Tag: Environment

Achieving 100% Renewable Energy

We watch in horror as the damages from climate change continue to mount.

Last year, Hurricane Harvey dropped more rain on Houston than any storm has ever dropped on any American city, ever. Hurricane Maria set back development in Puerto Rico 25 years, according to early estimates. And the tab keeps mounting: in 2017 alone, the economic cost of hurricanes and wildfires was greater than the cost of paying tuition for every American in a public college or university. We can’t have a working nation or a world if we don’t stop the climate from careening out of control. That’s been clear for decades now, but what’s been less clear is precisely what we should do about it.

Happily, that’s no longer the case. We now know exactly what to do, and we’re increasingly certain it can be done. We have to switch off of coal, oil, and gas, and on to 100% wind, water, and sun energy sources. And though this drive for a conversion to clean energy started in northern Europe and northern California, it’s a call that’s gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves. More and more major US cities have taken the pledge to go 100% renewable by the year 2050, while others have taken action to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry, signifying a global shift in how we’re thinking about our energy system.

What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. It’s how progressives will think about energy going forward.

Former President Barack Obama drove environmentalists crazy with his “all of the above” energy policy, which treated sun and wind as two items on a long menu that also included coal, gas and oil. That’s simply not good enough. No more half-measures.

Scientists now tell us that at current rates, within a decade we’ll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the earth past the Paris climate targets. And in any event there’s no need any longer to go slow: engineers have in the last few years brought the price of renewables so low that it would make sense to switch over even if fossil fuel wasn’t wrecking the earth. In fact, that’s why the appeal of 100% renewables goes well beyond the left: if you pay a power bill, clean energy is increasingly the common-sense path forward. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen automatically: the fossil fuel industry recognizes its peril, and is rallying all the political power its cash reserves can buy to prevent the idea getting traction. It’s going to be a hell of a fight.

“..if you pay a power bill [100% renewable] is increasingly the common-sense path forward.”

To understand why it took a while to get here, consider the solar panel. We’ve actually had this clever device for quite a while: Bell Labs produced the first recognizable models in 1954. They were only about four percent efficient, and they were incredibly expensive to produce, which meant that they didn’t find many uses on planet Earth. In space, however, they were essential: Buzz Aldrin deployed a solar panel on the moon not long after Apollo 11 touched down.

Improvements in efficiency and drops in price came slowly for the next few decades (Ronald Reagan, you may recall, took down the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed atop the White House). But in 1998, with climate fears on the rise, Germany’s Green Party found itself holding the political balance of power after a close election. In return for its support, the Social Democratic government began moving quickly toward renewable energy. German demand for solar panels and wind turbines coincided with rapidly growing Chinese industrial capacity in the early years of the new millennia, as factories across the People’s Republic learned to make the panels ever more cheaply.

There are now days when Germany generates half of its power from the sun—and, more to the point, the price of a panel began to truly plummet years ago, a freefall that continues to this day. By 2017, solar or wind power had won most competitive bids for electric supply, and India announced the closure of dozens of coal mines and the cancellation of plans for dozens of new coal-fired generation stations because the cost of solar power was badly undercutting fossil fuel. Even in places like Abu Dhabi, the comparative advantage of free power from the sun is impossible to resist, and massive arrays are going up amidst the oil fields.

“What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. “

One person who noticed the falling prices and improving technology early on was Mark Jacobson, the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program. In 2009 his team published a series of plans showing how the United States could generate all its energy from the sun, the wind, and the falling water that produces hydropower. Two years later,  along with actor Mark Ruffalo and other co-conspirators, Marc co-founded The Solutions Project to take the idea out of academic journals and into the real world. The group has since published similarly detailed plans for most of the planet’s countries. (If you want to know how many acres of south-facing roof you can find in Alabama, or how much wind blows across Zimbabwe, these are the folks to ask).

With each passing quarter the price of solar and wind power has fallen farther, moving the 100 percent target from aspirational goal to the obvious solution. I spent the spring of 2017 in some of the poorest parts of Africa where people—for the daily price of enough kerosene to fill a single lamp—were now installing solar panels and powering up TVs, radios, and LED bulbs. If you can do it in Germany and you can do it in Ghana, you can probably do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.

That’s especially true since renewable energy is lights-on popular across the American political spectrum. The polling data is almost unbelievable: in a country with a yawning partisan gulf on virtually every issue, one poll after another shows that massive majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents favor government action to develop renewable energy.

