Crunch Time on Climate Action in Albany

The future of climate action in New York State is at a critical inflection point. The new budget has been approved and the remaining weeks of the legislative session are now focused on policy proposals. At the same time, the draft Scoping Plan issued by the Climate Action Council at the end of 2021 has been undergoing scrutiny at public hearings around the state and only a handful more of these hearings remain.

When the New York Legislature convened in January, environmentalists and climate activists were hopeful that dramatic headway could be made on such issues as reducing the consumption of natural gas, building electrification, cryptocurrency mining, fossil fuel divestment, and investments in renewable energy development.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry and its supporters have stepped up their opposition to these measures in recent weeks, spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns and lobbying, money that could be put towards a clean energy future.

The pushback has revealed the obstacles to phasing out fossil fuels even in a relatively progressive state such as New York. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the challenges faced by those who take the ambitious goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act seriously, focusing on the fight over banning natural gas use in new construction.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) included a ban on gas use in new construction by 2027 in her executive budget for the next fiscal year. But, by the time the negotiations came to a close, the proposal was absent from the final budget deal. The ostensible reason for its exclusion, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, was that policy measures don’t belong in the proposed budget.

Climate advocates are now pressing state lawmakers to pass the measure as a stand-alone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2. The Renewable Heat Now coalition, in particular, is pushing for passage of the All-Electric Building Act as part of a package of proposals to reduce demand for fossil fuels and compel utilities to plan for a transition to renewable heat.

An organization called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, essentially a front group for fossil fuel and utility companies and corporate lobbying interests, is mounting a well-oiled campaign to defeat the measure. It contends that banning gas use in new buildings would harm consumers. Among those behind the organization are National Grid, the American Petroleum Institute, the pipeline company Enbridge, and the Business Council of New York State. A recent investigative report concludes that “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy smacks as a classic industry-funded astroturf effort.”

The lines couldn’t be drawn more distinctly: on one side, the backward-looking oil and gas companies, utilities, and other corporate defenders of the fossil-fuel status quo, and on the other, citizens, activists, and other members of the public who want a decent, bright future where runaway climate change has been averted, mass species extinction avoided, and clean air and water acknowledged as fundamental human rights.

The next few weeks will tell us unambiguously where Gov. Hochul and the state legislature stand. In the meantime, we must make our voices heard in Albany as loudly and clearly as possible.

Cryptocurrency Mining and Climate Change

When political leaders demonstrate the courage of their convictions, it’s immediately evident. Perhaps it’s because the authenticity shines through the usual political fog so brightly. All pretense drops, the language becomes direct and straightforward, and the clear meaning of their words rings out.

The most striking example recently of such leadership, one that has been both inspiring and breathtaking, is that of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He has not shied away from acknowledging the immense military odds stacked against Ukraine or downplayed the difficulty ordinary Ukrainians face. He has invoked a deep sense of common purpose and brought his country together.

Kathy Hochul sworn in as the 57th governor of New York. Photo by NY Senate licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In a different way and at a very different level, NY Gov. Kathy Hochul has a similar opportunity to demonstrate the courage of her convictions. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, laid out aggressive benchmarks for New York to reduce its carbon emissions. Gov. Hochul has emphatically expressed her support for the CLCPA, proclaiming in her recent State of the State address that climate change is “a threat to our way of life, here and now.” She boldly called for a ban on the use of natural gas in new construction after 2027, the rapid development of offshore wind, and the phasing out of peaker plants—only used when excess energy is needed by the grid—as well as older fossil-fuel power plants.

Another closely related issue offers Hochul a similar chance to display bold leadership: imposing a statewide moratorium on proof-of-work bitcoin mining, a practice that poses a profound threat to the climate. Assemblymember Anna Kelles has introduced a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining. The bill is currently making its way through the legislative process and has gained the support of 41 co-sponsors and 15 key committee chairs in the Assembly.

So far the governor has said very little about bitcoin mining, its environmental impact, or whether she supports a moratorium. It’s time she stepped forward.

Why is this action so critical?

Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining consumes a tremendous amount of energy to operate the multiple, high-powered computers that validate the exchange of bitcoins as well as the cooling technology needed to keep the machines from overheating. In fact, a Cambridge University study concluded that bitcoin mining uses more electricity annually than the entire country of Argentina.

What is especially galling is that proof-of-work is only one way to mine cryptocurrency. “Proof-of-stake, another popular method, uses far less energy,” points out Yvonne Taylor, co-founder and vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian. But, she notes, proof-of-work’s energy use in the U.S. has grown 320% in just the past five years. New York, moreover, hosts nearly 20% of that.

Thanks to the work of Taylor and other environmentalists, attention in New York has focused on Greenidge Generation, a recently revived operation located on Seneca Lake. Formerly a coal-fired power station, it turned to natural gas when it reopened its doors. Originally intended to be a peaker plant, no one knew it would become a private bitcoin mining operation that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Greenidge’s Title V air permit is currently up for renewal, as discussed in our last issue. The decision on the renewal was due Jan. 31 but has been postponed to March 31 so that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could “complete its ongoing review” of about 4,000 public comments on the case. As Peter Mantius reports, however, the delay provides Greenidge with the ability to expand its operations.

Under the CLCPA, the state is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030. The importance of doing so was underscored by today’s release of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that the pace of global warming threatens to overcome our ability to adapt to it. Greenidge is just one of many fossil-fuel power plants retired in upstate New York that could potentially be reopened for proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining; the possibility of Cayuga Power Plant going down this road punctuates the point.

If the bitcoin mining industry is allowed to continue growing without any oversight or regulation, the ability to achieve the CLCPA goals will be put in serious jeopardy. For the governor to be true to her word that climate change is a threat to our way of life, it’s clear what her next move must be: declare a moratorium on bitcoin mining.

Next Steps for the NYS Draft Climate Plan

The Climate Action Council, headed up by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) President and CEO Doreen M. Harris, has just issued its draft scoping plan. Now it’s our job to review it carefully and respond. Beginning on Jan. 1, the public will have 120 days to offer comments and make sure their voices are heard.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, calls for New York to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, establish a zero-emission electricity sector by 2040, and create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The CLCPA established the Climate Action Council, a 22-member committee charged with determining how to meet these statutory goals. The Council also consulted with a wide range of advisory panels and working groups over the past two years to address issues in areas such as transportation, solid waste, energy generation, workforce development, and climate justice.

A December 30 wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in suburban Denver, the latest dramatic sign of climate change. Photo by Tristantech licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The release of the draft scoping plan is the crucial first step in reaching the ambitious but necessary climate goals laid out in the CLCPA. There is certainly plenty of material for New Yorkers to wade through. The body of the report itself is 330 pages, followed by 520 pages of appendices. The Climate Action Council’s seven advisory panels – Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use and Local Government, Power Generation, Energy Efficiency and Housing, Energy Intensive and Trade Exposed Industries, and Waste – submitted recommendations for the Climate Action Council to consider in the draft scoping plan, all of which can be found in the appendices.

In addition, the Climate Justice Working Group and Just Transition Working Group played key roles in the development of the draft scoping plan. The Disadvantaged Communities Barriers and Opportunities Report examines why some communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and air pollution and have unequal access to clean energy, and recommends ways to rectify these problems using a climate justice lens. The Just Transition Working Group Jobs Study explores the consequences of climate change mitigation for the job market as well as actions required to provide adequate training, education, and workforce development.

The release of the draft scoping plan takes place against an increasingly dire climate crisis. The latest manifestation of this crisis is the Colorado wildfire that raced through suburbs between Denver and Boulder on Dec. 30, destroying at least 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Needless to say, December wildfires are not a common occurrence in Colorado, but a severe drought combined with high winds to fuel the most destructive blaze in the state’s history. Elsewhere, a new report has found unsettling evidence that the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” in Antarctica could collapse in as little as five years, raising the world’s sea level by several feet. The Thwaites glacier already loses 50 billion tons of ice each year and makes up about four percent of the planet’s annual sea rise.

