PUBLISHED THU, APR 22 20216:00 AM EDTUPDATED AN HOUR AGOEmma Newburger@EMMA_NEWBURGERSHAREShare Article via FacebookShare Article via TwitterShare Article via LinkedInShare Article via EmailKEY POINTS
President Biden is pledging to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030, in the latest push by the administration to aggressively combat climate change.
The target more than doubles the country’s prior commitment under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
The announcement comes before the president hosts a closely watched climate summit on Thursday’s Earth Day, with world leaders from countries like China and India.
President Joe Biden is pledging to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030, in the latest push by the administration to aggressively combat climate change.
The target, announced Thursday, more than doubles the country’s prior commitment under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, when the Obama administration set out to cut emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. The U.S. is currently not yet halfway to meeting that goal.
“This is the decisive decade,” Biden said at the summit on Thursday morning. “This is the decade that we must make decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”
“This is a moral imperative. An economic imperative. A moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities,” the president said.
World leaders appear on screen during a virtual Climate Summit, seen from the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 22, 2021.Tom Brenner | Reuters
All 40 world leaders the president invited to the virtual summit will be attending, including those from China and India, and are anticipated to make new commitments. The U.K. and European Union have committed to slash emissions by 68% and 55%, respectively, by 2030. China, the world’s biggest emitter, has vowed to reach peak emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060.
During the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated the country’s previous commitments and emphasized green development and multilateralism to reduce global emissions.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for concrete action on climate change and announced an India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda Partnership for 2030. He also re-confirmed the nation’s vow to install 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a virtual Climate Summit with world leaders in Berlin, Germany, April 22, 2021.Kay Nietfeld | Reuters
Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga announced a stricter emissions target of 46% reduction by 2030. Canada also updated its target and vowed to reduce 2005 emission levels by 40-45% by 2030.
The summit is a chance for the U.S. to rejoin global efforts on climate after then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris accord, halted all federal efforts to reduce domestic emissions and rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations to favor fossil fuel production.
“I’m delighted to see that the United States is back, is back to work together with us in climate politics,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during the summit.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate with 40 world leaders at the East Room of the White House on April 22, 2021.Al Drago | Getty Images
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who this week announced that Britain would slash emissions by 78% by 2035, praised Biden “for returning the United States to the front rank of the fight against climate change.”
“It’s vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive politically correct, green act of bunny hugging,” Johnson said. “This is about growth and jobs.”
Biden’s pledge also moves forward his campaign promise to decarbonize the country’s energy sector by 2030 and put the country on a path to net-zero emissions by midcentury.WATCH NOWVIDEO01:25Biden commits to 50% greenhouse gas reduction levels by 2030
Biden so far has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would aid a transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, while promising to create green jobs. If passed, the legislation would be one of the largest federal efforts ever to reduce emissions.
“A strong national emissions reduction target is just what we need to catalyze a net-zero emissions future and build back a more equitable and inclusive economy,” Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at sustainability nonprofit Ceres, said in a statement.
In order to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050, the U.S. must curb emissions by 57% to 63% in the next decade, according to an analysis by Climate Action Tracker, an independent group that analyzes various government climate pledges.
This week’s summit also comes ahead of a major U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, during which nations in the Paris agreement will unveil updated emissions targets for the next decade.
Climate change has threatened the existence of several living species, including humankind itself.
One author predicts that on the current course, climate change will lead to a mass extinction on Earth.
Still, there are people fighting to change course.
In the more than 4 billion year history of the Earth, there have been just five mass extinctions, most scientists agree. One science journalist is predicting the next one is already here — and all there is to do is slow it down.
“We are on the verge of another major mass extinction, unless we change course dramatically,” Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning “The Sixth Extinction,” told CBS. “The question of how much we’re responsible for it is pretty much 100%. We have no reason to believe we would be seeing these elevated extinction rates were it not for all the ways we are changing the planet faster than other species can evolve to adapt to.”
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While her last book predicted that climate change would lead to mass extinction, Kolbert’s newest book, “Under a White Sky,” offers hope that humankind can change course. The book examines climate change efforts worldwide while also examining both the pros and cons of relying on technology to be the solution. Still, the New Yorker writer argues that something is better than nothing in this case.
“We have to realize that there’s a lot of damage that’s been done that’s kind of baked into this system,” Kolbert said. “We can leave a serious problem for our kids or we can leave a disastrous problem for our kids.”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE RIGHT NOW
One of the options most ignored by respondents, as a possible way to reduce personal impact on the environment, was choosing to have fewer children. A commonly quoted estimate for annual emissions saved from having one less child dwarfs that of other actions, at 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emission, as featured in Environment Research Letters in 2017. Although some academics argue this is an overestimate, the Ipsos Mori survey responses suggest there is a lack of awareness around the potential impact having smaller families can have on the climate.
