The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made some conservative assumptions on what was happening to the climate. They said we had 12 years to get carbon emissions under control or face catastrophe. It was the sober assessment of a cautious body, a group of experts that concluded that we are in serious trouble.
They said we must keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius above the average pre-industrial period to make it happen. The earth’s average surface temperature has increased 1 degree C since the pre-industrial period of the 18th century.
An additional degree of warming will bring major disruptions to agriculture and food supplies. Thus we must keep warming to 1.5 degrees C.
That means we must stop emitting carbon dioxide. We must reduce it to zero by 2050. That’s a major challenge, and we are heading in the wrong direction.
We are heading not for 1.5 degrees but for 5 degrees C or more by the end of this century. The cost to the US economy will be enormous, and for large parts of the global south, it will be devastating.
We need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, but instead they are rising. The response of the Republican Party has been to reject the IPCC report and the overwhelming scientific consensus and to accelerate the development of fossil fuels. We have withdrawn from the Paris agreement, believing that nothing important is happening. President Donald Trump says his gut tells him the report is wrong.
The Paris climate accord was totally inadequate. If every country were on target for meeting its voluntary goals we would still be heading toward warming of 3 degrees C by the end of the century.
The good news? There are no insuperable technological barriers to eliminating carbon emissions completely by 2050. We just need to stop using fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources. That, with massive gains in efficiency and conservation, researchers at Stanford have assured us it can be done.
There are enormous political and economic obstacles in the way. We must reduce the size of the global economy. That is not the way capitalism works. Its purpose is the production and accumulation of wealth. The corporate executive who bucks that will be fired or the company will go out of business.
Endless growth is the goal, but it is impossible for a finite planet. Sooner or later, accumulation will run into planetary boundaries. Many of us believed that those boundaries were far out in the future. We were wrong.
The climate crisis is consequence of the free market working too well. Since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have nurtured the world economy. The invention of the combustion engine caused oil to become dominant.
Since the industrial revolution, capitalism has been about the extraction and use of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry earns tens of billions of dollars in profits each year. If we are to solve the climate crisis, we must shut it down and invest in renewable energy system: solar, wind and tidal power.
With campaign contributions and sponsorship of think tanks, Exxon and Shell have adopted a deny, deny, deny approach and have put millions of species at risk. There are $50 trillion of known reserves waiting to be extracted. They must remain in the ground.
If we are to avoid catastrophe, we must change the system. That will require a mass movement: true democracy, which has begun to happen. Immediately following the midterm elections, climate activists occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington to demand action on the climate. Newly elected member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led them. They demonstrated that tinkering is not enough, that we need a thorough-going transformation.
We must demonstrate in large numbers and show that we have the power to shut down sectors of the economy. It’s that power that sends the signal to the entrenched and politically privileged ruling class. If we fail to do it, the gigantic fossil fuel industry will take us over the climate cliff.
C. F. Baumgartner is a Mercer Island resident.