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For years, advocates of action on climate change have debated the merits of renewables versus nuclear energy and emissions trading schemes versus carbon taxes. Yet the pace of the transition to zero emissions — which will ultimately determine the amount of climate devastation we suffer and the economic approach we take — has rarely been a subject of interest. In the wake of the Paris Agreement, that is fortunately beginning to change.
Bill McKibben, for one, emphasized the need for speed in The Guardian Sunday, following the conclusion of the Paris talks:
“Our only hope is to decisively pick up the pace. In fact, pace is now the key word for climate…Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. We know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane, and that the sun is now shining on, well, solar. But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.”
We agree entirely, and we also agree with McKibben that the climate movement’s primary job is to increase the speed of this transition as much as possible. In order to accomplish this, the movement needs to make sure politicians both recognize climate change as an existential crisis and champion science-based emergency plans to protect civilization and the natural world. When politicians seek to minimize the scale of the crisis, or the necessary response, we must issue constructive criticism and challenge them to do better.
When Bernie Sanders announced his “People Before Polluters” platform Dec. 5, McKibben and other environmental leaders seemed to lose their bearings. Annie Leonard of Greenpeace described the plan as “a powerful call for climate justice and decisive action,” while McKibben said, “Bernie’s vision of a transformed America is powerful, because it recognizes both the ecological need and the human priority.” The media has followed suit, describing the plan as “sweeping” and “aggressive.” The Washington Post’s John Wagner characterized the plan as “an environmentalist’s wish list.”
In the rush to praise the Sanders climate plan, leading environmentalists have failed to note that Hillary Clinton ran on the exact same emissions reduction target – 80 percent cuts by 2050 – in 2007. The climate crisis has grown much worse in the past eight years, and the science has become ever clearer that carbon gradualism of this kind is a recipe for disaster. Given Sanders’ promising rhetoric on climate change, and his courageous advocacy on many other issues, we are surprised that “People Before Polluters” embraces many of the untenable assumptions of a failed establishment climate politics.
Emergency Rhetoric, but a Plan Based Upon the 2°C Target
Senator Sanders is an exciting presidential candidate in many ways. Loyalty to him is understandable. He speaks the truth about the collapse of the middle class and the corruption of our democracy. He is mobilizing the public to fight back against the interests that are wrecking our country. Perhaps most importantly, Sanders is acting as a truth-teller on the climate crisis, calling it “cataclysmic” and “the greatest national security threat,” telling Chris Matthews that we must treat climate change “like a war” and arguing that the United States should “lead the world” in addressing the crisis. In response to the recent Paris Agreement, Sanders appropriately characterized it as a step forward that “goes nowhere near far enough.”
Sanders’ climate plan contains many positive elements, such as a carbon tax, bans on the expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure and on all new fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, and “massive investment” in renewable energy and public transit.
However, “People Before Polluters” fails to translate Sanders’ emergency rhetoric into action at emergency speed. The plan aims to cut U.S. carbon emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. This emissions reduction framework is also the basis of Sanders’ new legislation, “The Climate Protection and Justice Act,” which explicitly aims to limit global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The 2°C degree framework has long been criticized as extremely dangerous and has now been rendered outdated by the Paris Agreement. Under pressure from vulnerable nations such as the Marshall Islands, negotiators of the agreement decided to pursue a limit of 1.5°C global warming.
It is concerning that Sanders decided to embrace the 2°C framework. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has repeatedly described the 2°C temperature target as a “prescription for disaster.” In 2009, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G77, urged the world community to abandon the target: “Two degrees centigrade [of warming] translates into 3.75 degrees in Africa, which means basically Africa is being turned into a furnace. That’s basically certain death for Africa.” Not only would 2°C of warming devastate crop yields across the planet, but it would likely cause the complete collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and an enormous sea-level rise that would render the planet “ungovernable.” In addition, warming well below 2°C would likely cause a massive, long-term release of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing Arctic permafrost. A plan that incinerates Africa is not a plan for climate justice.
Furthermore, “People Before Polluters” ignores the fact that current concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are likely enough to eventually produce at least 1.5°C, and very possibly more than 2°C, of warming above pre-industrial levels. At current rates of fossil fuel burning, the planet is likely to cross 2ºC of warming by 2036, according to our advisor, Dr. Michael Mann.
According to the climate scientist Kevin Anderson, “We have no carbon budget left for what I would say is a morally acceptable safe level [of warming]. We have seen 1 degree temperature rise already and we know that people are being severely impacted by that as it is today.”
Humanity is in a race against time, but “People Before Polluters” would have the U.S. pump billions of tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere for decades to come. Indeed, it doesn’t set any timetable for zero emissions at all. This is a plan for catastrophic warming.