A generational knowledge divide was also highlighted in some of the results. Younger people were more aware of the environmental impact of having fewer children as well as the benefits of a plant-based diet, the results showed, while older populations placed more value in recycling. One of the most unexpected findings in the survey, considering the misperceptions, was that nearly 70 per cent of respondents believed they knew how to lessen their impact on the environment. People in Japan were least confident about how to lessen their carbon footprint, followed by Russia and also Saudi Arabia and South Korea, all countries with a relatively high dependence on fossil fuels. Chart has been updated to correct two countries’ responses. Follow @ftclimate on Instagram Climate Capital Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here
This story originally appeared in Mongabay and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
As the planet warms, it isn’t just humans who are feeling the heat — trees are too. Rising temperatures are disrupting a primary engine of life on Earth: photosynthesis.
A recent study from Brazil adds to fears that climate change is altering the face of the planet. Literally. Tropical forests could look more and more like deciduous forests or savannas in the future, according to the research based in Brazil’s Cerrado biome. This ecoregion abjacent to the Amazon Rainforest is where savanna, grasslands and forests mingle.
The paper, published in Environmental Research Letters in March, focused on four trees species found in both the Amazonian tropical forests and savanna land: Qualeaparviflora, known as pau–terra in Portuguese; Pseudobombax longiflorum, or the Brazilian shaving-brush tree; Hymenaea stigonocarpa (jatobádoCerrado); and Vatairea macrocarpa, also known as angelim.
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“The article extends present knowledge of heat tolerance to tropical species in particularly hot regions, testing species not tested before,” said Gotthard Heinrich Krause, professor of plant physiology at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany.
Krause, who was not involved with the study, noted that the paper underlines how “increased number of extreme heatwaves, often combined with drought stress,” compound the heat stress faced by trees.
The maximum temperatures in the Cerrado region and neighboring forests can reach 45° Celsius (113° Fahrenheit). The area has warmed perceptibly in recent decades, and heat waves that regularly sweep the region are becoming hotter and dryer.
How much a leaf warms depends on how much solar radiation it absorbs and what it loses through conduction and as long-wave radiation. Leaves facing the harsh tropical sun heat up faster than the ambient air around them.
“Prolonged exposure to heat can induce damage to leaf tissue, compromising photosynthetic efficiency and, consequently, trees’ fitness,” said Igor Araújo, first author of the new paper and an ecologist at the Mato Grosso State University, Brazil.
The disproportionate warming in the Cerrado belt is driven not just by global temperature rise, but also by local deforestation and fragmentation of wooded areas. As pastureland and cropland have eaten away into forests, their cooling effect is becoming muted.
Trees cool themselves and areas around them by transpiring water through the stomata dotting their leaf surfaces. This process, along with evaporation, is also why forested areas induce rainfall. “One single adult tree in the Amazon can transpire up to 1000 L [264 gallons] of water per day, functioning as a natural air conditioner of the environment. This process is called biotic pump, which is reduced by deforestation,” Araújo said.
When faced with scorching heat and dry spells, the pores on leaves clamp shut to conserve water. “This will reduce or prevent transpirational cooling of leaves, causing substantial increases of leaf temperature above air temperature,” Krause said.
The study estimated, for the first time, what temperatures leaves can tolerate. To do this, the authors calculated the temperature at which a critical component of the photosystem breaks down and the temperatures that leaves are experiencing. The difference between the two levels is called the thermal safety margin (Tsm).
Krause said he expected that the temperature at which scientists observe permanent damage to leaf tissue to be higher than what the researchers estimate. This would mean a wider safety net, but it still would not be enough to protect most species considered in the research, given the current pace of warming.
Such a hostile environment is dangerous for leaves and trees. The tree is not shedding leaves as part of a seasonal cycle but rather because they are not performing their function of harnessing energy.
The authors found that in some species, the maximum leaf temperatures are already exceeding this threshold. But if average temperatures rise by even 2.5°C (4.5°F), this will be true for most tree species, they estimate. With a 5°C (9°F) rise, all tree species studied will suffer from leaf burn.
It’s not just tree health that declines; other scientists have shown that heat stress also affects carbon dioxide uptake by trees. According to Krause, there is a reduction in the CO2 absorbed by plants even at temperatures lower than those that short-circuit photosynthesis. “Such reduction will contribute to the reduction in carbon sink of the tropical forest,” he said.
At the moment, savanna species adapted to higher temperatures are doing better than the rainforest species. “Our results thus indicate expected shifts in deciduousness in the future and thus a trend towards savanna vegetation replacing forests in the regions in Southern Amazonia characterized by large patches of deforestation,” the authors write.
What is happening at the Amazon-Cerrado boundary may be a precursor for feverish tropical forests across the world. Unlike humans, these forests won’t have air conditioners or sunscreens to protect them.
Araújo, I., Marimon, B. S., Scalon, M. C., Fauset, S., Marimon Junior, B. H., Tiwari, R., … Gloor, M. U. (2021). Trees at the Amazonia-Cerrado transition are approaching high temperature thresholds. Environmental Research Letters,16(3), 034047. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abe3b9
Tiwari, R., Gloor, E., Cruz, W. J., Schwantes Marimon, B., Marimon‐Junior, B. H., Reis, S. M., . . . Galbraith, D. (2020). Photosynthetic quantum efficiency in south‐eastern Amazonian trees may be already affected by climate change. Plant, Cell & Environment. doi:10.1111/pce.13770
Extreme drought across the Western U.S. has become as reliable as a summer afternoon thunderstorm in Florida. And news headlines about drought in the West can seem a bit like a broken record, with some scientists saying the region is on the precipice of permanent drought.
