Diminishing Options and The Climate Endgame

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One of the strongest hurricanes on record, Ivan, was photographed on September 11, 2004 from an altitude of about 230 miles by NASA Astronaut Edward M. (Mike) Fincke. At the time, Ivan was in the western Caribbean Sea and reported to have winds of 160 mph.


“Make no mistake: The election of Donald Trump could be devastating for our climate and our future.” Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club, November 2016

“This world is your world but that doesn’t mean you can always stop it from burning.”
― Oli Anderson from Personal Revolutions: A Short Course in Realness 2016


There are many uncertainties about how the new administration will govern beginning on 20 January 2017, but it is all too clear that addressing climate change will not be on the agenda. The Paris Agreement went into legal force on 4 November 2016, and the President-elect is already looking for ways for the US to nullify our commitment. Fossil fuel interests are jubilant at the prospect of fulfilling his campaign promise to make the US energy-independent. Peabody Coal, which recently declared bankruptcy, has seen its stock value rise more than 50 percent since the election. Shares of companies in the renewable energy business fell sharply after Trump’s victory. Miners in coal country see Mr. Trump as their savior. The TransCanada Corporation is renewing efforts to complete the Keystone XL pipeline, which is necessary to transport carbon-intensive tar sands oil to refineries in the US. The likely pick to head the EPA is a well-known climate change denier who has been affiliated with the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. If the new administration fulfills its promise to reduce environmental regulations, it is virtually certain that court-mandated applications of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act will be cast aside and simply not enforced. President-elect Trump has repeatedly stated that the US will no longer provide global leadership in mitigation of climate change.

The science of climate change shows that this decade is our last chance to keep the global average temperature rise below dangerous levels in this century. Without global mobilization to implement significant reductions in emissions by 2030 it will be very unlikely that the Earth will stay below the 2˚C guardrail. Any certainty of staying below the aspirational goal of 1.5˚C agreed to by 195 nations will require immediate, massive emissions cuts and global strategies for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). With emergency action, salvaging a livable climate for our descendants may still be possible, but without US leadership the success of global mobilization to tackle climate change seems remote.

As I have pointed out in a previous post, the consensus among climate scientists about the real and present danger of climate change is now longstanding and rock solid. Here are a few alarming observations from multiple sources including the climate scientists at RealClimate:

  • A generous reckoning shows that the total amount of carbon dioxide the world can still emit at the current rate in order to have a better than 50 percent chance of stopping warming at 1.5˚C will be used up in five years.
  • 2˚C warming will result in the death of most coral reefs worldwide.
  • 2˚C will result in an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer as far north as the North Pole. This massive ice loss will negatively impact marine and terrestrial life throughout the Northern Hemisphere and cause extreme weather in the US, Canada, and Eurasia.
  • 2˚C warming will undermine the integrity of continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and commit our planet to many meters of sea level rise over the coming centuries. The ongoing collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf and associated shelves will double the previously projected rate of sea level rise to more than 6 ft by 2100. The collapse of these shelves will become unstoppable if we do not aggressively mitigate global warming.
  • Positive feedback on the climate system from the biosphere including the thawing of permafrost will dramatically accelerate warming during the second half of this century.
  • The increasing frequency of extreme drought in the Amazon Basin will add massive amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere over coming decades.
  • A recent study in Science Advances provides compelling evidence that climate sensitivity to greenhouse gasses increases with warming. Because of this nonlinear response, the global average warming this century could reach 7˚C. The consequences of this are unthinkable.
  • Even with the US participation, the current national commitments for global emissions reduction would raise the global average temperatures beyond 3˚C. This will inexorably lead to more extreme weather, resulting in droughts, harvest failures, mass migration, and increased risk of armed conflict.

That’s enough. I could provide considerably more evidence that an emergency response is required. These observations and projections come from the best science journals and represent the work of the world’s leading climate scientists.

Before the 2016 election, activists, authors, and scientists, including me, had been preparing to propose an agenda for the first 100 days of the new administration that would result in a summit of world leaders who would declare a state of climate emergency. Sadly, this is no longer possible. Our present emissions trajectory will get much worse under the new administration, and now at the eleventh hour, this constitutes an existential threat to civilization.

Three decades ago, we could have pursued an incremental approach to addressing climate change. Instead, the science was ignored or progress was stonewalled by politicians and conservative think tanks. The fossil fuel industry mounted a massive and well-documented effort to discredit and minimize the increasingly dire warnings from the scientific community. Complicit in this tragedy has been the political process of compromise and negotiation, which in the face of the institutionalized obstruction in the US Congress, made progress all but impossible. Many of our politicians on the right and left have failed to grasp the gravity of our situation, arguing that we should not take actions that would unduly disrupt the status quo. As renewable energy sources have now proven themselves to be a major part of the solution, our nation’s entrenched 20th-century industries have fought even harder to undermine progressive reform of US energy policy.

We are now utterly out of time, and we have just elected to the White House a president who clearly intends to aggressively promote the increased burning of fossil fuels. On 26 October Trump stated that he would “cancel all wasteful climate change spending.” Coming from the largest economy in the world, this will result in significant disruption of the global climate within the next few decades. Joe Romm, the founding editor of Climate Progress, notes that if we fail to honor the Paris Agreement the US will become an international pariah and “the world will rightly blame the United States for destroying humanity’s last, best hope to avoid catastrophic warming.”