“The fossil fuel industry is well aware that they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in the past as long as possible.”

Even 72% of Republican voters want to “accelerate the development of clean energy” in the United States. That helps explain why, say, the Sierra Club is finding dramatic success with its Ready for 100 campaign. Sure, Berkeley was quick to sign on, and Madison, Wisconsin. But by the early summer of 2017 the U.S. Conference of Mayors had endorsed the drive, and leaders were popping up in unexpected places.

Columbia South Carolina mayor Steve Benjamin even said, “It’s not an option. It’s an imperative.” Environmental groups from Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and Water Watch are backing the 100% target, differing mainly on how quickly we must achieve the transition, with answers ranging from 2028 to 2050. (The right answer, given the state of the planet, is 25 years ago. The second best response: as fast as is humanly possible.)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders joined with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley in the spring of 2017 to propose the first federal 100 percent bill. It won’t pass Congress any time soon, but Congress is not the only legislative body that matters in America—you could make an argument that in the Trump era capitals like Sacramento are just as important.

In a conscious bid to recreate the spirit of the Paris climate talks, California governor Jerry Brown summoned the world’s “sub-national” leaders—governors, mayors, regional administrators—to a giant San Francisco conference in September of 2018:

“Look, it’s up to you, and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization and join together to combat the existential threat of climate change,” said Brown, as he invited the world to his gathering. If activists have their way over the next few months, many of those cities and states will arrive in the Bay bearing pledges to take their places totally renewable.

That’s not to say that this fight is going to be easy. The fossil fuel industry is well aware that they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in the past as long as possible. Every year they can drag out the transition means billions of dollars in revenue.

The arguments against renewables has always been: the sun goes down, the wind ceases to blow. Indeed, one group of academics challenged Jacobson’s calculations last spring partly on these grounds.  But technology marches on: Elon Musk’s batteries work in Tesla cars, but scaled up they also make it possible, and economic, for utilities to store the afternoon’s sun for the evening’s electric demand. As one California utility executive said at an industry meeting in May 2017, “The technology has been resolved. How fast do you want to get to 100 percent? That can be done today.”

The trouble,  however, is that most utility executives think in very different ways. The growth in new rooftop  solar installations has come to what the New York Times called “a shuddering halt,” largely because of “a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners.” Instead of cutting residents a break for helping solve the climate crisis, the utilities—led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Edison Electric Institute (whose lobbying efforts ratepayers actually underwrite)—are eager to end “net-metering” laws that let customers sell excess power they generate back to the grid. That’s pretty much the law that Germany used to make itself a renewable energy powerhouse—and in the process cause huge losses for its utilities.

Rather than trying to adapt to renewable energy, says industry observer Nancy LaPlaca, “utilities have a great monopoly going and they want to keep it.” They use their political clout to make sure that state regulators roll over.  Sometimes the results are truly ludicrous—Arizona, for instance, whose capital lies in the “Valley of the Sun” and whose sports fans root for the Suns and the Sun Devils, produces only about 4% of its power from solar energy. Its biggest utility has showered state regulators with dark money to keep it that way—in fact, in the spring of 2017 a former utility commissioner and his wife were indicted by the feds, along with an industry lobbyist, for their role in anti-solar shenanigans.

And it’s not just right-wing Republicans who want to keep business as usual chugging along. Democrats have often found themselves supporting new fossil fuel plans because they are beholden to the building trades unions for campaign support. That was the case last fall when the AFL-CIO, reflecting those building trades members, released a statement supporting the Dakota Access pipeline days after the security companies hired by the oil industry had sicced German Shepherds on indigenous protesters:

“The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy,” labor chief Richard Trumka said in a statement.  “Pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs.” And of course Donald Trump approved the project early in his presidency, shortly after a cheerful meeting with the heads of the building trades unions. The first oil flowed through it the same afternoon that he pulled America out of the Paris climate accords.

That means, of course, that renewables advocates need to emphasize the jobs that will be created as we move towards sun and wind—and since those jobs aren’t always going to be in the same places as the fossil fuel ones they replace, a just transition for displaced workers is needed. There are already far more Americans employed in the solar industry than in the coal fields, and we’re still near the start of the conversion: Sanders and Merkley produced studies to show their federal 100 percent bill, beyond its generous transition benefits, would produce three million net new jobs over the coming decades.