That’s because in 2000, the Western U.S. entered the beginning of what scientists call a megadrought — the second worst in 1,200 years — triggered by a combination of a natural dry cycle and human-caused climate change.
In the past 20 years, the two worst stretches of drought came in 2003 and 2013 — but what is happening right now appears to be the beginning stages of something even more severe. And as we head into the summer dry season, the stage is set for an escalation of extreme dry conditions, with widespread water restrictions expected and yet another dangerous fire season ahead.
With this in mind, there is little doubt that the drought in the West, especially the Southwest, this summer and fall will be the most intense in recent memory. The only real question: Will it last as long as the last extended period of drought from 2012 to 2017? Only time will tell.
Right now, the U.S. Drought Monitor places 60% of the Western states under severe, extreme or exceptional drought. The reason for the extensive drought is two-fold; long term drying fueled by human-caused climate change and, in the short term, a La Niña event in which cool Equatorial Pacific waters failed to fuel an ample fetch of moisture.
Consequently, this past winter’s wet season was not very wet at all. In fact, it just added insult to injury, with only 25 to 50% of normal rainfall falling across much of the Southwest and California. This followed one of the driest and hottest summers in modern times, with two historic heat waves, a summer monsoon cycle that simply did not even show up and the worst fire season in modern times.
ANTHONY RICHARDSON ET AL., THE CONVERSATION10 APRIL 2021
The tropical water at the equator is renowned for having the richest diversity of marine life on Earth, with vibrant coral reefs and large aggregations of tunas, sea turtles, manta rays, and whale sharks. The number of marine species naturally tapers off as you head towards the poles.
Ecologists have assumed this global pattern has remained stable over recent centuries – until now. Our recent study found the ocean around the equator has already become too hot for many species to survive, and that global warming is responsible.
In other words, the global pattern is rapidly changing. And as species flee to cooler water towards the poles, it’s likely to have profound implications for marine ecosystems and human livelihoods. When the same thing happened 252 million years ago, 90 percent of all marine species died.
The bell curve is warping dangerously
This global pattern – where the number of species starts lower at the poles and peaks at the equator – results in a bell-shaped gradient of species richness. We looked at distribution records for nearly 50,000 marine species collected since 1955 and found a growing dip over time in this bell shape.
So, as our oceans warm, species have tracked their preferred temperatures by moving towards the poles. Although the warming at the equator of 0.6℃ over the past 50 years is relatively modest compared with warming at higher latitudes, tropical species have to move further to remain in their thermal niche compared with species elsewhere.
As ocean warming has accelerated over recent decades due to climate change, the dip around at the equator has deepened.
We predicted such a change five years ago using a modeling approach, and now we have observational evidence.
For each of the 10 major groups of species we studied (including pelagic fish, reef fish, and mollusks) that live in the water or on the seafloor, their richness either plateaued or declined slightly at latitudes with mean annual sea-surface temperatures above 20℃.
Today, species richness is greatest in the northern hemisphere in latitudes around 30°N (off southern China and Mexico) and in the south around 20°S (off northern Australia and southern Brazil).
This has happened before
We shouldn’t be surprised global biodiversity has responded so rapidly to global warming. This has happened before, and with dramatic consequences.
252 million years ago…
At the end of the Permian geological period about 252 million years ago, global temperatures warmed by 10℃ over 30,000-60,000 years as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from volcano eruptions in Siberia.
A 2020 study of the fossils from that time shows the pronounced peak in biodiversity at the equator flattened and spread. During this mammoth rearranging of global biodiversity, 90 percent of all marine species were killed.
125,000 years ago…
A 2012 study showed that more recently, during the rapid warming around 125,000 years ago, there was a similar swift movement of reef corals away from the tropics, as documented in the fossil record. The result was a pattern similar to the one we describe, although there was no associated mass extinction.
Authors of the study suggested their results might foreshadow the effects of our current global warming, ominously warning there could be mass extinctions in the near future as species move into the subtropics, where they might struggle to compete and adapt.
During the last ice age, which ended around 15,000 years ago, the richness of forams (a type of hard-shelled, single-celled plankton) peaked at the equator and has been dropping there ever since. This is significant as plankton is a keystone species in the food web.
Our study shows that decline has accelerated in recent decades due to human-driven climate change.
The profound implications
Losing species in tropical ecosystems means ecological resilience to environmental changes is reduced, potentially compromising ecosystem persistence.
In subtropical ecosystems, species richness is increasing. This means there’ll be species invaders, novel predator-prey interactions, and new competitive relationships. For example, tropical fish moving into Sydney Harbor compete with temperate species for food and habitat.