The need to take dramatic and immediate climate action, then, is obvious. Although one of the most sweeping plans issued by any state or country, the NYS draft report leaves many specifics to be worked out. The broad outlines of any effective climate plan must include, as this one does, calls for the electrification of buildings, a shift to electric vehicles, the expansion of renewables such as solar and wind power, the development of feasible energy storage strategies, the decommissioning of natural gas, and the implementation of a carbon tax. But still unclear are the details and timing involved with setting these steps in motion, and how to do so in a way that takes into account historic inequities and brings about a just transition.

The draft scoping plan is now in the hands of Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature. It remains to be seen to what extent public input will influence the final shape of the plan, but it’s critical that New Yorkers weigh in. The final report will be issued on Jan. 1, 2023 and the DEC will then announce legally binding regulations by Jan. 1, 2024 to ensure that the state achieves the CLCPA’s required targets.

Information about how to participate in the public hearings on the draft scoping plan will be disclosed in early 2022, according to the press release issued by the Climate Action Council. There will be at least six hearings held across the state. In addition, comments can be submitted via the online public comment form, by email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and by U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. Stay tuned!

COP26, Youth, and the Failure of Governments

As international leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 climate summit, which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry calls “the last best hope for the world to get its act together,” perhaps the most important thing they can keep in mind is a landmark study issued in September that underscores the deep anxiety, distress, and anger that young people are experiencing about climate change and government inaction to deal with it. 

In New York City, ahead of COP26, activists unfurled a giant banner in front of the United Nations headquarters. Photo by Rainforest Action Network licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The survey—the largest global investigation of its kind—asked 1,000 16- to 25-year-olds in each of ten countries how they felt about the climate crisis and government responses to it. The results found that 59% of respondents said they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change and over 45% of them said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives. Thirty-nine percent indicated they were “hesitant to have children.” Underlying the distress of young people was the perception, in the words of the report, “that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, that governments are failing to respond adequately, and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults.

Caroline Hickman, a researcher in climate psychology at the University of Bath and one of the authors, acknowledged in an NPR interview ​that they were aware children and young people around the world were upset about climate change. “What we didn’t realize was quite how frightened they were,” she said. “We didn’t realize the depth of the feeling. And we didn’t realize how that was impacting on their thinking and their daily functioning.”

The sad fact is that young people have substantial cause to be worried. Greenhouse gas emissions reached a new record high last year and a U.N. emissions gap analysis—what U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres called a “thundering wake-up call”—released just before the opening of COP26 demonstrated that commitments made under the Paris Agreement will fail to keep the global warming under 1.5C this century. Indeed, it concluded that the world was on track to heat up about 2.7C, which would have disastrous consequences. Another U.N. report found that fossil fuel production planned by the world’s governments “vastly exceeds” the limit needed to keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5C.

As might be expected, the survey of young people revealed some variation from country to country. The largest proportion of respondents who felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” lived in countries extremely vulnerable to climate destabilization: the Philippines (84%), India (68%) and Brazil (67%). But even young people from the wealthier nations included in the survey (Australia, Finland, France, Portugal, the U.K., and the U.S.) expressed a great deal of concern. Sixty-five percent of young Portuguese, for example, indicated high degrees of climate anxiety.

Especially troubling is the revelation that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed believed their governments were not telling them the truth about the effectiveness of the measures they were undertaking on climate change. A news report in Nature succinctly summarized the findings: “65% of respondents agreed with the statement that governments are failing young people, 64% agreed that they are lying about the impact of actions taken, and 60% agreed they were dismissing people’s distress. Only 36% agreed that governments are acting according to science.”

Pause for a moment to consider the meaning of these data: most young people in the world believe that their governments are deceiving them about the most critical issue of our time, an unprecedented crisis that threatens the very future of human civilization. Don’t be surprised if a lot of these youth show up in Glasgow to express their frustration and anger about this situation. In fact, let’s hope they do. It may be the only way to finally get politicians and policymakers to pay attention and take the steps necessary to head off runaway climate chaos.

A Bit of Good News: The Media & Climate Change

This summer has been full of disaster. James Taylor had no idea what was coming when he first sang the words “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” back in 1970. The wildfires in the West, especially in California and Oregon, have been unprecedented, fueled by a drought that has gripped the region for several years. The floods in July in Germany and Belgium as well as China, where rivers overflowing their banks is not at all uncommon, have been record breaking.

