Over the last two years, the consequences of 150 years of fossil-fuel development have materialized with a vengeance. The U.S. has experienced the worst drought in 80 years, replete with unprecedented Western fires and fears of widespread crop failure. This on the heels of record-breaking U.S. spring temperatures, with record daily highs outpacing record daily lows at a staggering pace of 12:1 since the start of the year. This on the heels of record U.S. flooding throughout the Mississippi basin last year. These examples reflect only the U.S. experience, in a world where record-breaking extreme weather is becoming the norm.
It’s hot. It’s going to get hotter. And despite the politics of the moment, extreme weather will eventually drive a national consensus on climate action. What can each of us do to insure we get there soon, rather than too late?
There are three answers. The first is to build political power. Elect clean-energy champions at the municipal, state, and national levels who can pass policies enabling a clean-energy revolution. The second is to stop expansion of the global carbon infrastructure. This will cut pollution — some — but will also build the morally grounded movement that must ultimately drive a strong clean-energy politics. Answer three? Grow the green shoots of the emerging sustainable economy.
Job #1: Politics
Nationally, global warming is barely getting a mention in the 2012 election. There has been some sparring over “clean-energy future” versus “Solyndra waste and fraud.” Romney has tried to beat Obama with a Keystone pipeline stick. But Obama has had little incentive to campaign hard on a green economy, while Romney wants to steer clear of his flip-flopping record on climate.
That said, this election matters, and the presidency is critical. Depending on the outcome, Clean Air Act regulation of carbon pollution will either unfold in a slow and steady manner, or it will be gutted. Critical Supreme Court appointments will shape the next 20 years of judicial decisions at they relate to action on climate. Finally, it is possible that, freed from reelection constraints, Obama may develop into the kind of visionary leader who could drive legislative gains post-2014, particularly if extreme weather continues to pound the country.
Experience shows that smart policy is critical to drive rapid clean-energy investment: feed-in-tariffs in Germany; wind power subsidies in the U.S.; municipal PACE financing (until it was cut off by the lending agencies) in Berkeley, on Long Island, and in other U.S. communities. But good policy requires powerful politics, electing politicians who understand and are committed to the vision.
In the short term, the House is likely to retain a climate-hostile majority, so national climate-friendly and green legislation will be stalled for at least two more years. This reality only underscores the urgency of the political project. For the remainder of 2012, and starting again in January 2013, pushing for strong clean-energy majorities in state legislatures and Washington, D.C., must be job No. 1 for the climate movement. (To get involved, contact your state’s League of Conservation Voters.)
#2: Saying no, getting to yes
After the electoral smoke clears, no matter who is president, another side of the climate movement must swing into action: disciplined, large-scale opposition to new coal, oil, and gas development, including nonviolent direct action.
Facing slow-growing and even declining demand at home, U.S. oil and coal companies are seeking to ship North American oil and coal abroad, primarily to feed booming demand in Asia. Building ports and pipelines to export tar-sands oil and Powder River Basin coal only lines the pockets of these corporations. This infrastructure, over its lifetime, will lead to tens of billions more tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
At the same time, hydrofracking technology has created a rush toward gas production in the U.S. — often in highly populated areas. While natural gas has the potential to serve as a “bridge” fuel to renewables, recent research has highlighted dangers not only to local communities in terms of water supply and impacts on natural lands, but also to the global climate. Depending on the so-called “fugitive emissions” of natural gas from leaks, natural gas can be as bad as coal in terms of global-warming impacts.
The good news is that slowing gas development until technologies can be proven safe — and the leaks can be better understood, identified, and plugged — is a smart strategy for gas-rich regions. The gas is not going away. Communities that ban drilling until the risks can be effectively managed (if they can be) are simply storing away their natural wealth for a later date. And potentially they will earn more money in the process, when the value of the gas in the ground has risen.
The Keystone XL pipeline action in which more than 1,200 people were arrested at the White House could set the precedent for post-election climate activism, regardless of whether the president is Obama or Romney. If so, tens of thousands of students, citizens, retirees, and taxpayers will take their personal commitment to climate stabilization up several notches.
The personal experience of widespread civil disobedience is highly combustible fuel for a political movement. It inspires and equips the participants to become powerful moral ambassadors to their communities about the unacceptable future that we are locking in for our children, and for ourselves. These collective experiences, channeled into a winning, morally grounded politics championing a prosperous and just clean-energy economy, can be a recipe for real change in America. Serious policy change demands powerful politics, and strong politics only grows from the ground of deep moral commitment.
Saying no to new fossil-fuel development is part the battle of climate stabilization. The rest of the job is up to “change agents” in businesses and communities across the country. Ultimately, clean energy alternatives have to be scaled up and their costs driven down. This is the work of green business entrepreneurs, supported by smart policy.
#3: Grow green
From Cleveland to Portland, from Grand Rapids to New York, and in Sacramento, Kansas City, Baltimore, and dozens of other American cities and towns, there are game-changing, sustainable enterprises beginning to spread their wings. Within the confines of existing national policy, municipalities and states are creating space to incubate a new generation of business leaders.
One example, local to my region: In Troy, N.Y., two entrepreneurs have set out to eliminate Styrofoam from the face of the earth. Ecovative grows big blocks of what are essentially mushrooms and carves them up to make sculpted shipping sleeves, shipping peanuts, and even the equivalent of foam insulation wallboard. Instead of a petroleum-based product that requires intensive mining and processing to produce, and after disposal persists for tens of thousands of years, the company’s product grows at room temperature, and after it has served its purpose, it can be broken up and put into a garden as compost.
What companies like Ecovative have is a powerful vision. Through the traditional business lens, environmental and social problems appear as costs that companies are best off externalizing. In contrast, sustainable business leaders consider these as challenges to be solved, profitably, through innovation. Indeed, solving many of the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems can only be achieved if the solutions are profitable, and therefore able to rapidly achieve global scale. But business cannot solve our problems alone. Ecovative, for example, relied on critical government start-up grants to develop a competitive product.
So the third strategy leg is to grow the green economy ASAP. We all need to become green change agents—starting our own businesses or driving change internally on “green teams” within our existing workplaces.
This is an “act local, impact global” strategy. At a political level, slowly but surely the “jobs vs. the environment” story is getting beaten out by the “green economy” story. Perhaps the best political news of the last two years was the way that California voters, treated to a full-throated duel between these two narratives in the battle over Prop. 23 in 2010, endorsed a clean energy future by a 2-1 margin. This explains the desperate attack by the fossil-fuel industry on green tech.
As the real green economy grows stronger, business interests begin to align with planetary survival, making progressive energy policy easier to push through, and harder to repeal. Failure by Congress to renew the wind energy tax-credit, for example, threatens 37,000 jobs. Romney’s opposition to the credit is threatening his campaign in states like Iowa, where even Tea Party congressmen support wind development. And in states like California and Oregon, a powerful virtuous cycle is emerging: A stronger green business sector pushes for better policy, which strengthens the sustainable business sector further, empowering it to push for yet stronger policies.
Over the next 15 years, the carbon blanket surrounding the planet is virtually certain to rise from its current value of 400 parts per million to 420 ppm. But what we achieve — as political citizens, as anti-fossil-fuel activists, and within the businesses where we work — will determine what comes after: whether we can turn the course of civilization, whether the planet will heat up 4 degrees F, or 12 degrees F, within the lifetimes of our children.
The good news is that we don’t need to lay awake at night worrying what to do with our lives. Good work, with profound consequence, is everywhere.