This could result in ecosystem collapse – as was seen at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods – in which species go extinct and ecosystem services (such as food supplies) are permanently altered.
The changes we describe will also have profound implications for human livelihoods. For example, many tropical island nations depend on the revenue from tuna fishing fleets through the selling of licenses in their territorial waters. Highly mobile tuna species are likely to move rapidly toward the subtropics, potentially beyond sovereign waters of island nations.
Similarly, many reef species important for artisanal fishers – and highly mobile megafauna such as whale sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles that support tourism – are also likely to move toward the subtropics.
The movement of commercial and artisanal fish and marine megafauna could compromise the ability of tropical nations to meet the Sustainable Development Goals concerning zero hunger and marine life.
Is there anything we can do?
One pathway is laid out in the Paris Climate Accords and involves aggressively reducing our emissions. Other opportunities are also emerging that could help safeguard biodiversity and hopefully minimize the worst impacts of it shifting away from the equator.
Currently, 2.7 percent of the ocean is conserved in fully or highly protected reserves. This is well short of the 10 percent target by 2020 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
This “30 by 30” target could ban seafloor mining and remove fishing in reserves that can destroy habitats and release as much carbon dioxide as global aviation. These measures would remove pressures on biodiversity and promote ecological resilience.
Designing climate-smart reserves could further protect biodiversity from future changes. For example, reserves for marine life could be placed in refugia where the climate will be stable over the foreseeable future.
We now have evidence that climate change is impacting the best-known and strongest global pattern in ecology. We should not delay actions to try to mitigate this.
This story is part of Oceans 21 Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead-up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.
Snow leopards in the Himalayas, lemurs in Madagascar and elephants in central Africa: Some of Earth’s most beloved creatures are on a path to extinction, a new study shows, thanks to current greenhouse gas emissions. Unless humans stop pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, researchers say the planet’s biodiversity will suffer devastating consequences.
In a study published Friday in the journal Biological Conservation, scientists warn that some of the richest concentrations of plants and animals on Earth will be “irreversibly ravaged” by global warming unless countries make a real effort toward their goals made under the 2015 Paris climate treaty. They report a high danger for extinction in almost 300 biodiversity “hot spots” if temperatures rise three degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
So, which species will be hit hardest? Scientists point to endemic species: Plants and animals found exclusively in specific locations, like one country or one island — animals like snow leopards and forest elephants.
They found that endemic land species, specifically in biodiverse hot spots, are nearly three times as likely to suffer losses due to climate change than species that are more widespread, and 10 times more likely than invasive species.
“Climate change threatens areas overflowing with species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world,” lead author Stella Manes said in a statement. “The risk for such species to be lost forever increases more than 10-fold if we miss the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
Not all species face the same threat. In mountain regions, 84% of endemic species face extinction if Earth warms another two degrees, while that number rises to 100% on islands.
Overall, more than 90% of land-based endemic species and 95% of marine ones will be adversely affected. Mediterranean marine species are particularly vulnerable because they are trapped in an enclosed sea.
“By nature, these species cannot easily move to more favorable environments,” explains co-author Mark Costello.
Two out of three species in the tropics could perish due to climate change alone. And safe havens in biodiversity hot spots, which conservationists have worked to establish for years to protect these species, may prove useless in the face of climate change.
“Unfortunately, our study shows that those biodiversity rich-spots will not be able to act as species refugia from climate change,” said co-author Mariana Vale.
Scientists say every tenth of a degree matters to avoid the devastating consequences of a mass extinction event. But carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere continued to rise in 2020, with CO2 level reaching their highest point in 3.6 million years.
On a planet wracked by rising seas, expanding deserts, withering biodiversity, and hotter temperatures, that’s a fraught question to answer. Food production accounts for roughly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and scientists have found that limiting global warming will be impossible without significant changes to how the world eats. At the same time, climate change is threatening the world’s food supply, with land and water being exploited at an “unprecedented” pace.
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Reforming the food system to save the planet is going to require new corporate practices, and new laws and regulations at the national and international levels. But individual consumer behaviors matter as well—more than you might think. Your diet is likely one of your biggest sources of climate emissions. But what should you do? Eat locally? Get your food from small-scale farmers? Choose organics and fair trade? Avoid processed foods? Eat seasonally?
The choices are many; the stakes are high. But experts on land use, climate change, and sustainable agriculture told me that two habits tower above all others in terms of environmental impact. To help save the planet, quit wasting food and eat less meat.
The conservation nonprofit Rare analyzed a sweeping set of climate-change mitigation strategies in 2019. It found that getting households to recycle, switch to LED lighting and hybrid vehicles, and add rooftop solar systems would save less than half the carbon emissions combined than would reducing food waste and adopting a plant-based diet.
Let’s begin with the role of food waste. Americans waste a lot of food. Nearly one-third of it, in fact. More than 130 billion pounds a year, worth roughly $160 billion. We throw away enough food to close our own “meal gap” eight times over. Food is the single biggest component of our country’s landfills, and the average American sends more than 200 pounds of food there every year. More than 1,250 calories per person a day, or more than 140 trillion calories a year, get tossed in the garbage.