Environmental justice advocates, who have been at the front of the climate fight, are quick to point out that a push for renewables needs to means more than EV charging stations and solar panels on the roofs of people who can afford big roofs. If a city announces it’s going 100% renewable and then keeps buying diesel buses (or stops buying buses altogether, relying on Lyft and Uber to create an alternate transit system), then it would be an empty boast.

“America’s twisted politics may slow the transition to renewables, but other countries are now pushing the pace.”

Meanwhile, renters need ways to join the renewable revolution, just like homeowners. None of it’s easy. As Jacqui Patterson, who heads the NAACP’s environmental justice work, says: “people now lose their lives for not being able to pay for electricity—they’re burning down their houses by using candlelight, or because their oil has run out and they have to use heaters,  or they’re on respirators and their electricity goes out. So as we’re transitioning to renewables, we need to make sure there are not unintended consequences in term of rate increases–for those communities ‘just transition’ means their bills don’t fluctuate upwards. Ideally their bills would go down.” In the best of worlds, she adds, “just transition means they’re owning part of the energy infrastructure. They’re not just a consumer writing a check every month, but they see now a chance to own part of that infrastructure.”

There are signs that’s starting to happen. When Sanders and Merkley announced their federal legislation in April of 2017, leaders of groups like Green for All and Brooklyn’s feisty UPROSE were featured speakers; one of the most impassioned endorsements came from Mustafa Ali of the Hip Hop Caucus: “This act gives our country an opportunity to embrace a just transition, honor the innovation and hard work that exists in communities that are often overlooked and forgotten, and revitalize  communities of color, low income communities and indigenous populations,” he said.

In May of 2017, the Wallace Global Fund, one of the big environmental philanthropies, pointedly awarded the Standing Rock Sioux a million dollars to build renewable energy on the reservation, a fitting commemoration to the bravery of protesters who tried to hold the Dakota pipeline at bay and a reminder that private charities will need to play a role in this transition as well. But the political battle will be hard-fought: the New York Times reported last year that the Koch Brothers have begun to aggressively (and cynically) court minority communities, arguing that they “benefit the most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels.”

America’s twisted politics may slow the transition to renewables, but other countries are now pushing the pace. In July of 2017, for instance, the Chinese announced that Qinghai Province—a territory the size of Texas—had gone a week relying on 100% renewable energy, a test of grid reliability designed to show that the country could continue its record-breaking pace of wind and solar installation. (About the same time the Chinese released aerial photos of their newest giant wind farm—which seen from above depicts a cheerful black-and-white panda).

China is not alone:

  • One Friday in April of 2017, Great Britain managed to meet its power demands without burning a lump of coal for the first time since the launch of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Solar production has grown six-fold since 2014 in Chile
  • Santiago announced that starting this year, their subway system will be running entirely on the sun.
  • Since January 1 of 2017, Holland’s train system has been entirely powered by the wind.

These are all good signs—but set against the rapid disintegration of ice caps and the record global temperatures set each of the last three years they also seem like too little. It’s going to take a deeper level of commitment—including turning the federal government from an obstacle to an advocate over the next election cycles. That’s doable precisely because the idea of renewable energy is so popular.

“There’s a few reasons why 100% renewable is working—why it’s such a powerful idea,” says Mike Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “People have agency, for one. People who are outraged, alarmed, depressed, filled with despair about climate change—they want to make a difference in ways they can see, so they’re turning to their backyards. Turning to their city, their state, their university. And, it’s exciting—it’s a way to address this not just through dread with something that sparks your imagination.”

Sometimes, he said, all environmentalists have to rally together to work on the same thing: the Keystone pipeline, the Paris accord. “But in this case the politics is as distributed as the solution—it’s people working on thousands of examples of the one idea.”  An idea whose time has come.

How Climate Activists Failed To Make Clear The Problem With Natural Gas

Last week, the New Orleans City Council — all Democrats — voted 6-1 to approve a big new gas-fired power plant. Sometime in the coming weeks, in Orange County in upstate New York, another vast new gas power plant is expected to go on line — as soon as it’s hooked up to a new pipeline, one of literally dozens planned across the country. Local opponents — environmentalists, community activists — are fighting hard, but somewhere, almost every day, a new piece of natural gas infrastructure goes up.

