What type of world are we leaving to our children and grandchildren?
2050 is a good year to look at. Both NYS and NYC have adopted goals seeking to go to 80 to 100% clean energy by 2050; that was the goal for the Kyoto Protocol decades ago.
In 2050, my son will be at the same age I am now – 63. And if he has children, they would be in their late teens to mid-twenties.
There is no realistic scenario where we are not experiencing catastrophic climate change by 2050.
Our current tepid global response – including post Paris – has us exhausting our remaining carbon budget (how much fossil fuels we can burn before we pass the tipping point) in as little as four years. The optimistic climate scientists hope that we go past the tipping post as little as possible and then we finally figure out how to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere to lower carbon level back towards the tipping point. (Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg, noting that we have virtually no progress to show in carbon capture after spending more than ten billion dollars on research, labels this as bulls**t.)
The optimistic scenario is that after a decade or so of increasingly severe weather – massive destructive storms, huge floods that overwhelms communities, killer heat waves and droughts, tens of millions of climate refugees – that we get serious about halting the burning of fossil fuels. The good news is that we know how to transition clean energy, so once we decide to get serious, we can at least get to the 80 to 100% range in a decade or two. So, by 2050 we could be getting close to stopping putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (though once there, they can stay there for a very long time).
The bad news is that climate change is a runaway freight train barreling down a mountain. We can stop shoveling coal into the engine but climate change will continue to speed up.
It makes a big difference however how far past the tipping point we go. The big victory in the Paris climate treaty was that most of the world’s countries forced the industrial polluters – led by the US – to lower the target for capping global warming from 2 degrees centigrade to 1.5 degrees. Unfortunately, most of the debate and policy proposals in the US still uses the higher target as the needed goal.
The other key part of the optimistic scenario is that we decide to act based on what is collectively best for humanity. This would mean listening to say the world’s faith leaders like Pope Francis. This however is completely contrary to our present political trajectory.
The more negative scenario is that as the crisis worsens, the politicians continue to do the will of the fossil fuel industry (aka merchants of deaths) and allow the burning of fossil fuels to continue while we gradually add on more renewables. And when we are way past the breaking point and struggling to respond to escalating catastrophes, short term self-interest prevails. Decisions are made based on what is best for our nation rather than the world, and within the US, based on what is best for the most wealthy and powerful individuals rather than the common good. Like the Trump agenda.
The divide between the have and have nots widen. The wealthy barricade themselves into climate-controlled buildings and communities, preserving their opulent lifestyles, while the rest of us are forced into hunger games. The temperature just rises and rises and the seas wash away more and more coastal communities. Diseases and famine spread. The sixth great mass extinction of species challenges our own ability to survive as a species as the web of life is decimated. Cities crumble under massive storms and are not put back together.
The situation will be especially dire in the developing world, most of which is close to the tropics where the climate disruption will be more intense. Climate refugees pour over borders straining nation’s resources, escalating anti-immigrant attacks. Wars are increasingly fought over access to land, water and food. Infrastructure to provide necessities falls apart and there isn’t money or the political will to replace it. Mad Max the Fury Road is viewed as a visionary documentary.
The more positive scenario is we act to keep global warming / carbon at lower levels and then figure out how best we can collectively adapt. Rather than arguing over whether we should move to 100% clean energy, we debate how fast it can be done. Climate action becomes the main task for elected officials at all levels (i.e., the survival of humanity). We stop throwing trillions at finding new fossil fuels and building out its infrastructure (e.g., pipelines). We don’t waste billions building seawalls and rebuilding in flood plains only to see those tax dollars washed away in the next decade or so as the storms ramp up ever greater levels.
We realize that helping other countries and less vulnerable communities deal with climate change not only makes moral and legal sense (after all we are the ones who created the problem), but our own future is brighter when we eliminate the refugees and the wars for food and survival. We commit to a Just Transition. We embrace the goal of sustainability, making sure we don’t use resources faster than nature can replace them. We redesign our buildings, transportations, and agriculture systems. We implement a Green New Deal.
The light bulb also goes off that we can actually create a better future. Building renewable energy reduces future energy costs (the wind and sun are still free) while creating massive number of new jobs (there are already far more jobs in renewable energy than fossil fuels in the US) while being healthier for us (more than 3,000 people die annually in NYS alone from illnesses associated with the burning of fossil fuels). We need to start making economic and energy decisions based on what is best for the greatest number of people, not just the benefit of the 1%. That is why Pope Francis pointed out that we won’t solve climate change until we are willing to solve poverty.
It is not inevitable that each generation does better than the previous. We are already headed in the opposite direction. The Roman Empire collapsed into the Dark Ages. But I want to leave a better world for my son and his future family. The choice is ours.
Happy Father’s Day.