transportation. Cars and trucks produce roughly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases. If you have to drive a car, switch to a hybrid or, even better, an electric vehicle (I’ve got one; they’re dope as hell). Do a better job making sure you’re not wasting heat in your home. Seventy percent of the energy produced globally is lost as waste heat. We can fix that. Start eating a more vegan or vegetarian diet. If not at every meal, how about a few times a week? At the very least, don’t be so wasteful with your food. Americans reportedly waste a quarter of their food, which means the carbon footprint for the average meal is a third larger than it need be. We can do better. In fact, if the average American just adopted a lifestyle equivalent to the average European lifestyle, this country’s carbon emissions would fall by more than half. We don’t have to turn our back on our modern lifestyles, we just have to do better about the choices we are making. These are things we can do, and we should be doing.
But it won’t make much difference.
Yes, we need to be more responsible about our actions, but you and I aren’t the major problem. Nothing will change if everyone who reads this article suddenly goes carbon neutral. Campaigns telling you and me to “go green” deflect attention from where the problem really resides: on the world’s big corporations wreaking havoc on our environment and world leaders utterly failing to do anything meaningful. We should be holding the big corporations in the fossil fuel, fashion, automobile, and technology industries, just to name a few, responsible for their massive carbon emissions. Dude, currency mining such as Bitcoin consumes more electricity than the entire country of the Netherlands. Not only is that deeply fucked up, but so is the fact that it wouldn’t take much to eliminate the Bitcoin footprint entirely.
It’s not only that our politicians refuse to hold the corporate fuckers responsible, but their policies make it worse. Want a reason to punch a wall? Globally, we subsidize the fossil fuel industry around $5 trillion every year. Just imagine if we stopped those subsidies and redirected them towards renewable energy sources. We should be demanding that.
Nothing is going to change until, at the very least, we can make utility-scale renewable energy cheaper than coal and oil (which our global energy and transportation systems rely on, respectively). We can do that by making renewables cheaper, or by making coal, natural gas, and oil more expensive, or both. Again, we have all the tools we need right now. What’s lacking is the political will to decarbonize the global economy and transform our entire global energy and transportation systems. And that’s what it’s going to take. The creation of a new economy, a new way of being.
Fuck dude, give me some hope
I’m not gonna lie, I get incapacitated by eco-grief on a regular basis. It’s well known that when I talk to my students about climate change, I get so emotional I regularly start to cry. But fuck it, tears are an honest and appropriate response to what we are facing. But what we’re experiencing right now—record-breaking floods, heat waves, forest fires, and hurricanes—is not a glimpse of our future. We’re not going to be that lucky, because it’ll never be this good again. Even if we could stop our carbon emissions right now, it’s still going to get worse.
So what gives me hope? Greta Thunberg gives me hope every fucking day. Fearless indigenous activists such as the #NoDAPL youth give me hope. The school kids who join me and my own kids at climate rallies give me hope. My conservative Republican students who get angry that their GOP leaders are so braindead about climate change give me hope. My relatives who became vegetarian and now drive a hybrid give me hope.
Yeah, individual actions are not enough, but collectively we can push the needle in the right direction and start changing cultures. Yeah, we’ve already fucked up the planet. But my friend Simon Dalby, who’s been thinking and writing about these things longer than I have, always reminds me that there’s no use wasting time and energy on what has already been lost. There’s too much to do right now. And there are positive developments occurring. A few months ago, Amazon announced it was buying 100,000 electric vehicles as part of their commitment to become carbon neutral by 2040. That’s the largest purchase of light-duty EVs ever and represents a major turning point that’ll bring costs down, improve the technology, and transform the EV market. Why did Amazon do that? Because their workers were threatening to walk off the job for the Global Climate Strike unless the company finally made some serious commitments. Yes, Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos could do a lot more. But this is a major step in the right direction, and it came about through labor pressure. Let’s celebrate our victories, however small, and strive for more.
We can do this. We have to. No, I’m fucking serious. We. Have. To.
List of recommended books:
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (2019). The best big-picture snapshot if you’re only going to read one book.
James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (2009). Hansen was the NASA scientist who pushed global climate change onto the public scene in the 1980s.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (2014). If you’re worried about the loss of biodiversity, this is a must.
Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth (2019). The story of how we lost three decades due to the greed and lies of the fossil fuel industry.
Gernot Wagner, But Will the Planet Notice? (2011). An economist explains why driving a hybrid, while important, won’t make enough of a difference. It takes all of us acting together for the planet to notice.