And let’s not forget that it rained in mid-August on the summit of the Greenland ice cap, two miles up, for the first time ever. The event was so unexpected that scientists at the research station there didn’t have a gauge to measure the precipitation, which has always come frozen before.

Louisiana National Guardsmen rescue people in LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Photo by Louisiana National Guard licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The one element missing from Taylor’s classic song was wind. The catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Ida on the coast of Louisiana on August 29 – the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – marked the first time the state had category 4 landfalls in back-to-back hurricane seasons. Intensifying with horrifying rapidity, Ida thrashed southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds as it crashed ashore. It tied last year’s Hurricane Laura and the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 as the state’s most powerful storm ever.

Ready for some good news? Well, admittedly it’s not a very high bar, but it does appear that media coverage of extreme weather events has improved. Increasingly, news reports are connecting these events with climate change more effectively than in past years. In part this is because their numbers, scale, and intensity have outpaced the predictions of climate scientists and caught them off balance. The resulting dramatic tension makes for a more suspenseful and engaging narrative.

The striking progress in the field of attribution science has also contributed to the better coverage, making it possible to show how these are not isolated occurrences but instead are linked to global warming trends. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, “On a case-by-case basis, scientists can now quantify the contribution of human influences to the magnitude and probability of many extreme events.” This ability to pinpoint the extent to which human-induced climate change amplifies the weather disasters we’re experiencing represents a major breakthrough.

Make no mistake, though, there’s an even more fundamental force at work: the media – at least a large part of it – has finally accepted the scientific consensus on climate change as fact. That may be the biggest change of all

study released two weeks ago underscores this shift. It found that 90% of print media coverage now accurately represents what has become indisputable: human activity is driving global warming. The analysis examined thousands of articles from 2005 to 2019 in 17 major newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

As an excellent article in Grist points out, these findings are a sharp departure from the last comparable study in 2004, which concluded that more than half of the articles it surveyed “treated dissenting opinions as equally valid.” In this earlier investigation, researchers looking at articles from 1988 to 2002 discovered that only 35% of them accurately reflected the scientific consensus on climate change. So, at long last, there’s been a significant retreat from the “both sides” approach.

The print media, of course, is just one of the places people find information about climate change, and it’s far from the most popular source. Clearly, television (especially Fox News) and social media – where the majority of people get their news – still have a long way to go.

Even in these arenas, however, the tone has changed. As Max Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of both studies, observes, “The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

In short, the climate disasters will keep coming, bigger and badder than ever, but at least we’ll be getting the facts straight a lot more than previously about how we’ve helped make them happen.

Buckling Roads Ahead

A historic heat wave has the Pacific Northwest caught in its grip. One of the few places that many believed would largely escape the worst of climate change has seen temperatures reach triple digits this past weekend. Portland, Oregon, hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, breaking the all-time high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which had been set just the day before. Seattle, for the first time since records started being kept in 1897, experienced two consecutive triple-digit days. Despite the Northwest’s reputation for moderate weather, it’s so hot that roads are buckling, even the interstate highways.

One of the roads in Washington State buckling in the recent historic heat wave. Twitter: @wspd7pio.

Other areas of the West face even worse conditions. “The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” points out Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

According to a hair-raising report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a draft of which was obtained recently by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the outlook is unrelievedly grim if we don’t change direction immediately. Pulling no punches, the report bluntly declares that “the worst is yet to come.”

Entire societies and ecosystems will begin to come apart under the stress. “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas – these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30,” according to the AFP account.

The 4000-page IPCC draft report, not scheduled for release until February 2022, constitutes the most comprehensive assessment so far of how climate change is disrupting our world. As have numerous other studies, the IPCC analysis makes clear that those least responsible for climate destabilization are suffering disproportionately. In particular, indigenous communities struggle to preserve their cultural practices, traditions, and livelihoods in the face of rapid global warming that they did little to set off.

Perhaps the most urgent point made in the IPCC report is that current levels of adaptation are not nearly sufficient to meet the moment. Even under an optimistic scenario of two degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century, the projections are startling. Billions of people will endure coastal destruction, drought, famine, wildfire, and extreme poverty.

