The 2015 Paris Agreement was supposed to be a landmark moment in the fight against climate change. More than two decades after the UN held its first Earth Summit to discuss sustainable development, the group had finally produced what was hailed as the “world’s first comprehensive climate agreement.”
Under the agreement, the international community would work together to hold global warming “well below” an agreed-upon limit of 2ºC, to be achieved by way of strict, enforceable caps on carbon emissions asking very nicely if everybody would maybe knock it off with the pollution, please?
With countries left to set their own emissions targets and no mechanism in place to punish rogue polluters, would it surprise you to learn that we’re currently on pace to blow past 4ºC of warming by century’s end?
Fear not though, for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change returned last October with a secret weapon that they hoped would bolster their case for climate action: the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC. Per the report, well, this is awkward, did we say two degrees was fine? We meant 1.5ºC of warming *might* be survivable, but we’d have to restructure our entire way of living, like, right now.¹ So seriously, knock it off. Hello? Anybody?
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Because I am stupid and naive, I read the IPCC report with a feeling of hope. The news was—just about literally—apocalyptically bad. Could it finally be bad enough to finally spur us to meaningful climate action? After all, here were the world’s top experts putting the issue in clear, undeniable terms: we have the next few decades to fully decarbonize the global economy, and tens of millions will face global warming-induced suffering if we don’t.²
Anticipating a wave of newly energized climate advocates, I wrote an excessively long essay detailing the report and its policy implications. It would be my little contribution to the climate revolution that was surely coming.
Climate change also came in behind the Cleveland Browns, Justin Bieber, and turtles
Well, not quite nothing. The IPCC report has generated a lot of encouraging conversations (and even concrete action!) among the sorts of people who read climate reports for fun. But that energy still hasn’t filtered out into the collective consciousness in the way that many had hoped.
It’s hard to be too surprised. For being the rare crisis we’re able to anticipate with multiple decades’ notice, climate change has always had something of a messaging problem. You want people to be worried about gases they can’t see or smell, which may or may not directly affect them (in one of a dozen possible ways) sometime in the next few decades? And it’s going to cost money to fix? Uh huh, sure.
So when the U.S. Global Change Research Program published its latest Climate Science Special Report a month later, I resisted the urge to write another breakdown of the data. (It largely follows the same contours as the IPCC report anyway, plus a deeply troubling assessment of our country’s deteriorating infrastructure.) While it’s certainly nice to hear an official outlet of our climate-change-denying government say things like: “In the absence of significant global mitigation action and regional adaptation efforts, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities.” That sort of economic policy jargon clearly isn’t going to win over hearts and minds.com
BREAKING: Trump on dire warning issued by his administration on economic effects of climate change: ‘I don’t believe it’
— The Associated Press (@AP) November 26, 2018
And then? Nothing
But it does raise the question: what kinds of arguments might be more compelling? What kind of case can we make to our, say, well-meaning but conservative parents? (Hi Dad!)
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What is it, first of all, that we’re arguing for? Given the urgency of the IPCC report, we need to start thinking well beyond changes to our individual consumption habits if we want to mount a serious resistance to climate change. Saving our respective butts is going to require sustained, coordinated action at all levels of society. So it’s important to be realistic (that is, radical) in our aims.
There are those who will tell you that fighting for anything less than complete carbon neutrality is effectively climate change denial. And when we’re measuring the effects of warming in millions of lives and trillions of dollars, those folks make a very compelling point. So let’s take that as our baseline.
Unless you support radical decarbonization — 100% carbon-free energy in the U.S. by 2030 and a plan that centers justice and equity like the Green New Deal — you are a centrist and you are risking the very existence of human civilization and I will not be quiet about this. https://t.co/W6vytaJpns
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) December 2, 2018
Now, unless your dad happens to be Rick Perry, you can’t go around demanding that he singlehandedly decarbonize the American economy.³ But you’ll want to come in with some demands, and explaining what can and can’t go in the recycling for the eleventh time isn’t going to cut it anymore. Collective action is our best tool for demanding change of any kind, so insist that your parents come along to your next organizing meeting or climate protest. (You’ve been going to those, right?)
One of the few bright spots in the climate conversation is the recent emergence of a coherent and far-reaching environmental strategy, the Green New Deal. Originally championed by folks like Thomas Friedman and Jill Stein (I know, I know), the GND has jumped into the mainstream⁴ with the endorsement of America’s foremost young socialist, Congresswoman-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Her vision calls for a new House committee that would develop a “national, industrial, economic mobilization plan…for the transition of the United States economy to become carbon neutral…and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality.”⁵
Under the proposed GND, the U.S. would:
- transition to 100% renewable power sources and create a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid;
- upgrade every residential and industrial building to state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety standards;
- decarbonize manufacturing, agriculture, and other industries, as well as our transportation systems and other infrastructure;
- fund massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases;
- make “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, and lead other countries in developing their own carbon-neutral economies; and do it all within 10 years, just like the scientists said we should. It’s a deeply ambitious plan, one that would put environmental concerns at the center of our national policy for the first time. And the GND proposes not only a rapid and radical transition, but a just one. At a time when fuel tax hikes are inciting violent protests in France, Ocasio-Cortez argues that well-structured legislation would not just reduce inequality (rather than passing the burden to the working class) but “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.”
Calling for green career training, a federal jobs guarantee, and equitably-distributed investment, the GND takes the traditionally opposing interests of environment and economy and deftly marries them together. It’s not just a holistic climate solution; it’s a messaging marvel.