Households, not restaurants or schools or corporate cafeterias, are the dominant wasters. The problem is worse in the United States than in most other countries, and it has worsened over time. When you toss a spoiled chicken breast or moldy tomato into the trash, you’re wasting a greenhouse-gas-intensive product. You’re also sending it to a landfill, where it will emit methane.
Addressing food waste would be low-hanging fruit: The country could save money, emit less carbon into the atmosphere, alleviate the burden on landfills, reduce the number of animals subjected to life on a factory farm, and address its hunger crisis just by eating all the food it makes. Households consuming more of what they buy, and thus buying less, would have a major effect on the whole food system. Food suppliers would produce less to meet the country’s more efficient demand. Supermarkets would stock less food. Fewer trucks would need to run from plant to store. Fewer refrigerators would be needed in stores and industrial facilities to keep groceries cold. Fewer cows would fill up feedlots. Fewer acres of corn and soy would be grown to feed them.
How to do it? For one, get wise about expiration labels and quit throwing out perfectly good food. Research shows that nearly all Americans misinterpret date labels and toss their groceries out prematurely, for fear of food poisoning, and understandably so. Retailers and production companies use 50 different use by–type labels, and none is federally regulated, except for those on infant formula. sell by stamps tend to be for inventory management, and have nothing to do with food safety; best if used by and use by stamps tend to be about freshness and food quality, not whether you are about to enjoy a serving of mycotoxins. As a general point, most food is safe to eat as long as there is no evident spoilage, such as visible mold or an off smell. “Use your senses,” says Yvette Cabrera of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the conservation nonprofit, noting that those senses were refined through millennia of natural selection in no small part to help us figure out whether food is safe to eat.
Experts also point to a series of simple, old-fashioned techniques households can use to ensure that they eat more of the food they buy. They amount to thinking like your Depression-era forebears, pretty much. Figure out appropriate portion sizes; eat your leftovers; store food in appropriate containers and at the right temperature; prepare and freeze perishables instead of letting them linger and go bad; and shop in your refrigerator and cabinet before you hit the store.
And when you’re at the store, there is one dietary change to consider that beats all others in terms of its climate impact. It is not eating locally or seasonally. It is not eating organic or fair-trade. It is not eating unprocessed foods or avoiding big-box and fast-food retailers. It is eating less meat. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s farmland is used to pasture livestock or raise crops to feed that livestock. That contributes to deforestation, destroys the planet’s natural carbon sinks, erodes the planet’s biodiversity, and uses up fresh water.
The main, mooing offender is beef. Cattle are responsible for roughly two-thirds of the livestock sector’s greenhouse-gas emissions, while beef and dairy products are responsible for about one-tenth of global emissions overall. Gram for gram, beef produces roughly eight times more greenhouse-gas emissions than farmed fish or poultry, 12 times more than eggs, 25 times more than tofu, and even more compared with pulses, nuts, root vegetables, bananas, potatoes, bread, or maize.
Beef is so bad for two reasons, Michael Clark, a scholar of food systems and health at the University of Oxford, explained to me. The first is that it takes a lot of inputs to produce beef as an output: about 20 kilograms of corn and soy protein to produce one kilogram of beef, he said. The second is that cows produce methane as they digest their food. “Other types of animals don’t do that,” he said. “And methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”
Trading your rib eyes and cheesesteaks for lentils and tofu is one of the best things you can do as a consumer for the environment; if all Americans did, the country would be roughly halfway to hitting its Paris Agreement targets. Still, the all-or-nothing way the choice is often presented is a mistake. There is enormous acreage between the Atkins diet, or even the meat-heavy diet of the average American, and full-on veganism, which remains a niche lifestyle choice that few follow for long. Better all Americans cut meat consumption by 40 percent than 3 percent of Americans cut it out completely. Experts encourage taking small, meaningful steps to reduce your meat consumption, and trying to find some joy in doing it. Participate in Meatless Monday; try learning to cook dishes from a plant-heavy cuisine you like; offer a vegetarian option at work events; opt for dishes where meat plays a supporting, rather than leading, role.https://d858d25b90763dc6b2a9f8f70ad934b6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
After wasting less food and eating less meat, all other changes a person might make are marginal, experts said, among them eating locally, organically, and seasonally. Moreover, the climate impact of those food choices is in many cases contradictory. “I work in food, and it’s confusing for me,” Cabrera, of the NRDC, told me. “Is this lettuce better than this lettuce? Consumers are faced with so many choices, and it is really hard to know.”
Humanely raised, local meat, for instance, can produce more emissions than meat coming from a concentrated industrial operation, Clark told me. Cows in concentrated animal-feeding operations are generally slaughtered at 12 to 18 months of age, while cows raised exclusively on pastures typically live twice as long. “The cow that lives for longer is going to emit more methane over the course of its lifespan,” he said, though he added that there were still compelling reasons to opt for the local beef.
