It seems that every day a news story brings home the reality of climate change caused by global warming: massive ice sheets cleaving off of Antarctica, more frequent dangerous wildfires, and increased flooding from rising seas.
The scientific consensus is that humans are causing climate change, and that we need to get off fossil fuels if we want to stave off climate catastrophe.
For everyone who accepts reality, the climate situation demands urgent action. Simply put, calling for 100% clean energy by 2050 does not recognize the urgency of the crisis we face. While people calling for an end to fossil fuels by 2050 are not suggesting that we wait 30 years to do anything, this language runs the risk of sending the message that time is on our side. The reality is that the science on climate change dictates that dramatic shifts in our energy infrastructure must start now, and occur over the next decade.
Given the urgency of our climate crisis, and the willingness of millions of Americans to demand changes in our corporate dominated political system, we should make bolder demands. Indeed, the bare facts about climate change demand that we do so.
Crossing Climate Tipping Points Is Irreversible and Dangerous
Fossil fuel-induced global warming is already causing dangerous, potentially irreparable changes to our planet, and threatening public health. Scientists have warned us that global warming would lead to an increasing likelihood of extreme weather events, which are bearing out across the United States and the globe. Increases in drought, flooding, super storms, forest fires, rising sea levels, and extreme heat are all symptoms of climate change, and can have lasting impacts on public health, food production, wildlife, and economic stability.
As the planet warms at a staggering pace, scientists tell us we will trigger various climate tipping points, events that will cause irreversible impacts. Rapidly melting Arctic sea ice is pushing us towards several such tipping points. Less ice cover means less sunlight is being reflected, and that warmth is instead absorbed by the sea. That warms the ocean even faster, which–in a vicious feedback loop–reduces even more ice cover. A similar phenomenon is the release of CO2 and methane from thawing permafrost, the long-frozen soils in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
A major climate risk from barreling past these tipping points is runaway sea level rise. Already, coastal communities are seeing "sunny day flooding," tidal flood events that bring water inland, flooding streets and sewers. These are just some of the sure signs that climate change is here, right now; a rise of two feet in the next 50 years will bring devastation to these communities.
We Must Act Now to Stay Below 1.5 °C
A 2015 study of 37 different tipping points found that, according to various climate models, 18 could be triggered at temperature rises below 2°C. The Paris Agreement seeks to strengthen the global response to climate change by keeping global temperature rise this century “well below” the 2°C of warming since the late 1800s. While the agreement aims to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C, we have reached 1.0 °C already, and the window on stopping global warming at 1.5°C is rapidly closing.
Can we act fast enough? In 2010, the International Panel on Climate Change stated that we have a 2/3 chance of avoiding a 1.5°C rise in temperature if we keep CO2 emissions below 400 gigatons. But to put that in perspective, we have already emitted 200 gigatons of CO2 since 2010. At our current rate of nearly 40 gigatons of CO2 each year, we will exceed that 400 gigaton threshold in about 5 years.
If we don't want climate catastrophe, immediate drastic reductions in carbon emissions are necessary.
Despite the climate warnings, there are plans to build hundreds of new gas fired power plants and thousands of miles of fossil fuel pipelines throughout the United States. Each of these projects is a bet against our future. At best, these projects will result in wasted resources that we will pay for and never use; at worst this infrastructure is locking us into climate catastrophe. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has been predicting growth in fossil fuel energy sources over the next 30 years, and only modest growth in renewable energy. The good news is that those estimates can shift. In fact, they already have; the EIA is now predicting renewables growing 13% more between 2015 and 2021 than it did in last year’s forecast.
Every Day is Critical, and the United States Must Lead
If we are to save our planet from more dangerous and unpredictable impacts of climate change, we must stop all new fossil fuel development immediately. Every day is critical because greenhouse gases are cumulative. From a climate change perspective, each year we emit 40 Gt of CO2 is the same as four years of emissions at 10 Gt of CO2, and every day at current emissions is four days in a year when emissions are at 10 Gt of CO2.
Allowing 1.5°C of warming is too dangerous, and we have a chance to avoid it by acting fast with strong government policies backed by the political will to see them through. Electricity generated by wind and solar power must immediately lead the way. We must make enormous investments now to deploy existing technologies and solutions for harnessing wind and solar power, and for maximizing energy efficiency and conservation. And we must tap electricity from wind and solar power to meet almost all transportation needs.
It is incumbent on the United States, as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, to lead the way in getting the world off fossil fuels. Not only do we have the resources to make this shift happen, but because of our high emission rates, reduction here will have a larger impact on overall global emissions. Countries like the Solomon Islands, which is being swallowed by the ocean as sea levels rise, will have little impact on global emissions of greenhouse gases, despite recent gains the island has seen in renewable energy development.
Renewable Energy Efforts at the Local Level Are Key
This White House will almost certainly not listen to any of this. Donald Trump is worse than a climate change denier; he is the Pied Piper leading us to drown in the river along with the rats. During his first 100 days, he approved the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines; proposed massive cuts to staff and vital programs at the Environmental Protection Agency; started a review to eliminate "burdensome" environmental protections; and started rolling back fracking regulations on federal lands. Just to name a few.
Where the federal government is failing to deliver meaningful climate policies, states and local governments must act fast and decisively to turn the corner on fossil fuels and build out renewable energy. States such as Maryland have banned fracking, cities such as Atlanta have pledged to be 100% renewable, and a plan to build a massive gas storage facility in upstate New York was defeated. We can build on these victories by building the organized political power to make politicians do what is necessary.
Building this power will involve everyone. We still have pipelines and power plants to stop. While there is momentum in certain states and cities, chances are you live in a community that has yet to make a commitment to get off fossil fuels. And if you live somewhere that has made such a commitment, chances are the goals need to be stronger.
This is why our sister organization, Food & Water Watch Action Fund, has launched the Off Fossil Fuels (OFF) campaign: To build political power, beginning at the local level, to end fossil fuel use and transition the US to 100% clean renewable energy now. The transition must be completed at the latest by 2035, with the vast majority of reductions taking place in the next decade.
We have the ability to build 100% renewable energy system today. The only thing standing in our way is a lack of political will. And because of the growing movement for a clean energy revolution, the political winds are shifting. It’s vital that we make dramatic cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions now, in order to buy ourselves some extra time to build out the transition to renewable energy in a just and equitable way.
Besides climate, there are other reasons to get off fossil fuels right now. First and foremost is the threat they pose to public health and the environment. All pipelines will eventually leak, and when they do they can contaminate air and water. All fossil fuel power plants emit co-pollutants, which are causing air quality concerns around the globe. In fact, air pollution is linked to 6.5 million premature deaths every year. The pollution from power plants disproportionately impacts low-income and minority communities.
We require an unprecedented buildout of wind and solar power, storage and efficiency technologies, and conservation solutions, especially expanding and improving public transit. This will be led by cities, states, and towns aiming to beat the 2035 goal, while frontloading most of those reductions over the next decade.
By joining the OFF campaign, you will be joining a network of people working across the country to put an end to fossil fuel projects in their community, and build the political power necessary to get the whole country OFF Fossil Fuels and moving quickly towards 100% renewable energy.