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Climate Emergency Action Plan

We can still avoid a devastating climate crisis. But we’ll need a World War II-level mobilization. And we’ll need to stand up to Dirty Energy.
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Shadows in Drought photo by Robert Josiah

Photo by Robert Josiah.

The extreme heat, storms, and drought sweeping most of the nation are finally convincing a large majority of Americans that climate change is upon us. According to Bloomberg News, 70 percent of Americans now believe the climate is changing.

It's late to be getting to solutions, but now, perhaps, we're finally ready to take on the challenge.

Bill McKibben lays out how dire the picture really is in the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone: We’ve already warmed the planet by 0.8 degrees centigrade, and the weather is getting frightening. At the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the one thing the world agreed on is that we must stay within a 2-degree centigrade heat increase—although climatologist Jim Hansen has called even that level of increase a recipe for disaster. And if current trends continue, we're headed for much more global heating. But powerful oil, gas, and coal companies have blocked needed action. With billions in profits, they have plenty of money to channel to political campaigns, climate-denying think tanks, and right-wing media. Together, these groups have prevented progress.

If we had acted 20 or 30 years ago, when the alarm bells were first sounded, the transition to a climate safe world could have been more gradual and less disruptive, and we could have saved many more coral reefs, forests, glaciers, and species.

The Greatest Generation was able to bring together a whole society when the Nazi invasion of Europe and the bombing of Pearl Harbor proved to be threats that couldn’t be ignored. It will take that level of mobilization, built on a deep patriotism, to build and sustain the effort to avert catastrophe.

Now, time is short.

Although there is already enough extra carbon in the atmosphere to make major climate change inevitable, there is still a big difference between the sort of change that brings increased droughts, storms, temperature extremes, and sea level rises, and a change that extinguishes life on Earth. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is among those who say that runaway climate change could transform the planet into one like Venus, on which human life is impossible.

There is no greater emergency than this. Is an effective response beyond us? There are lots of reasons to think so. Dirty Energy has blocked action, and there’s every reason to believe they will continue to do so. International collaboration is tough. And given the choice, most of us would prefer to hold on to creature comforts as long as possible, and to stay in denial.

But the steps needed to avert catastrophe are, in fact, well within our capability as imaginative, hard-working people. And around the world, cities, towns, tribes, responsible businesses, and activists are making change. But we’ll have to scale it up, and quickly.

The Greatest Generation was able to come together as a whole society when the Nazi invasion of Europe and the bombing of Pearl Harbor proved to be threats that couldn’t be ignored. Car factories were repurposed for tank production. Rubber and metals were recycled. Everyone planted victory gardens. Many went off to war.

It will take that level of mobilization, built on a deep patriotism, to build and sustain the effort to avert catastrophe. It will mean a willingness to put our farmers, our coastal cities, our children’s food supply, everyone’s access to sufficient water, and the survival of fisheries ahead of the profits and power of Dirty Energy. It is the task that should define our times and could put each of us to work.

What will it take? Four years ago, YES! did a comprehensive study of what will be needed to turn around the climate crisis. The big takeaways are these:

1. We need to reorient our food system, which contributes a surprising amount to the climate problem through long-distance transport of foods, climate-killing agricultural chemicals, and meat raising practices that use massive amounts of grain and lead to deforestation. The good news is that a new, locally based food system with grass-fed meat and dairy and fresher, more wholesome fruits and vegetables is already blossoming. And young people across the nation are at the forefront, with many itching to make farming their livelihoods.

We should end taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels. The right pricing will send a strong market signal that will spur innovation and smart, low-carbon redevelopment.

2. We need to quit subsidizing dirty fuels and put a price on carbon. We should tax carbon, as former Reagan cabinet member George Shultz now recommends. Or we could auction off the right to emit a limited amount of carbon. In either case, we could return the proceeds to all Americans equally. After all, the atmosphere belongs to all of us. Polluters should pay, rather than using our air as a dump for free. And we should end taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels. The right pricing for carbon pollution will send a strong market signal that will spur innovation and smart, low-carbon redevelopment.

3. We need to rethink how we build towns and cities, and how we get around. The time for car-dependent, sprawling suburbs is over. Europeans use a fraction of the gas we use because cities and towns are compact, public transportation is efficient, and walking and bicycling are well supported and safe. Europeans are also far less likely to be obese and unhealthy. There is a connection. With houses and shopping malls sitting abandoned, now is the time to redevelop a more compact, pedestrian-friendly way of life: neighborhood shops, and a local food and energy supply.

4. We need to reinvent energy. In just a few decades, we’ve burned through millions of years of the compressed dinosaur bones and ancient plant life that make up fossil fuels. Not only is this harming the stability of the atmosphere, but it requires increasingly dangerous and expensive processes to extract the last reserves—like removing entire mountain tops in Appalachia, extracting oil from dirty tar sands in Alberta, deep drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and drilling in the Arctic. And then there’s the military cost of getting U.S. access to petroleum deposits in other countries.

Fortunately, smart innovations in energy efficiency and renewable technologies are already available. To really get things rolling—and to put unemployed Americans to work and jump-start a more sustainable economy—we should launch a World War II-level mobilization to weatherize buildings, switch to energy-efficient manufacturing, build mass transit, and install windmills and solar energy generation. We should shift all government purchasing to the most energy-efficient technologies and rapidly phase out government purchases of any transport that uses fossil fuels. We should set targets for this transition away from coal and natural gas for all electric utilities. Those that don’t comply should be taken over by the people and become public utilities—that’s what the voters of Boulder, Colorado, did last year.

thermometer by Joe ChungA Worldwide Effort to Make Climate Change Visible
Bill McKibben: It’s time for each of us to get involved in the full-on fight between misinformation and truth.

5. We need to block dirty energy extraction, transportation, and export. We should say no to the export of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal to China, as folks in the Northwest are doing. We need to keep saying no to the KXL Pipeline over our precious (and increasingly endangered) Ogallala Aquifer—the KXL is designed as a conduit to export dirty tar sands oil to China. We should say no to drilling in the Arctic. And while we’re at it, we should see that any investment money we control – university endowments, state pension funds, etc.—drop all investments in Dirty Energy companies until they switch to clean energy.

In his speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. … We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, 'Too late.'"

By the time our children and their children confront extreme heat and terrifying storms, it might well be too late. It isn’t too late for us to act, though. We can still avert what could be a disastrous climate crisis. There are no excuses for delay.


Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is co-founder and executive editor of YES!.

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