When I think about my greatest failing as a communicator — and one of the greatest failings of the climate movement — it’s not that global warming still continues. Stopping it cold was always too high an order: The fossil fuel industry is so rich and powerful, and hydrocarbons so central to our economy, that this battle was always going to be uphill. At best we can limit the damage, and in that we’ve made at least some progress.

It’s not even that Donald Trump managed to win the presidency as a climate denier — in fact,  most people regard that stand as stupid, and its not why he took the White House. We’ve more or less managed to persuade Americans that global warming is a real danger. The oil industry’s propaganda effort may have delayed that realization by a generation, but eventually the siege of studies — and of fires, floods, and windstorms — took their inevitable toll.

No, the single most annoying failing is a more technical one, but with huge consequence: Public opinion — and especially elite opinion — still accepts natural gas as a cleaner replacement for other fossil fuels. And this acceptance — nearly as strong among Democrats as Republicans — has meant that we’ve seen huge increases in the use of natural gas. In fact, our essential global warming strategy in America has been to replace coal-fired power plants with ones that run on fracked gas.

With the move to natural gas, it’s as if we proudly announced we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.

The idea that natural gas combats climate change is a sleight of hand. But explaining why appears to be just slightly too technical for it ever to get across, in the media or on Capitol Hill, in statehouses or city halls. Still, I’ll try one more time.

It’s true that when you burn natural gas in a power plant, you emit less carbon dioxide than when you burn coal — for simplicity’s sake, let’s say half as much. That sounds good, since carbon is the main contributor to climate change. It’s what allowed President Obama to boast in his 2014 State of the Union address that “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.” He added, “One of the reasons why is natural gas — if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” In fact, his administration was so fond of fracking that the State Department set up an entire agency whose only task was to spread the technology to other countries.

Here’s the trouble: carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, but it’s not the only one.  Another one — present in smaller amounts, but far more potent — is CH4, otherwise known as methane, the primary component of natural gas. If you burn natural gas, you get less carbon dioxide than with coal. But any methane that escapes unburned into the atmosphere on the way to the power plant warms the planet very effectively — so effectively that if you leak more than 2 or 3 percent it’s worse for climate change than coal.

It turns out that there are lots of places for leaks to happen — when you frack a field, when you connect a pipe, when you send gas thousands of miles through pumping stations — and so most studies show that the leakage rate is at least 3 percent and probably higher. What that means is: America has cut its carbon emissions, but only at the cost of dramatically increasing its methane emissions. It means that what we’ve done is run in place.

Put another way, it’s as if we proudly announced that we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.

No one wants to hear this.

Democrats don’t want to hear this — natural gas was their get-out-of-jail-free card. They could get credit for going after climate change without really requiring systemic change — in some cases, you could simply convert the existing coal-fired power plant to run on gas. Electricity prices didn’t go up; in fact, fracked gas was cheap enough that it produced much of the early economic boom that powered the Obama recovery.  Now lots of high-level Obama alumni make lots of money working in the natural gas industry.

Some environmentalists don’t want to hear the facts about natural gas, as many are actively promoting it as a bridge fuel.

The oil industry doesn’t want to hear it. Company after company responds to the climate threat by offering to produce more natural gas to replace coal. As Exxon puts it on its website, “the abundant supplies of natural gas unearthed by the shale revolution in the United States have contributed to a reduction in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions to levels not seen since the 1990s as electric utilities have switched from coal to natural gas for power generation. … The abundant supplies of natural gas coming from America’s shale fields are positioning the U.S. to be a net exporter of natural gas, which can mean lower emissions worldwide.” We’re not the problem, we’re the solution.

Republicans don’t want to hear it. The Trump Environmental Protection Agency has scrapped even Obama’s modest efforts to plug methane leaks, and as Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the EPA, told reporters in October, “We are leading the nation — excuse me — the world, with respect to our CO2 footprint in reductions.” It’s why the Trump team thinks they can get away with scorning the Paris Agreement: “we’re producing less carbon” takes the pressure off. It certainly works better than telling reporters that climate change isn’t real.

In any event, journalists don’t much want to hear about methane, because it muddies up the simple story line. When the Washington Post fact-checked Pruitt’s statement, for instance, it didn’t even mention the fact that our methane emissions had spiked even as CO2 fell. Instead, it gave him “three Pinocchios,” on the grounds that “Pruitt uses the average per capita decrease instead of the overall decrease, without actually making clear he’s talking about per capita numbers.” As if that was the problem.

