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?

Racial Justice and Climate Change

We are currently in the grips of a constellation of crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, the struggle to confront systemic racism, and the ongoing climate emergency. The three do not operate independently of each other, but rather are closely linked, even intertwined. How we address them and their interconnections will determine the future of our nation and the world. “You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities,” writes Sarah Kaplan. “Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.”

The climate emergency, the pandemic and its racially disproportionate impact, and the killing of George Floyd and other shocking instances of police violence have ruthlessly exposed the longstanding racial injustice that forms the core of the American experience. “Whether it is a global pandemic, climate change, or police brutality, people of color — particularly black communities — are always the first and worst hit, and it must end,” Alvaro S. Sanchez, the Environmental Equity Director at The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, rightly insists.

Fighting climate change and Covid-19, in short, means we have to fight racial injustice. As activist  Elizabeth Yeampierre contends, “you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic.”

A George Floyd mural in Houston. Photo by Alfred J Fortier licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The evidence is overwhelming that communities of color are the most threatened by Covid-19. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made available as the result of a New York Times law suit, shows that Latinos and African Americans  have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors. Furthermore, African Americans and Latinos have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.

When it comes to exposure to pollution, the data is not any better. “Sixty-eight per cent of black people live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant,” notes  Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. in a recent interview with Bill McKibben. “We know that the destruction of Hurricane Maria, Harvey, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy all had a direct impact not only on marginalized and vulnerable communities but on communities of color, which reinforces that racial justice and climate justice are linked.” Yeampierre points specifically to the prevalence of asthma and upper respiratory disease in black communities. In her words, “we’ve been fighting for the right to breathe for generations.”

Just how bad are the disparities? Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington last year compared Americans’ exposure to fine particulates to how much pollution their consumption generates. They found that whites experience 17% less exposure to pollution, on average, than their own consumption causes. In stark contrast, African Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than their consumption generates, and Latinos experience 63% more. It would be hard to find a more striking illustration of white privilege.

White environmentalists often jump to the conclusion that communities of color are too caught up in their day-to-day struggle for survival to care about climate change. But, in fact, climate change is not an abstract concept to black and brown people; they are faced with the consequences of climate instability on a near daily basis. As a result, these under-served communities represent what one analyst calls “a well of support for broader action.” In fact, a poll conducted a year ago by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 49% of white respondents expressed “alarm” or “concern” about global warming. The figures for Latino and African-American respondents were 69% and 57%, respectively.

The unmistakable message of our time is that we have to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice. We must end the practice of making some communities sacrifice zones, understanding that in the end we all pay a price for this short-sighted approach. Instead, we must build a clean energy economy that benefits all and strengthens the resilience of local communities.

 

Covid-19, Species Collapse, and the Climate Emergency

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic comes word that the collapse of thousands of wildlife species sparked by the climate crisis could take place as early as the next decade if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. Just as unsettling: this collapse wouldn’t happen in a long, slow slide, but rather would be far more abrupt than previously thought.

As Alex Pigot, a scientist at University College London and co-author, told a New York Times reporter, “For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they’re not. Then, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already fallen over this cliff edge.”

Recent coral bleaching events suggest that ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans may already be underway. Photo by ARC Centre of Excellence licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

The study, published in Nature earlier this month, examined more than 30,000 species on land and in water to determine when climate change would dramatically reduce population levels and what the pace of those changes would be. The scientists identified the hottest temperature that a species is known to have survived and then projected when that temperature would be reached under different emissions scenarios.

The bad news? Abrupt collapse of tropical ocean ecosystems could begin “before 2030” and “spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050” at the current rate of emissions. On the other hand, if global warming stays below 2 degrees C, the number of species endangered would decline by 60 percent and the number of ecosystems exposed to catastrophic collapse would be limited to less than 2 percent.

The benefits of what one of the researchers called “early and rapid action” on limiting greenhouse gas emissions could hardly be clearer. The extinction of vast swaths of species upon which human survival depends would be avoided, although many people and species would still be vulnerable.