Sure, not everyone’s parents are going to jump at legislation that has socialism written directly on the tin. Not much to do about that. But the success of the Green New Deal, as evidenced by its enthusiastic reception thus far, is its ability to reframe the climate issue in a hopeful light.
Think about all the climate messaging you’ve heard. Drowning polar bears, worsening superstorms, wars over water and food…it’s all scary stuff, and with good reason. The overarching message has long been that climate change is going to make things worse, but with a lot of hard work, we might be able to get back to something like the status quo. How’s that going over with Mom and Dad?
What the GND proposes is: what if climate change actually offers us an opportunity to make life better for everyone? In effect, what if we could create jobs, reinvest in our infrastructure, generally make our lives more comfortable, and even clean up our planet at the same time? It’s concrete and easy to understand, it addresses people’s immediate (read: economic) concerns, and most importantly it gives people something to hope for.⁶
Not only does this kind of economic framing engage people who are otherwise agnostic to climate issues, but it can also provide an entry point to discussions with the openly antagonistic. Even your climate-change-denying mother and Chevron-employed father can find a way to get behind a green plan if it’s going to improve their material conditions. There’s a reason the New Deal Coalition dominated American politics for three decades.
But how do we pay for it? Simple! Tax polluters by the ton of carbon they produce. Tax the richest 10%, who create as much carbon from their lifestyles alone as the bottom 90% and who fund/profit from/make up the extractive industries that are holding us back. Tax those who benefit from the dirtying of our world and spread the benefits to those who have suffered the worst effects. (n.b. use your judgement as to how well this specific point will go over with your right-leaning parents, but please do check out that other thing I wrote if this sort of thinking appeals to you.)
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Now, the GND isn’t the only game in town when it comes to climate policy—and good thing, because it has already been slapped down by the Democratic establishment and will be sure to face well-funded opposition if it ever sees the floor—but it’s the best-articulated vision I’ve seen yet. Because even more than a climate change platform, it’s an environmental justice platform.
This concept of environmental justice was a revelation to me when I first heard it, and I think it can help change the conversation for other people, too. Put simply, it’s the idea that environmental policy can be a framework for all sorts of social and political change. What do zoning laws have to do with climate change, for example? Fracking wells, garbage dumps, and other unpleasant fixtures of our dirty economy are often shunted into poorer and less white neighborhoods by powerful zoning boards. So by demonstrating how clean power and sustainable consumption would help reshape these neighborhoods for the better, your monthly zoning meeting becomes an easily-accessible avenue for climate action.⁷
This brings up another important point about how to frame the climate conversation. The more you can localize the issue, the better. One useful feature of the latest USGCP report is its focus on regional effects throughout the United States. Check out the section for your region, and incorporate the relevant issues into your pitch.
Just like jobs can be a magic word for the climate-disinterested, health and safety are another useful conversation starter. When I was out canvassing for Proposition 112, an anti-fracking bill that failed after oil and gas companies spent $40M+ on negative advertising, I wanted nothing more than to argue with strangers about the reality of global warming. But organizers (rightly) convinced me otherwise. For as long as climate science remains a divisive issue, it’s often more effective to show voters how these things directly affect them. And so instead of picking fights, I gleefully explained to anyone who would listen how underregulated fracking infrastructure could easily blow up their beautiful homes, just as it did last year in Firestone and numerous other places across the state. We may not have gotten the measure passed, but I know we made quite a few folks think differently about the dangers of fracking.
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And hey, that’s a nice coda to this whole thing. The single most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk to people. Talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Talk to your congressperson. Go stand in the street with a big crowd of people and talk to the news cameras.
This is an important moment in the climate fight, if partly because our scientist friends have reminded us that we only have so many moments left. Banging your head against the wall of climate denial and apathy is painful, I know, but these are conversations worth having. If you’re running into a brick wall of “Marxist conspiracies” and “unsettled science,” don’t keep wasting your time. What’s more important is to motivate and engage folks who care but aren’t sure how to help.
I don’t mean to go overboard with the optimistic ending here; we’ve gotten ourselves into a big ol’ mess, and things are going to get worse before they get better. We basically have 12 years to get our act together, and it’s hard to foresee any positive change on a national or global scale in the next two. But there are little rumblings momentum from above and below. If we do the work now, we can give ourselves a chance in this fight. So, hey, why not call your mom?
- IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC
- 2017 U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report (NCA4 Volume 1)
- 2018 U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report (NCA4 Volume 2)
- Green New Deal draft text
- The Game-Changing Promise of a Green New Deal – Naomi Klein
- Building a “Green New Deal”: Lessons From the Original New Deal – Matt Huber
- “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure…These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors…These options are technically proven at various scales but their large-scale deployment may be limited by economic, financial, human capacity and institutional constraints in specific contexts, and specific characteristics of large-scale industrial installations.”
- Many will still suffer from climate-induced suffering if we do, but the difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC is multiple orders of magnitude.
- If your dad does happen to be Rick Perry, please consider demanding he singlehandedly decarbonize the American economy.
- *Relatively speaking
- That’s a marked change from the next closest project from Congressional sessions past, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The HSCEIGW (gross), which existed between 2007–2011, was designed to investigate and recommend green energy strategies but had no ability to propose legislation. After 80-odd hearings, the committee helped produce a cap and trade bill that never made it as far as the Senate. (And thank god, honestly, because it would have generated more heat from politicians patting themselves on the backs than it would have reduced from emissions.)
- Well, most importantly it keeps us from going extinct. But you know how it is.
- A similar logic can be applied to health justice: rather than trying to get people excited about insurance rates and risk pools, we can talk about how affordable housing and healthy food correlate with better health outcomes.