The IPCC emphasizes that the foreboding picture it paints doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to do everything we can to keep the situation from completely unraveling. It notes that there are still significant steps we can take to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. But, as the AFP dispatch puts it, “simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it.”

“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” insists the IPCC report. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

The question, of course, is whether we can pull off this kind of sweeping makeover. What will it take to convince people and their governments that this is the only viable way forward? The answer remains to be seen but, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the question hangs over us, warning of a dire end if we fail to pay attention.

Pointing to past major climate shocks, the IPCC report observes that they upended the environment and wiped out the vast majority of species. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it cautions. “Humans cannot.”

P.S. It hit 116 Degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, OR yesterday. Three days, three records in a row. Oh, and it was another triple-digit day in Seattle. So that’s the first time that we know of that Seattle had three triple-digit days in a row.

A Tale of Competing Tipping Points

We occupy a peculiar moment in history. On the one hand, the climate teeters on the edge of catastrophic destabilization. It’s become clear that we’re not on track to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point at which scientists consider runaway climate change to become highly likely, and even 2 degrees might be slipping out of our reach.

Other worrisome trends abound. There is increasing evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheets are heading towards irreversible melting. The Gulf Stream is slowing down noticeably, in part due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a development that will have a profound impact on the weather systems and sea levels on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of hotter and drier weather and deforestation in the Amazon, one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks is disappearing as the rain forest transitions into a savannah.

President Biden kicks off the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, 2021. White House photo by Adam Schultz/Public Domain.

These are only three of the seven climate tipping points that scientists have identified as posing the greatest threats. They constitute key elements of an earth system in which reinforcing loops, known as positive feedbacks, could send the world into an entirely different state. Seemingly small planetary changes, we’re beginning to grasp, can rapidly snowball into very big ones.

These climate tipping points have occurred before. There is compelling evidence of such abrupt shifts in the paleoclimate record. For example, sudden warming episodes during the last glacial period caused temperature changes of several degrees Celsius over short time spans in large parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Faced with the gravity of the current climate situation, it’s difficult not to be overcome by a growing sense of despair and even resignation. All around us signs of a dangerous, unfamiliar world are emerging: megadroughts, wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme weather events unprecedented in their scale and frequency. As Alex Steffens observes, “To look at this moment clearly is to see that the planetary crisis isn’t an issue, it’s an era.” It’s no longer a question, in other words, of saving the earth for our grandchildren; the alarming, alien world set in motion by global warming has already showed up on our doorstep.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? Both climate denialism and climate doomism are morally unacceptable options. There is another pathway. Juxtaposed against the array of runaway climate tipping points is what Gabbi Mocatta and Rebecca Harris call “a tipping point for climate action.” It’s the extraordinary tension between the tipping points for climate destabilization and collective action that makes the present moment so fraught. The probability of catastrophe versus the possibility of hope: which will win out in the end? Will the tipping point for broad-based climate action take place before the climate tipping points? The stakes have never been higher.

The case for hope rests, oddly enough, on the fact that we know more about the science of climate change than ever before. As Mocatta and Harris put it, “Although much of [this science] is devastating, it’s also resoundingly clear.” The incontrovertible nature of the climate data means that policy makers have a stronger obligation than ever before to act on its findings. The reentry of the U.S. into the Paris Agreement and the announcement at the recent White House virtual summit that the nation is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%-52% below its 2005 emissions levels by 2030 are just two indications that policy makers understand the need to respond to the latest research.

At the same time, public support for action has grown dramatically. The largest global opinion survey on climate change ever conducted, The People’s Climate Vote, found that even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic 64% of people considered climate change to be “a global emergency.” Of the people who viewed climate change in this light, 59% said that “the world should do everything necessary and urgently in response.”

The sense of peril reflected in this survey is perhaps the best news of all. It suggests that we may be ready to abandon the “business as usual” approach and move beyond the gradualism that has characterized much of climate policy action up to now. It raises the possibility that we can finally engage in the debate that truly matters: how do we transform our way of life for the benefit of all to meet the existential challenge before us? “Urgency and agency,” as Michael Mann reminds us, “make a winning combination in our fight against climate change.”

Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement

Adoption of the Paris agreement on December 12, 2015. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

The U.S. on February 19 officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement, reversing former President Trump’s decision in 2017 to withdraw from the international accord at the end of 2020. President Biden signaled this change in direction on his first day in office when he signed an executive order putting the U.S. back on the path to once again become a member of the agreement, which is a multilateral effort to curb the effects of climate change. Nearly 200 member countries have agreed to the treaty.

The climate agreement was adopted at COP 21 in Paris on December 12, 2015 and entered into force on November 4, 2016 with a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. In fact, warming beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists have warned, could trigger runaway climate change.

Under the terms of the accord, each nation set its own greenhouse gas emissions targets with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Countries agreed to establish finance programs and share resources with those countries that needed support. At the signing in 2016, the U.S. announced its target was to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Critics of the agreement have pointed to the lack of mandated standards and the relatively modest goals set by most nations as insufficient to head off the worst of the climate crisis. Needless to say, the exit of the U.S. from the accord — the only country to renounce the treaty after adopting it — increased the probability that climate-driven catastrophes would accelerate across the globe. Now that the U.S. is rejoining the accord, it is expected to establish a new target for 2030. Calls are mounting for at least a 50 percent reduction in emissions by then.

The widespread blackouts in California and Texas serve as a stark reminder of what we could be facing as the climate crisis worsens. Although different in scale and severity, the power outages in these two states underscore the extent to which we are unprepared for extreme weather events and the coming climate chaos. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change,” observes Sascha von Meier, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “There will be more of this and it will get worse.”

What happened in California and Texas was not just an environmental disaster; it was a breakdown in security and stability, the capacity to carry on with our day-to-day lives. As Sir David Attenborough recently told a UN meeting, the climate crisis presents the “biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.” The reason why is not hard to understand: we have left the relatively benign climatic period that led to the flourishing of human civilization.

“If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains,” said Attenborough. “And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.”

Another way to think about what’s at stake is to put the climate emergency in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Mark Carney, former head of the Bank of England and now UN envoy for climate action and finance, the world is heading for mortality rates equivalent to “a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century, and every year, not just a one-off event” unless climate change is addressed immediately. As he puts it, “you cannot self-isolate from climate” and there is no waiting for climate change to pass; it will only “just get worse.”

So, yes, we’re back in the Paris Agreement and that’s a good thing, but it’s far from sufficient. There is much work to be done. That work involves the implementation of new government regulations and innovative technology such as heat pumps and electric vehicles. But the even harder work involves meeting the challenges of equity, justice, and accessibility, making sure that every person can lead a decent, healthy, and secure life. To do so, we must recognize at a fundamental level that the threats we face should unite us, not divide us; it is the key to our very survival as a species.

Climate Change is a Public Health Crisis

As 2020 mercifully comes to a close, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage out of control, with nearly 20 million cases and over 344,000 deaths in the U.S. alone since the beginning of the year. According to the New York Times, at least 3,800 Americans died yesterday from the coronavirus. Certainly, the development of several effective vaccines in record time is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture, but even there logistical challenges have led to a much slower roll out than originally projected.

Given these horrific circumstances, we are understandably preoccupied with this historic outbreak, but it shouldn’t blind us to the other looming public health threat: the climate emergency. The Lancet, one of the world’s preeminent research medical journals, published a comprehensive study earlier this month focusing on public health data from 2019, warning that heat waves, air pollution, and extreme weather events are inflicting increasing damage on human health. In particular, the links between death, disease, and burning fossil fuels couldn’t be clearer.

“Many carbon-intensive practices and policies lead to poor air quality, poor food quality, and poor housing quality, which disproportionately harm the health of disadvantaged populations,” wrote the dozens of physicians and public health experts from around the world who authored the report.

Among the deadliest effects of global warming are the longer, more intense heat waves now taking place across the planet. As with coronavirus, older people are most at risk. In the past 20 years, the number of people over 65 who have died as a result of extreme heat has increased more than 50 percent. At least 296,000 people died from the heat in 2018, the most recent year for which global data are available, and almost 20,000 older Americans died from heat waves last year.

