Houston, Harvey, and the Future

The ongoing tragedy in Houston is a dramatic reminder of what will happen if we continue to defer action on global warming. Climate change did not “cause” Hurricane Harvey, but it almost certainly intensified the impact of Harvey. The devastation left in the hurricane’s wake provides us with a glimpse of the future awaiting us if we don’t take extraordinary steps to decarbonize our economy now. As Eric Holthaus notes, “This isn’t just a Houston problem.”

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Houston residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Besides giving us a window on what lies ahead if we don’t act to mitigate climate change, Harvey has underscored the extent to which climate change is a social justice issue. The disproportionate impact on Houston residents of this unprecedented storm couldn’t be starker. The economic divisions of Houston are easy to delineate : neighborhoods to the west and south of Houston are significantly better off than those to the east and north.

True to form, the worst damage has been in the poorer neighborhoods, especially those on the east side closest to the oil refineries and petrochemical plants. “You’re talking about a perfect storm of pollution, environmental racism, and health risks that are probably not going to be measured and assessed until decades later,” says Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard.

Here’s the big picture: currently we are putting 41 billion tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere. Scientists have determined that we can only emit 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide before we run the risk of setting off catastrophic climate destabilization. That means we only have 15 years left before we use up our carbon budget. Obviously we cannot wait until year fourteen and then shoot for zero in that last year.

In fact, an article published this past June in Nature argues that if we do not reach peak emissions by 2020 and begin to drop from there the chances of the of not overspending the carbon budget are minimal. That’s three years from now.

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the Paris climate negotiations, along with several scientists, policy makers, and corporate executives, lay out in this article a six-point plan for ensuring that we reach peak emissions in three years. Everything outlined in the plan is achievable but it will require a level of political will and support from civil society that simply does not exist at present.

Among the targets that the plan sets:

  • At least 30% of world’s electricity supply generated by renewables (currently 23%)
  • No new coal-fired power plants built after 2020 and existing plants on the road to retirement
  • Upgrade at least 3% of building stock to zero- or near-zero emissions structures each year
  • 15% of new car sales are electrical vehicles (currently 1%)
  • The financial sector is mobilizing at least $1 trillion a year for climate action

Ambitious goals, yes, but Hurricane Harvey reminds us of the cost we will pay if we don’t start to move immediately to put carbon emissions on a downward path. “The status quo is not an option,” says David Roberts. “We will end up with some mix of prevention, adaptation, and suffering; it is for us to determine the ratio.”

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Time for an Energy Policy that Makes Sense

We all know that a clear, predictable, and fair national policy encouraging investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy is the key to any real, viable solution to avoiding runaway climate change. If this is the case, then why does the overwhelming bulk of our federal tax dollars go to subsidizing the oil, coal, and gas industries and not clean energy? Why are the tax credits that support the fossil fuel industry permanent and unchallengeable? Why are the tax credits that support renewable energy temporary and constantly up for grabs?

A Shell oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico

According to a 2010 Environmental Law Institute study, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008 to the fossil fuel industry. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. During that same period, the renewable energy industry received only $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of the renewable energy tax credits are permanent.

Of course, as David Roberts writes in Grist, “Comparisons of direct subsidies capture only the tip of a giant iceberg – most of fossil fuels’ big advantages are invisible, beneath the surface, and entirely taken for granted.” Even a quick glance at the indirect subsidies makes clear how uneven the playing field is. External costs such as the public health toll paid for air and water pollution and the national security price of maintaining our addiction to oil amount to trillions of dollars.

Then there are the costs of climate change as superstorms such as Sandy become more frequent and violent. Early estimates of the damage from Sandy range up to $50 billion. And let’s not forget the enormous sunk costs of an infrastructure built on the assumption of cheap fossil energy: highways, suburbs, airports, and the like.

Viewed in this light, as Roberts vividly observes, shifting “from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not like going from Coke to Pepsi; it is to build a new world.” Not even Nate Silver, as good as he is, can tell us how long this new world will take to build and whether we will get far enough along in time to stave off runaway climate change. But one thing we should all be clear about: it’s long past the time to get started, and a national energy policy geared towards this future is an essential first step.