Similarly, growing a given amount of organic produce usually requires more emissions and acres of land than growing the same amount using conventional farming methods. One study conducted in Sweden, for instance, showed that organic peas and wheat have a bigger climate impact than their conventionally farmed cousins.
That said, when it comes to the emissions related to shipping food around the world, experts argue that—surprisingly—local is not always better. There’s a certain uncanny decadence to eating Peruvian avocados and Chinese grapes in the dead of winter, or opening a bottle of French Beaujolais or a package of Scottish smoked salmon at will. But transporting food around the world tends to make up only a small share of a given product’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. What you are eating and how it was farmed is far more important than how it got to you, and imported food typically has a low carbon impact.
For all that, experts said there are good reasons to opt for organic, locally produced, seasonal food, even if it might not be as efficient to produce, or might not have the lowest greenhouse-gas emissions. Many smaller-scale operations outside Big Ag produce food without pesticides, without monoculture, with manure instead of chemical fertilizers, and with respect for biodiversity and soil health. Those are all important facets of environmental preservation too.
Complicating things, what’s good for the environment isn’t always what’s good for animal welfare. When it comes to eating animals, “unfortunately, the cruelty scale is the flip of the emissions scale,” Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit that advocates for better conditions for animals raised in industrial environments, told me. A family can easily eat a chicken in a single night, but might struggle to eat a whole cow over the course of a year. Moreover, transportation and processing is much rougher on birds, which have delicate bodies. (Each year, more than 1 million chickens die en route to slaughter, and half a million are not actually dead when they hit the scalding tank.) For these reasons, a chicken breast represents much more suffering than a steak, even though the steak is worse for the planet. But the fact remains: The fewer animals you eat, the fewer die, and the better off the planet is.https://d858d25b90763dc6b2a9f8f70ad934b6.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Diets that are good for the planet tend to be good for people too. Research by Clark and his colleagues has shown that foods associated with good health generally have low environmental impacts, “indicating that the same dietary transitions that would lower incidences of noncommunicable diseases would also help meet environmental sustainability targets.”
Our diets are cooking the planet, and changing them, even in small ways, might help avert catastrophe. A burger for lunch, a bag of wilted greens in the trash—these may not be as obviously destructive to the environment as a private jet or a gas-guzzling car. But they are choices we make daily, and they matter.
According to research published yesterday in Nature Climate Change, by the end of this century, lightning will be about twice as likely in the Arctic if greenhouse gas emissions continue as usual.
“We’ve been trying to find out in the Arctic region, where there’s little fire in the region previously, how that will change in the future,” says Yang Chen, who researches climate and wildfire at UC Irvine, and was the lead researcher on the study. “And the only ignition source is lightning strikes.”
Lightning requires two ingredients: warm air that rises quickly from the ground, and moisture. “When you get warm air … it kind of bubbles up through the atmosphere,” says Peter Bieniek, a climatologist at the University of Alaska who was not involved in the research. “It actually condenses, just like you would condense humid air on a cool window.” When that water freezes into ice, it can create lightning.
Those turbulent, wet conditions are becoming more common across the United States. A 2014 study in the journal Science predicted that by the end of the century, the country would experience 50 percent more lightning. What’s surprising, Chen says, is the magnitude of the changes in the Arctic: “It’s really big. It’s much bigger than in other regions of the world.”
The Nature research is actually the second recent study to find this result in the Arctic: a team of researchers in Alaska predicted last year that lightning strikes would double in the state over the next century. Alison York, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who co-authored that study, says that the findings in this most recent research are consistent with other work. “The physics of climate change would say, yes, we would have increased lightning, just from increased air temperatures.”
Those changes have implications not only for the Arctic landscape, but for the entire planet.
Right now, fire isn’t a major component of the tundra. “If you think of a tundra ecosystem, you think of these little tiny plants: little tiny blueberries, dwarf mosses, birch, lots of mosses,” says York. That’s because only a few inches to a foot of ground thaw out every summer, and larger plants can’t survive in the shallow conditions. That also means that fires normally don’t spread widely. “The fires are kind of like peat burning, along the surface,” says Chen, or into the carbon stored in the ground itself.
[Related: Beavers might be making the Arctic melt even faster]
The “dirt” on a tundra is mostly layers of older, dead plants, says Troy, “forming this blanket of moss, and litter” called duff.
More lightning would mean more fire, and that could tip the environment into something entirely different. Spring melts could reach deeper into the ground, and trees could take root in the bare soil. That process is likely to speed warming, and maybe spur even more lightning.
At stake is the permafrost, the rock-hard layer of soil that hasn’t thawed in tens of thousands of years, and which locks in a sleeping giant of methane, half-decayed plants, and carbon-rich dirt. In some places, that material has piled up thousands of feet deep. When it escapes—through burning, rotting, or simply burping out into the air—it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, speeding up climate change.
With the insulating mosses and grasses burned away, it’s likely that the permafrost will melt even faster. “That blanket keeps the permafrost cold. And as the fire burns into that blanket of duff, the underlying ground is exposed and warmed,” says Troy.