Even some environmentalists don’t want to hear it. At first many of them actively promoted natural gas as a bridge fuel. Some would say, “Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon,” which is true. But sadly, while it’s around, it traps heat far more efficiently, molecule for molecule — and right now happens to be the short window where we’re breaking the climate.

Though most of the big green groups eventually came around to understanding the facts about methane, politicians who paint themselves as environmental champions have never shifted their positions. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York, but only because of its effects on local communities where the drilling took place; he’s been happy to approve new power plants that run on gas from elsewhere. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, at last year’s Bonn climate talks, said, “You’re reducing carbon emissions by using natural gas. That’s the answer, plain and simple. We are shutting down coal plants and replacing them with natural gas. That’s a move in the right direction.”

If we hadn’t discovered fracked natural gas, the effort to deal with climate change would have moved us far more quickly into renewables.

But it’s not. It’s not a move in any direction at all. It’s standing still. We’re still pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at pretty much the same rate as before.

In fact, the conversion to natural gas is making things markedly worse because the money that gets spent on this useless transition locks us into burning fossil fuel when, with each passing month, the actual alternatives of sun and wind get cheaper and more available. If we hadn’t discovered fracked natural gas, the effort to deal with climate change would have moved us far more quickly into renewables; instead, we’ve wasted a decade and likely far more, since all those new pipelines and power plants are designed (and financed) to last for 40 or 50 years.

We picked the worst possible strategy we could have used to combat climate change. We didn’t know it at first, but as the chemistry became clear no one wanted to change course.  Most of them doubled down. I have no confidence that we will ever manage to get this message across, though it is magnificent to see the continuing efforts of local activists across the country. (Check out this new video from Josh Fox, of Gasland fame, in New Orleans)  But it’s not in the interest of anyone in power to concede the facts about natural gas. It’s possible — likely even — that this essay, and everything else I or anyone else writes and says on the topic, is so much shouting into the (increasingly hot and gusty) wind. On this we’ve so far failed, and the failure has had huge consequences.

Winning Slowly Is The Same As Losing

If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win. That’s the core truth about global warming. It’s what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced. I wrote the first book for a general audience about climate change in 1989 – back when one had to search for examples to help people understand what the “greenhouse effect” would feel like.

We knew it was coming, but not how fast or how hard. And because no one wanted to overestimate – because scientists by their nature are conservative – each of the changes we’ve observed has taken us somewhat by surprise. The surreal keeps becoming the commonplace: For instance, after Hurricane Harvey set a record for American rainstorms, and Hurricane Irma set a record for sustained wind speeds, and Hurricane Maria knocked Puerto Rico back a quarter-century, something even weirder happened. Hurricane Ophelia formed much farther to the east than any hurricane on record, and proceeded to blow past Southern Europe (whipping up winds that fanned record forest fires in Portugal) before crashing into Ireland. Along the way, it produced an artifact for our age: The warning chart that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency issued shows Ophelia ending in a straight line at 60 degrees north latitude, because the computer program never imagined you’d see a hurricane up there. “When you set up a grid, you define boundaries of that grid,” a slightly red-faced NOAA programmer explained. “That’s a pretty unusual place to have a tropical cyclone.” The agency, he added, might have to “revisit” its mapping software.

In fact, that’s the problem with climate change. It won’t stand still. Health care is a grave problem in the U.S. right now too, one that Donald Trump seems set on making steadily worse. If his administration manages to defund Obamacare, millions of people will suffer. But if, in three years’ time, some new administration takes over with a different resolve, it won’t have become exponentially harder to deal with our health care issues. That suffering in the interim wouldn’t have changed the fundamental equation. But with global warming, the fundamental equation is precisely what’s shifting. And the remarkable changes we’ve seen so far – the thawed Arctic that makes the Earth look profoundly different from outer space; the planet’s seawater turning 30 percent more acidic – are just the beginning. “We’re inching ever closer to committing to the melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which will guarantee 20 feet of sea-level rise,” says Penn State’s Michael Mann, one of the planet’s foremost climatologists. “We don’t know where the ice-sheet collapse tipping point is, but we are dangerously close.” The latest models show that with very rapid cuts in emissions, Antarctic ice might remain largely intact for centuries; without them, we might see 11 feet of sea-level rise by century’s end, enough to wipe cities like Shanghai and Mumbai “off the map.”