If you see a parallel here to the coronavirus crisis, you’re not alone. Early and rapid action, where it has taken place, has saved thousands of lives. But in those parts of the world that waited too long, once the infections took hold and multiplied  exponentially, it was too late and disaster ensued

So what will it be? Do we take the necessary steps now and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that keep us alive or do we continue to avoid making the hard decisions and fall off the cliff edge? It’s a stark and unavoidable choice. The one positive thing that could come from the current pandemic, an event that has taken nearly 165,000 lives so far and inflicted widespread economic suffering, would be the wisdom sufficient to make the right choice about the future of our planet.

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus is an unsettling reminder of how chaotic and uncertain the world can be. Seemingly out of the blue, this new and deadly virus is upending life across the globe — the latest reports identify almost 50 countries that have confirmed cases of infection.

In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, manufacturing, construction, and other economic activities have dramatically slowed down and even come to a halt, while air travel in the country has decreased by 70 percent. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have declined by 25 percent.

A significant majority of American voters now support the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that a similar unraveling of daily life is what the climate emergency has in store for us. The sense of foreboding is palpable. The fragility of modern life, its dependence on complex webs of supply chains, intricate social systems, infrastructure, and technology: all of it is up for grabs as we confront an epic series of disasters.

“Not all that long ago,” David Wallace-Wells observed this week, “climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense.” Now, though, it has come “roaring into the present with a terrifying fury.” The incineration of one quarter of Australia’s forests in a single fire season underscores his point.

The ravages of climate destabilization, of course, are not confined to environmental destruction. Rising sea levels, extended droughts, flash floods, and wild fires are perhaps its most obvious manifestations. But less visible developments such as malaria, malnutrition, and heat stress will just as surely cause death and misery for millions of people as the climate crisis accelerates. If only global warming could inspire the kind of collective action that our fear of epidemics does.

More than ever, we need to remember that our fates as individuals and nations are intertwined. The poorest countries, as well as the most marginalized communities in the developed world, will continue to find themselves exposed disproportionately to the havoc that is underway. Just as doctors and nurses are rushing forward into the fray to care for patients struck down by COVID-19, the more fortunate among us need to act with a keen awareness that we are all in this together. It’s not just a question of morality; the survival of human civilization depends on it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Rise of the Climate Justice Movement

As we close out the second decade of the 21st century, the stark reality is that the climate crisis has been getting worse every year. We are just now wrapping up the second warmest year on record and the last five years are the hottest ever recorded. Australia’s two hottest days in history took place one after another in mid-December, and then on Christmas Eve exceptionally warm weather  melted the most ice across Antarctica in a single day than any other day on record: 15 percent. Scientists warned earlier this month that the planet’s oceans are losing oxygen at an unprecedented rate as the temperature rises. I could go on.

Climate Strike in Edinburgh, September 20, 2019. Photo by Magnus Hagdorn licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The worsening climate emergency, however, is not the whole story. As Sharon Zhang notes, “the climate crisis escalated in 2019,” but “so did the climate justice movement.”

Arguably the most important development of the climate movement in the past decade, climate justice provides a radically new framework for organizing. It examines the sources and impact of climate change as well as responses to it, and asks who is affected first and worst in each case. In the words of Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, “Climate change affects everyone, but will not impact everyone equally.”

The recent emergence of the Green New Deal has underscored the central tenet of climate justice, that social equity needs to be at the center of any effort to shrink our greenhouse gas emissions. Calling on the federal government to drive public and private investments and meet climate targets, as Julian Brave NoiseCat writes, the Green New Deal seeks to “create millions of green jobs while modernizing infrastructure and leveling the playing field so that everyone – particularly communities of color, women, and working families – can participate in a new economy.”

The Sunrise Movement, which first appeared in 2018 and came into its own in 2019, has been one of the most effective proponents of the Green New Deal. Made up mostly of young people who came of age during the climate crisis, the Sunrise Movement campaigned across the country for the Green New Deal this past year. Marisa Lansing and Cheyenne Carter, two local Sunrise Movement leaders, explained at their presentation to TCCPI in October that the Sunrise theory of change emphasizes “democratic people power.” As they put it, “We build our people power by talking to people” and “through escalated moral protest.”

The Green New Deal has a long ways to go before becoming established policy, but make no mistake: it has dramatically changed the tone and dynamic of the climate debate and who is participating in it. It has brought a new moral focus to the conversation and infused it with a fresh, vibrant energy that can’t help but give one hope for the future, even in the face of increasingly dire news about the climate.