If the fire goes deep enough, there’s more ground to grow in, allowing trees and shrubs to move in, which in turn speeds up the warming process. Because trees are darker than the surrounding snow, they absorb heat rather than reflecting it. “You can actually deliver energy directly from the sun to the soil surface, so you can actually accelerate permafrost thaw,” says James Randerson, an author on the recent paper who studies climate change’s impact on Arctic ecosystems at UC Irvine.
Forests also have their own effects on fire and lightning; there’s some evidence that, because they create warm, wet conditions, they can actually promote lightning storms overhead. And when a fire is sparked in the boreal forest, it tends to jump from tree to tree, resulting in much larger blazes. Lightning will probably become more common in forests too, but won’t create the same kinds of landscape changes.
“We have not seen documentation of treeline migration on a large scale, but that might just be a process that takes a long time to observe,” Troy says. And, she notes, some of the trends can be seen in localized areas already, as in the site of a giant 2007 tundra fire that’s now growing back as willows and other brush.
The transition might take decades, Randerson agrees. “There’s a time delay between when climate conditions are suitable, and the migration rates of these trees’ lifetimes. It takes them a while to catch up.”
On January 13, one week before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth president of the United States and seven long days after the storming of the Capitol by an armed right-wing mob, it was easy enough to miss an article published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, despite its eye-catching title: “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” The headline was itself a train wreck: six dully innocuous words piling up in front of a modifier more suitable to a 1950s horror comic than a sober, academic journal. But there it was: The 17 scientists who co-wrote the article, the experts who peer-reviewed it, and the journal’s editors did not consider the word “ghastly” too sensational, subjective, or value-laden to describe the future toward which our society is advancing with all the prudence and caution of a runaway locomotive. The article’s message was simple: Everything must change.
On its current track, the authors wrote, “humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth’s ability to support complex life.” As many as a million animal species—and 20 percent of all species—are facing near-term extinction. Humans have altered 70 percent of the planet’s land surface and “compromised” or otherwise despoiled two-thirds of its oceans, and the climate has only begun to warm. Humanity—or some of us, anyway—“is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society”—or some sectors of it—“robs nature and future generations to pay for boosting incomes in the short term.” Only a radical transformation of the systems that govern our relations to one another and to the myriad forms of life with which we share the planet, the authors concurred, could deliver any hope of a “less-ravaged future.”
One week later, Joe Biden took the oath of office and quickly signed sweeping executiveorders declaring it the explicit policy of his administration “to listen to the science.” He didn’t use the word “ghastly,” but he did mention “a cry for survival … from the planet itself,” one that “can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.” This was strangely comforting to hear. He rejoined the Paris accord, revoked a slew of Trump-era executive orders, and restored, albeit temporarily, the moratorium on drilling in the Arctic that President Barack Obama had issued on his way out the door. However slow Biden had been to catch on to the true magnitude of the climate crisis during the primaries, he had, after months of sustained movement pressure, apparently begun to come around.Get independent, fact-based journalism: 3 months for $5Subscribe
To his credit, in his first week in office, Biden went further than any of his predecessors ever had. He ordered a “pause” on all new permits and leases for oil and gas drilling offshore and on federal land and shut down the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which activists had been fighting for more than a decade. He ordered federal agencies to pursue a “carbon pollution–free electricity sector no later than 2035,” and the full conversion of all government fleets to zero-emissions vehicles.
Perhaps most significantly, Biden’s actions aimed to institutionalize the mitigation of climate change as a priority in the daily workings of the federal bureaucracy. He ordered the creation of an Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a national climate adviser, a special presidential envoy for climate, and, in an explicit echo of the New Deal program—though green only with a lowercase g—a Civilian Climate Corps. He directed federal agencies to “implement a Government-wide approach that reduces climate pollution in every sector of the economy,” to center climate in foreign policy decisions, to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, and to “promote ending international financing” of fossil fuels. There was even, in the very first section of his first climate order, a mandate for environmental justice and the protection of communities of color that had been disproportionately harmed by polluters. Whether that would mean any real inclusion—“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” as one South Carolina environmental justice activist put it to me—remains an open question. But as a signal of his administration’s priorities and its sense of urgency, it was, all the climate activists I spoke to agreed, an extremely solid start.https://3e2ce429ad8218c24d438728d948328a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
There was of course also a good deal of typical Democratic half-stepping. Why a “pause” on drilling and not an outright ban? (And why had the administration quietly gone ahead and approved 31 new drilling permits anyway?) Why no mention of fracking? Why not just shut down all the oil and gas pipelines that “[disserve] the U.S. national interest,” as the executive order put it, in exactly the same ways that Keystone XL did? And why not immediately declare a climate emergency, which would have opened up executive powers that would enable him to evade many of the roadblocks erected by the 50 Republicans in the Senate? Even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, no one’s idea of a radical, was urging Biden to do so. “If there ever was an emergency,” Schumer said, “the climate crisis is one.”