Furthermore, the Lancet report notes that climate change is a threat to critical public health resources such as hospitals, primary care facilities, and emergency services. Two thirds of the more than 800 cities contacted by researchers said they expect climate change to “seriously compromise public health infrastructure.” With this infrastructure already near the breaking point due to the pandemic, we are obviously in a perilous situation. If nothing else, the past year has underscored how ill-equipped the public health system is to manage major, long-running disasters, even in developed nations such as the U.S., Britain, and Italy.

In another investigation released this month, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Trust for America’s Health conclude that most U.S. states aren’t properly prepared to protect their residents’ health from climate change. Perhaps of deepest concern is the study’s observation that some of the states most vulnerable to climate-related health harms are the least prepared to handle them. Even the states best prepared to deal with these threats, such as Utah, Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, and Colorado, still have plenty of work to do.

The analysis identified three areas of public health readiness that require the most attention:
  • Prehospital care provided by emergency medical services.
  • Mental and behavioral healthcare, including access to social service networks and substance abuse treatment.
  • Social capital and cohesion, the degree to which residents are connected to one another and to local organizations and governments.

Again, the current pandemic has exposed an alarming degree of weakness in all three areas, so these findings should come as little surprise. As the NRDC contends in its summary, given the recent rate of climate change, “we need more progress at the state level—and fast.”

What can we do? Among the report’s recommendations are:
  • More effective federal leadership in developing a national climate and health strategy.
  • Investing in research, training, and public health infrastructure at the state and federal levels.
  • Addressing racial, socioeconomic, and other health inequities that are the root of many climate vulnerabilities.
  • Ensuring community members have a leading role in planning so that those most at risk are at the table.

All of the above suggests that strengthening the public health system should be the top priority for 2021. As we move forward to repair this system, we should keep in mind how the interrelated dynamics of economic inequality, racial injustice, and a broken social contract have all contributed to the deep hole in which we find ourselves at the start of a new year. Only if we do so will we make lasting progress.

No Time Left to Choose How We Go Forward

A recent survey conducted by Washington University in St. Louis found that a majority of voters — 95% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans — acknowledge the existence of evidence for climate change. Not surprisingly, however, Democrats and Republicans differ in how seriously they view the issue and what they believe is causing global warming.

More than 90% of those who support Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden consider climate change as a crisis or major problem and they view human activity as the primary cause. A little less than half of President Donald Trump’s supporters see climate change as a crisis or major problem. Even among Trump supporters who believe climate change is real, only half think human activity is mostly to blame for it. Roughly 20% of Trump supporters deny the existence of climate change and insist that environmentalists are deliberately misleading the public.

The crucial point, of course, is that the science is clear and non-negotiable: there is little to no cushion remaining. This is it. We’ve moved too slowly on climate action, we’ve done far too little for too long, and we need to make an immediate and sharp transition. As Bill McKibben put it in his latest column for the New Yorker, “We think we always have time and space to change, but in this case we do not.” The next four years are critical, and November 3rd is our last best opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate chaos.

Evidence that the climate crisis has arrived is not hard to find. Among other extreme weather events in the last few days, Hurricane Zeta became the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana, the most ever in the state’s history. We actually ran through the English alphabet this season and are now deep into the Greek alphabet. There’s another tropical system forming in the Caribbean Sea this weekend and it has an excellent shot next week at becoming the 28th named storm this year, an unprecedented event. Never before has there been a tropical storm or hurricane named Eta, the next letter in the Greek alphabet after zeta, but we may see one next week.

It just so happens that the lower case form of eta (η) is the symbol in economics for elasticity, a way to measure the responsiveness of one variable to changes in another variable. In economics, a product is said to be elastic when a change in price has a significant effect on demand. Elasticity in climate politics has a similar dynamic: a change in administrations and their policies will have an outsized impact on the stability of our climate.

It seems all too appropriate that a storm named Eta could appear in the same week as the U.S. election, given the high stakes in play. It will be a vivid illustration of the sensitivity of one variable to another and what happens when that sensitivity manifests itself in the political arena. In the end, though, we must keep in mind that the outcome is not a matter of fate or destiny, it is a question of choice — how will we decide to go forward?