Up in Flames or Fired Up?

The climate news, to say the least, has not been good this autumn. In particular, the fires sweeping across California have captured the headlines. Driven by the Santa Ana winds, they have taken on near biblical proportions. The largest of these conflagrations, the Kincade fire in Sonoma, has consumed almost 77,000 acres as of this Halloween evening and it is still only 45 percent contained. Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power to millions of people in an effort to prevent new blazes, which continue to flare up around the state.

The Kincade fire in northern California.

Although an eight-year drought ended in March, the seasonal rains have been late this fall and the fierce winds, which usually arrive after the rains begin, have dried out the land, turning California into a tinder box. Under these conditions, the slightest spark can ignite a raging wild fire at a moment’s notice.

Not surprisingly, the changing climate has been a significant factor. As one climate scientist notes, “everything that’s occurring today is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would have been if the same Santa Ana wind event were happening 100 years ago.” The combination of a multi-year drought and historically hotter summers is bad enough, but throw in 60-70 mile per hour winds and you have an obvious recipe for a horror show worse than any Halloween trickster could possibly conjure up.

To put it bluntly, the California fires demonstrate how unprepared we are for the climate emergency we have set in motion as a result of our profligate consumption of fossil fuels. As Russell Brandom writes, “The slow-moving nature of the climate crisis means that, under even the best scenarios, these fires will keep growing for the next 40 years. The longer we keep going this way, the more powerful they’ll get.” It’s this gradual unfolding of the climate catastrophe that is the crux of the problem. Our institutions, especially our political system, are designed to respond to sudden threats, not ones that take generations to emerge.

If you are a member of the young generation whose future is most at stake, however, then your perspective shifts dramatically. What you see is the disaster, not the gathering accumulation of forces that has led to its outbreak. Many of us who are older have become numb to the growing crisis and have, to one degree or another, become resigned to the situation or are unwilling to make the tradeoffs required to meet the challenge.

It is for this very reason that the Sunrise Movement is fired up and demanding to be heard, in Ithaca and across the country. The young members of this movement have made clear that if the current political leaders do not rise to the challenge, then they will be held accountable. It is a development worth keeping in mind as the Ithaca Common Council considers the budget for the city’s Green New Deal.

Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”

An Inflection Point in the Climate Fight?

The weather in Tompkins County has been beautiful this June. Spring got off to a slow start in April, with one rainy, gray day following another and temperatures at night dipping into the 30s even at the end of May. But then June arrived and with it so did the warmer and sunnier days. Gardens are exploding with new growth, the fields and roadside ditches are full of wild flowers and the landscape is green and lush.

 

We have every reason to be grateful. But in much of the world the climate emergency continues unabated. Just a few of the noteworthy items in the news recently:
  • Record-shattering heat assailed Europe this past week, with temperatures hitting well above 100 degrees F in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. In fact, Europe’s five hottest summers in the past 500 years have all occurred in the last 15 years.
  • The wave of scorching weather has been even worse in India, where hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of acute water shortages and crop failures. The temperature in the city of Churu, hit 123 degrees, “making it the hottest place on the planet,” according to the Guardian. Several of India’s biggest cities are on the verge of running out of water.
  • In the Canadian Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than scientists predicted. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • A new United Nations report warned of “climate apartheid,” asserting that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were all increasingly at risk. The report observed that developing countries will bear 75% of climate crisis costs, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the face of this mounting evidence of runaway climate change, the U.S. refused to join nineteen other nations this week at the G20 Summit in Japan in a reaffirmation of their commitment to implementing the Paris Treaty. The U.S. objected on the grounds that doing so would hurt American workers and taxpayers.
As the 2018 achievements of Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) coalition members show, our community has pursued a wide range of activities to tackle the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The unanimous approval by the City Common Council of Mayor Svante Myrick’s Green New Deal for Ithaca is another dramatic indication of the local commitment to battle the climate crisis, marking a potential inflection point. But clearly there is much work to be done and, as the onrush of global developments starkly reminds us, there is little time to waste. If we are to bend the curve of history in the right direction and avoid catastrophe, we must redouble our efforts and push onward, refusing to rest on our laurels.

NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act

As the City of Ithaca considers possible next steps on climate action, it would do well to look downstate for inspiration. On April 18 the New York City Council passed a sweeping “Climate Mobilization Act” to fight climate change, a package of seven bills that supporters said would help build a “Green New Deal for New York City.” The legislation passed by a 45-2 vote.

Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Andreas Komodromos licensed under CC BY-2.0.
The centerpiece of the package requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut climate emissions 40% by 2030 and more than 80% by 2050, which officials said is “the most ambitious energy efficiency legislation in the country.” In addition, the legislation:
  • Requires green roofs, solar panels, and/or small wind turbines on certain buildings
  • Establishes a renewable energy and energy efficiency loan program
  • Streamlines the application and siting process for wind turbine installation across the city
  • Orders the city to carry out a study on the feasibility of closing its 24 oil- and gas-fired power plants and replacing them with energy storage and renewable power

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” said Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University.

As the New York Times observed in its coverage of the story, “Buildings are among the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions because they use lots of energy for heating, cooling and lighting, and they tend to be inefficient, leaking heat in the winter and cool air in the summer through old windows or inadequate insulation.” An inventory published in 2017 of greenhouse gas emissions in New York City found that buildings accounted for two-thirds of the city’s overall emissions.

It is for this very reason that TCCPI moved in 2016 to establish the Ithaca 2030 District as its new flagship program, joining a network of 22 cities in North America seeking to improve the energy and water performance of their downtown commercial buildings. Currently, the network has 493 million square feet committed. New York City is in the process of also establishing a 2030 District in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, and it should soon be up and running.

The Ithaca Green Building Policy marks a significant step towards encouraging new development projects to become more environmentally sensitive. As the policy enters the process of codification, however, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of commercial construction in the city is made up of already existing buildings. How does Ithaca intend to address this issue? The Climate Mobilization Act just passed by the New York City Council points the way.

This Time Albany Sets the Pace; Can Ithaca Catch Up?

More often than not Ithaca is ahead of the curve, providing cutting-edge leadership on progressive issues such as the ban on fracking and new approaches to drug policy. But, as the recent letter from the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of his Green New Deal reveal, the city finds itself lagging significantly behind when it comes to climate action and clean energy.

Students strike for climate action. Photo by Stop Adani licensed under CC BY-2.0 .

The call from Albany for New York’s power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040 — at the heart of the state’s Green New Deal — poses a direct challenge to a city hall that has shown little inclination to discourage developers from relying on natural gas for new projects downtown or elsewhere. The governor’s mandate underscores the need for immediate action by the city to demonstrate its commitment to this new statewide target.

Kudos, then, to the City Planning Board for recognizing in its letter that there need to be “more tangible and stringent energy code requirements.” And further kudos for acknowledging that climate change requires a broader approach than simply adopting a new green building code, although this would certainly be a major step in the right direction. The planning board rightly asserts “it is imperative that we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.” In particular, the city needs to put in place “new fossil fuel reduction standards that are able to be upheld by various bodies, are easy to understand for the public and members of board and committees from various backgrounds, and will live in perpetuity within City Code.”

Where is the leadership for moving the community as a whole, not just city operations, off of fossil fuels and establishing a policy for achieving 100% renewable power by 2040? Will the mayor and Common Council respond to this challenge? Across the U.S., according to the Sierra Club, over 90 cities have already adopted ambitious 100% clean energy goals, sometimes even including heat and transportation, not just electricity. Why isn’t Ithaca on the Sierra Club list?

The usual suspects such as Boulder, Burlington, Cambridge, Madison, and Palo Alto can be found on this list, but the appearance of other cities such as Augusta, GA, Norman, OK, and West Chester, PA make it clear that Ithaca’s absence is an embarrassment. What will it take for the city’s leaders to rectify this situation?

One thing is certain: young people across the globe are getting fed up with the complacency of the older generation in charge. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, thousands of students in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Uganda, Thailand, Colombia, Poland, and more are taking to the streets to demand change. On March 15, American students will have their chance to join others from around the world. It would not be surprising if Ithaca students join this global movement. If they do, will the city listen to them and be ready to demonstrate its commitment to climate action and clean energy?

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Ithaca Voice on March 18, 2019.