One ray of hope in this scenario is that California, which in June 2016 surpassed France to become the sixth largest economy in the world, has committed to large reductions in heat-trapping emissions. Governor Brown has pledged to honor this commitment even if much of the US makes a U-turn. The relatively low-emitting states of Oregon and Washington are on the path to engineering new emissions reductions, although a carbon tax proposal was defeated last week in Washington state. Similarly, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeastern US remains in force, but needs to be significantly augmented to be truly meaningful.

The international deliberations of COP22 now underway in Marrakech have been damaged by the election of Trump. Speculation in the press over the last few days is that China and possibly Europe will now take the lead in the global response to climate change. A few back-of-the-envelope calculations show that the US must honor its commitments to emissions reductions and financial support of such efforts in developing countries if there is to be hope for globally effective climate mitigation. China recently issued an uncharacteristically harsh response to Trump’s promise to “cancel” the Paris Agreement.

There may be little that can be done in the near term within our putatively democratic system of governance to halt this headlong rush to self-destruction. Recently, the environmental correspondent Andy Revkin noted that previous administrations have made little progress through regulation and legislation and that most of the realized emissions reduction have resulted from economic slowdowns and the rapidly dropping marginal cost of alternative energy. While this assertion is debatable, his line of reasoning suggests that because governance has been ineffective in the past, it is unlikely to be effective moving forward. This ignores the fact no meaningful new legislation has ever been enacted by Congress and that the Clean Power Plan of the EPA is tied up in litigation. Such thinking dismisses the documented positive impact of subsidies for renewable energy and the perverse insanity of continued subsidies for fossil fuels.

Policy wonks are busy constructing legal scenarios that would limit the Trump administration’s damage to the climate. I am skeptical that such efforts can be successful in time to make a difference in US emissions. It matters little that the Supreme Court has ruled that CO2 is a pollutant. Litigation built on this precedent to challenge the new administration can take several years to play out. We don’t have time for such a process. Our planetary emergency requires governments to act immediately to protect the public trust. Care of the global commons requires good governance, but this seems more remote than ever for the US.

Assuming that his administration fulfills Trump’s pledges to resume large-scale emissions from fossil fuels, our activism must be ramped up to levels of engagement not seen since the era of Vietnam and Civil Rights. Of the many tasks that I could mention, four are at the top of my list:

Create a unified resistance and speak with one voice. As new fossil fuel infrastructure and funding are set in motion, we must vigorously resist and speak out against such a disastrous energy policy. Our effectiveness will be diminished if we remain a disconnected collection of movements and NGOs. Effective resistance requires strategic organization across multiple sectors of likeminded stakeholders. Mobilization should begin at home as we organize our disparate movements and speak with one voice. It has been challenging to create effective coalitions among the Big Greens such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and relatively grass-roots movements such as 350.org and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Groups tend to have investments in the careers of their staff and belief in the righteousness of their particular view of how to save the world. It is urgent that the leaders and governing boards of organizations that compete in the same pool of donors agree to share resources and embrace a common cause. We cannot afford the smug comfort of tribalism when at heart we share a common goal of salvaging a livable climate.

Deliver an inclusive message of new hope.  In speaking with one voice, we must demonstrate to the disenfranchised who carried Trump to victory that they can have better lives in a new economy diversified by renewable energy and biosphere management. There is overwhelming evidence for this claim. The message of hope and economic renewal is one that we have repeatedly failed to deliver as we advocate for programs to address climate change. Expert marketing and management of Internet media can propagate the facts about how the US economy is becoming diversified by new technologies and management practices.

Tell the truth and prepare our kids for a tough future. We must prepare the current generation of youth and young adults to face the reality of living with a dangerously disrupted climate and all of the attendant impacts on ecosystems, agriculture, human health, and social order. The formal study of sustainability science and associated social sciences offers a way forward. Higher education has an ethical obligation to provide these survival skills to each generation of undergraduates. As we mentor our students, it is equally important that we stand with them in the streets, at the barricades, in courtrooms, and in jails whenever nonviolent organized resistance is necessary. Now is the time for uncommon courage and sacrifice. We must lead by example.

Expand our search for solutions. With laser-like focus, we must aggressively redouble our efforts to understand the impacts of climate change and associated biosphere disruption. This work will include interdisciplinary research to develop effective means of adaptation in forestry, agriculture, human health, sustainable urban development, and a host of fields crucial to the maintenance and renewal of civilization. Leading thinkers in higher education predict that the new administration will devastate funding for such research, and it is certain that Congress will put pressure on federal agencies to abandon research on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Earth Science Division of NASA may be greatly diminished or closed. Whenever possible we must find ways to carry out these crucial investigations without federal funding. It may be necessary to send our scientists and innovators to work in other developed nations who continue to give top priority to research on climate change. We must change the reward structure at our research universities to recognize such mission-driven crucial research without regard to the overhead dollars generated by federal funding. Despite the obvious sacrifice that this implies, higher education must redouble its efforts to shoulder the task of serving the public trust.

I am sure that I share with many a deep despair about the looming regressive changes to US climate policy and social services. This is a monumental inter-generational tragedy that seems unstoppable. It has arrived at the moment when it seemed that real progress was within our grasp. Just after the election, a young woman asked me if I thought it wise to have children. Such a question takes on a terrifying new gravity in the era of accelerating climate disruption. As I have noted in several of my pieces, we are dependent on each other to survive and prosper. We must embrace the reality that we are not members of various tribes – Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We are members of a species and it is time that we act like it. In the wake of this divisive and disastrous election, we must extend our hands and hearts to those who feel that they have not been heard or cared for by neoliberal politicians and intellectual elites. The foundation for implementation of adaptation to the coming years of climate disruption will be our local communities. It is now more important than ever that we become civically engaged and build strong communities.