There are plenty of tipping points like this: The Amazon, for instance, appears to be drying out and starting to burn as temperatures rise and drought deepens, and without a giant rainforest in South America, the world would function very differently. In the North Atlantic, says Mann, “we’re ahead of schedule with the slowdown and potential collapse” of the giant conveyor belt that circulates warm water toward the North Pole, keeping Western Europe temperate. It’s tipping points like these that make climate change such a distinct problem: If we don’t act quickly, and on a global scale, then the problem will literally become insoluble. We’ll simply move into a dramatically different climate regime, and on to a planet abruptly and disastrously altered from the one that underwrote the rise of human civilization. “Every bit of additional warming at this point is perilous,” says Mann.

Another way of saying this: By 2075 the world will be powered by solar panels and windmills – free energy is a hard business proposition to beat. But on current trajectories, they’ll light up a busted planet. The decisions we make in 2075 won’t matter; indeed, the decisions we make in 2025 will matter much less than the ones we make in the next few years. The leverage is now.

Trump, oddly, is not the central problem here, or at least not the only problem. Yes, he’s abrogated the Paris agreements; true, he’s doing his best to revive the coal mines of Kentucky; of course it’s insane that he thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax.

But we weren’t moving fast enough to catch up with physics before Trump. In fact, it’s even possible that Trump – by jumping the climate shark so spectacularly – may run?some small risk of disrupting the fossil-fuel industry’s careful strategy.?That strategy, we now know, began in the late 1970s. The oil giants, led by Exxon, knew about climate change before almost anyone else. One of Exxon’s chief scientists told senior management in 1978 that the temperature would rise at least four degrees Fahrenheit and that it would be a disaster. Management believed the findings – as the Los Angeles Times reported, companies like Exxon and Shell began redesigning drill rigs and pipelines to cope with the sea-level rise and tundra thaw.

Yet, year after year, the industry used the review process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stress “uncertainty,” which became Big Oil’s byword. In 1997, just as the Kyoto climate treaty was being negotiated, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond told the World Petroleum Congress meeting in Beijing, “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.” In other words: Delay. Go slowly. Do nothing dramatic. As the company put it in a secret 1998 memo helping establish one of the innumerable front groups that spread climate disinformation, “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science,” and when “recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’ ”

And it’s not just the oil companies. As America’s electric utilities began to understand that solar and wind power could undercut their traditional business, they began engaging in the same kind of behavior. In Arizona, whose sole reason for existence is the sun, the local utility helped rig elections for the state’s public-utility commission, which in turn allowed utilities to impose ruinous costs on homeowners who wanted to put solar panels on their roofs. As The New York Times reported in July, the booming U.S. market for new residential solar has come to “a shuddering stop” after “a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners to install solar panels.” It’s not that they think they can keep solar panels at bay forever – every utility website, like every fossil-fuel industry annual report, has pictures of solar panels and spinning windmills. But as industry analyst Nancy LaPlaca says, “Keeping the current business model just another year is always key for utilities that have a monopoly and want to keep that going.”

The planetary futurist Alex Steffen calls this tactic “predatory delay, the deliberate slowing of needed change to prolong a profitable but unsustainable status quo that will be paid by other people eventually.” It’s not confined to the moneybags at the oil companies and the utilities – he’s written extensively about the otherwise-liberal urbanites in his home state of California. “A lot of cities are happy to talk about providing their power cleanly, but reducing cars, densifying, spending on bike paths, raising building standards – those things are all so contentious they’re not even discussed.” Ditto the folks who block windmills out of fear of chopping birds, thus helping lock in the next great mass extinction. Much of the labor movement has grown more outspoken on climate change. They know that a dollar invested in renewable energy generates three times as many jobs as one wasted on fossil fuel, but the union that builds pipelines has fought so tenaciously to avoid change that the AFL-CIO came out for building the Dakota Access Pipeline, even after guards sicced German shepherds on native protesters. In careful language that might have been written by a team at Exxon, the union said it supported new pipelines “as part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change.” “Comprehensive,” “balanced,” “measured” are the high cards in this rhetorical deck. “Realistic” is the ace in the hole.