How Fast Do We Need To Go?
Justin Gillis of the New York Times reported Sunday that limiting warming to 1.5°C would require global industrial greenhouse gas emissions to come to an end by 2030. Climate researcher Glenn Peters has projected that meeting the 1.5C target would require a global fossil fuel phase-out between 2025 and 2030, as well as a large-scale effort to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Similarly, a group of scientists writing in The Hindu found that developed countries such as the U.S. would need to reach zero emissions in “the next 5-10 years” for a 50 to 66 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.
There is no conceivable way to achieve such a quick transition to zero emissions primarily using market-based mechanisms such as carbon pricing. As Gillis concluded in a Dec. 15, 2014 news analysis — the only way to stabilize temperatures even lower than the now discredited 2°C “guardrail” would be either through “a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime.”
Only a wartime-style mobilization, in which government regulation mandates the early retirement or conversion to zero emissions of all greenhouse-gas emitting plant and equipment, could possibly facilitate such drastic changes on such a tight time-frame. In other words, we need an all-hands-on-deck, emergency mobilization. Carbon pricing could play a modest role in such a program – but not a central one.
The Problem with a Simple Carbon Tax
Sanders’ plan aims to drive the decarbonization of the economy primarily using a carbon tax and large-scale public investment. Sanders told Ezra Klein that he prefers a carbon tax because “it’s the simple and direct way to do it.” Unfortunately, the reliance on a simple carbon tax as the primary decarbonization tool limits the rate at which the U.S. can cut emissions. Raising the price too high and too fast will likely cause economic and political chaos.
A study of a carbon tax very similar to the fee-and-dividend policy proposed by the group Citizen’s Climate Lobby showed that the tax, if implemented next year, would reduce U.S. carbon emissions 33% from current levels by 2025, and 52% by 2035 – which is not even close to the 100% reductions we need in the next 5-10 years. A tax starting at $10 per ton and rising $10 per ton every year would lead to these emissions cuts, according to the study. Although the carbon tax in Sanders’ “Climate Protection and Justice Act” would begin at a higher base of $15 per ton, it would rise at a considerably more gradual rate of $2 per year through 2020, $3 per year through 2030, $4 per year through 2032, and $5 per year through 2035, presumably diminishing the rate of emissions reductions.
A wartime-scale climate mobilization would also involve enormous levels of public investment – on the order of trillions of dollars annually — but would not rely primarily on inherently gradual carbon pricing mechanisms to drive the change process. Simplicity has its merits, but not when it gets in the way of saving our climate and our civilization.
Emergency Mobilization is Necessary
It’s up to brave politicians, alarmed citizens and the growing climate movement to make what is scientifically necessary politically feasible. That is precisely what The Climate Mobilization is trying to accomplish.
We have consulted with experts across the world on what action is actually needed to restore a safe climate. What’s become clear to us is that the stark truth of climate change – and the scale of the solution needed – is rarely stated honestly. Rather, it’s often distorted by layers of denial, confusion, and euphemism. In his characterization of the social atmosphere at the Paris talks, Kevin Anderson aptly describes the willful delusions of the entire climate policy community, as well:
“The whole setup, not just the scientists, the research community around it that funds the research, the journalists, events like this, we’re all being —we’re all deliberately being slightly sort of self-delusional. We all know the situation is much more severe than we’re prepared to voice openly. And we all know this. So it is a — this is a collective sort of façade, a mask that we have.”
The truth is that the atmosphere very likely contains enough greenhouse gases to eventually warm the earth more than 2°C, and that humanity has no “carbon budget” left to burn if we apply basic safety and risk management standards to our treatment of the climate system and civilization. The necessity of a wartime-scale climate mobilization is essentially a hidden consensus among environmental experts. It is an idea that has been espoused in one form or another by McKibben, Michael Mann, John Kerry, Joseph Romm, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and many others.
We hope Senator Sanders will update his climate plan so that it delivers on his emergency rhetoric, is consistent with the science, and will protect vulnerable people and species across the planet. This means driving the U.S. to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and committing to a massive effort to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such a huge, rapid transition of our energy and agricultural systems can only be accomplished through an emergency, wartime-scale mobilization. We would be honored if Senator Sanders joined thousands of Americans and the growing number of elected officials who have signed the Pledge to Mobilize, which is our outline of what such a plan would look like.
We also ask the climate-alarmed and the leaders of the climate movement to work to make the climate mobilization we so badly need politically feasible, and then politically dominant. It is our job to speak the difficult truth and to build broad support for emergency measures. We need visionary leadership from Senator Sanders, but we also need to create a political environment in which he can champion a WWII-scale Climate Mobilization, and win.