There’s a reason this kind of appeal is so persuasive. In almost every other political fight, a balanced and measured and “realistic” answer makes sense. I think billionaires should be taxed at 90 percent, and you think they contribute so much to society that they should pay no tax at all. We meet somewhere in the middle, and come back each election cycle to argue it again, depending on how the economy is doing or where the deficit lies. Humans and their societies do work best with gradual transitions – it gives everyone some time to adapt. But climate change, sadly, isn’t a classic contest between two groups of people. It’s a negotiation between people on the one hand and physics on the other. And physics doesn’t do compromise. Precisely because we’ve waited so long to take any significant action, physics now demands we move much faster than we want to. Political realism and what you might call “reality realism” are in stark opposition. That’s our dilemma.?You could draw it on a graph. The planet’s greenhouse-gas emissions are still rising, though more slowly – let’s say we manage to top out by 2020. In that case, to meet the planet’s goal of holding temperature increases under two degrees Celsius, we have to cut emissions 4.6 percent annually till they go to zero. If we wait till 2025, we have to cut them seven percent annually. If we wait till 2030 – well, it’s not even worth putting on the chart. I have to sometimes restrain myself from pointing out how easy it would have been if we’d acted back in the late 1980s, when I was first writing about this – a gradual half a percent a year. A glide path, not a desperate rappel down a deadly cliff.

Yes, we’ve waited too long. But maybe, just maybe, our task is not yet an impossible one. That’s because the engineers have been doing their jobs much more vigorously than the politicians. Over the past decade, the price of a solar panel has fallen 80 percent; across most of the U.S., wind is now the least expensive form of power. In early October, an auction in Saudi Arabia for new electric generation was won by a solar farm pledging to deliver electrons for less than three cents a kilowatt hour, the cheapest price ever paid for electricity from any source in any place. Danny Kennedy, a longtime solar pioneer who runs California’s Clean Energy Fund, a nonprofit connecting investors and startups, says every day brings some new project: “Just this week I’ve had entrepreneurs in here doing crowdfunding by Bitcoin to build microgrids in Southern Africa, and someone using lasers to cut silicon wafers to reduce the cost of solar cells by half.” He’d just come back from a conference in Shanghai – “You should feel the buzz; the Chinese have really realized their self-interest lies in dominating the disruptive technologies.”

That is to say, if we wanted to power the planet on sun and wind and water, we could. It would be extremely hard, at the outer edge of the possible, but it’s mathematically achievable. Mark Jacobson, who heads Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy program, has worked to show precisely how it could happen in all 50 U.S. states and 139 foreign countries – how much wind, how much sun, how much hydro it would take to produce 80 percent of our power renewably by 2030. If we did, he notes, we’d not only dramatically slow global warming, we’d also eliminate most of the air pollution that kills 7 million people a year and sickens hundreds of millions more, almost all of them in the poorest places on the planet (pollution now outweighs tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS, hunger and war as a killer). “There’s no way you can be in Houston or Flint or Puerto Rico right now and not feel the urgency,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, one of America’s leading climate-justice advocates. “Moving quickly can happen, but only if you uplift the work that’s really innovative, that’s already happening on the ground.”

Even much of the money is in place. For $50,000 in insulation, panels and appliances, Mosaic, the biggest solar lender in the country, can make a home run on 100 percent clean energy. “And we can make a zero-down loan, where people save money from Day One,” says the company’s CEO, Billy Parrish. Mosaic raised $300 million for its last round of bond financing, but it was nearly six times oversubscribed – that is, investors were ready to pony up about $1.8 billion. But even that amounts to small change: 36,000 homes in a nation of more than a hundred million dwellings. To go to scale, government is going to have to lead: loan guarantees for poor people, taking subsidies away from fossil fuels, making sure that when homeowners feed lowcarbon energy into the grid they get a good price from utilities. Even in California that kind of change comes hard: As Kennedy says, “The state legislature did not pass key legislation on clean energy this year despite a lot of hot air expended on it, and despite the fact that the Dems have a supermajority. I’m told to be patient and ‘we’ll get it done next year,’ but I find it frightening that folks think we have another year to wait.”

And so the only real question is, how do we suddenly make it happen fast? That’s where politics comes in. I said earlier that Trump wasn’t the whole problem – in fact, it’s just possible that in his know-nothing recklessness, he has upset the ever-so-patient apple cart. You could almost see the oil companies wincing when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement – for them, the agreement was a pathway to slow and managed change. The promises it contained didn’t keep the planet from overheating – indeed, even if everyone had kept them, the Earth would still have gotten 3.5 degrees Celsius hotter, enough to collapse every ecosystem you’d like to name. The accords did ensure that we’d still be burning significant amounts of hydrocarbons by 2050, and that the Exxons of the world would be able to recover most of the reserves they’ve so carefully mapped and explored.

But now some of those bets are off. Around the rest of the world, most nations rejected Trump’s pullout with diplomatically expressed rage. “To everyone for whom the future of our planet is important, I say let’s continue going down this path,” said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. (The exception: petro baron Vladimir Putin, whose official remarks concluded, “Don’t worry, be happy.”) In this country, the polling showed that almost nothing Trump had done was less popular. Perhaps, if Trump continues to sink, this particular piece of nonsense will sink with him.

And with Washington effectively gridlocked, the fight has moved elsewhere. When Trump pulled out of the climate accords, for instance, he explained that he’d been elected to govern “Pittsburgh, not Paris.” The next day the mayor of Pittsburgh said his town was now planning on 100 percent renewable energy, a pledge that’s been made by places as diverse as Atlanta, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Next year, representatives of thousands of regions, provinces, cities, parishes, arrondissements, districts and counties will descend on San Francisco for a Paris-like gathering of subnational actors, summoned by California Gov. Jerry Brown. According to Brown (who is as sadly compromised as most other leaders – he continues to allow wide-scale fracking and oil production across the state), Trump’s decision to leave the path of gradualism “is a stimulus … In a way, it’s a rising of … awareness.”

The pressure has also increased on banks and corporations. In Australia, campaigners have forced the four major banks to refuse financing for what would have been one of the world’s biggest coal mines; BNP Paribas, the world’s eighth-largest lender, just announced it was out of the tar-sands and coal business. Several big California cities just announced they were suing the big oil companies for the damages caused by sea-level rise. The attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts have Exxon under investigation for pretending to take climate change seriously. All of that adds up to weaken the spreadsheet and the corporate resolve: “We’re trying to persuade a dying industry to get out of the way,” says Mark Campanale, the head of the NGO Carbon Tracker.

The best chance of forcing the future, of course, lies with movements – with people gathering in large enough numbers to concentrate the minds of CEOs and presidential candidates. Here, too, Trump seems to be upping the ante – nearly a quarter million Americans marched on D.C. for climate action in April, the largest such demonstration in Washington’s history. That activism keeps ramping up: At 350.org, we’re rolling out a vast Fossil Free campaign across the globe this winter, joining organizations like the Sierra Club to pressure governments to sign up for 100 percent renewable energy, blocking new pipelines and frack wells as fast as the industry can propose them, and calling out the banks and hedge funds that underwrite the past. It’s working – just in the last few weeks Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, announced plans to divest from fossil fuels, and the Nebraska Public Service Commission threw yet more roadblocks in front of the Keystone pipeline.

But the question is, is it working fast enough? Paraphrasing the great abolitionist leader Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. used to regularly end his speeches with the phrase “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The line was a favorite of Obama’s too, and for all three men it meant the same thing: “This may take a while, but we’re going to win.” For most political fights, it is the simultaneously frustrating and inspiring truth. But not for climate change. The arc of the physical universe appears to be short, and it bends toward heat. Win soon or suffer the consequences.

2017 Climate March

Below is a compilation of science-based signs that the Sanders Institute team put together for the Climate March. We also sought out signs from other marchers with scientific facts.

We have included links along with each image to the science behind each of the facts or more information about the topic of the non-Sanders Institute signs.

Facts:

  • According to NASA, 2017 saw the lowest winter sea ice coverage on record.
  • The EPA estimates that the average car emits 4.7  metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year.
  • According to NASA, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have been since 2001.

 

 

Facts:

  • To read more on the impact of eating vegetarian, see this article from IOP science.
  • Solar Nation helpfully gives facts and quotes for switching to solar power.
  • To read more about recycling in the United States see this EPA fact sheet.
  • According to NASA, the three hottest years on record have been the past three years.

 

 

Facts:

 

 

Facts:

  • According to NASA: “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”

 

 

Facts:

  • To read more about climate predictions that have come true or underestimated the rate and severity of climate change, see these articles from Scientific American.

 

 

Facts:

 

And finally…