Still, with these and more caveats and endless sound reasons for mistrust, after four long years of Trump’s out-and-out denialist, kleptocratic mayhem, the sheer momentum of Biden’s actions did feel pretty good. At least it allowed us to contemplate the prospect ahead with something other than pure dread. But a couple of months into the Biden era, enough time has passed for it no longer to seem impolite to point out that we should not be reassured. The “ghastly future” that those 17 scientists were warning of will still arrive, right on schedule or perhaps a little early, so long as Biden stays within the frame of what now counts as pragmatic climate policy—which, it turns out, is not very pragmatic at all.
Those 17 scientists did not want you to despair. “Ours is not a call to surrender,” they wrote. It was meant as a kick in the ass—a reminder that our only chance is a thoroughgoing transformation. Specifically: “fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth.” Radical as this call may seem, it was hardly an outlier demand from a few oddball pinko Ph.Ds. In 2019, 11,258 scientists from 153 countries signed a “Warning of a Climate Emergency” that called for “bold and drastic” changes to the economy, including a shift away “from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being.” Two years before that, the Alliance of World Scientists made a similar call in a “Warning to Humanity” that garnered 15,364 signatures. We are supposed to listen to science now. This is what the scientists are saying: Everything must change.Get independent, fact-based journalism: 3 months for $5Subscribe
A strange sort of faith lies at the core of mainstream climate advocacy—a largely unexamined belief that the very system that got us into this mess is the one that will get us out of it. For a community putatively committed to scientific empiricism, this is an extraordinary conviction. Despite reams of increasingly apocalyptic research, and despite 25 years of largely fruitless international climate negotiations, carbon emissions have continued to rise, and temperatures along with them. We are at nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming already—more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over preindustrial averages—and three-tenths of a degree away from blowing the Paris accord’s aspiration to limit warming to a still-calamitous 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists now expect us to hit that threshold in about 10 years, and large swaths of the Arctic have been in actual flames for two summers running, but most governments with the option to do so are still feeding the beast that got us here.https://3e2ce429ad8218c24d438728d948328a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Even with the grim opportunity presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed the economy so much that growth in fossil fuel production dropped an almost unprecedented 7 percent last year, governments—ours very much included—have so far dumped much more stimulus spending into high-carbon industries than into renewable energy. It’s as if our economic system, and the politics it breeds, will not allow us to diverge from the straight path to self-obliteration.
The faith nonetheless persists: The market will provide. It has not done so yet, but renewables are perhaps finally cheap enough—cheaper at last than conventional energy sources—that the transition is now inevitable. So the credo goes. The change that is coming will be largely technological: a bold new era of “green growth.” Modern societies erected on dirty coal and oil can be jacked up and shifted to cleaner forms of energy like an old house in need of a new foundation. Government may have a larger role in this transition than neoliberal dogma has recently allowed, but its primary task will still be to encourage innovation and feed the markets by shepherding the resulting growth.
It is no coincidence that some version of this faith, so all-pervasive now that it does not register as a piety, has been reshaping the planet for almost precisely as long as fossil energy—first coal, then oil—has been altering the atmosphere. Capitalism is guided by a carbon creed, an ecstatic vision of a market that chugs along eternally, needing only new inputs—the earth itself, commodified as minerals, or water, housing, health care, or almost any living thing—to spew out wealth that can be shoveled back into the machine, converting more and more of the biosphere into zeros in a digital account: more fleshless, magical money that can be invested once again. If appetites are bottomless, and apparently they are, shouldn’t growth be endless too?
The market’s grip on the political imagination so effectively blinds us to alternatives that we are unable fully to grasp that this is the basic script that the new administration is following. Even the Green New Deal does not substantively diverge from it. The climate crisis, an existential threat to planetary life, must be sold to Wall Street and the public at large as a growth opportunity. On January 31, John Kerry, acting as Biden’s new climate envoy, enthused to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about “literally millions of jobs” that would soon be created, about all the “new products coming online,” and about oil companies’ newfound passion for “carbon capture and storage and so forth.” The private sector, he said, “has already made the decision that there is money to be made here, that’s capitalism, and they are investing in that future.” If that makes you nervous, it shouldn’t, Kerry insisted. The changes ahead would be like the analog-to-digital shift of the 1990s, only better: “the important point, Fareed, for people to really focus on is it’s a very exciting economic transition.”
If Kerry struck a cheerier tone than that of the doomsaying consensus in the scientific community, it wasn’t just a question of polishing a turd. “Green growth” is mainstream climate discourse. A “green transition” that does not significantly alter existing economic structures—or their vast inequities—is still, for most climate advocates, the only imaginable way forward. Kerry was speaking a made-for-TV version of the sole language available to him—one that in its most basic assumptions excludes the possibility of fundamental social transformation, and of any heresy that casts doubt on the Great God Growth. The one thing all those thousands of scientists agree on is our only hope—that the economic structures that mediate our relation to the planet must be profoundly altered—is the one thing that Kerry and Biden are quite careful not to consider at all.
In climate policy jargon, the crucial concept is “decoupling.” The notion lies deep in the hidden heart of the “sustainable development goals” held dear by international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank: Economic growth can be safely divorced from the ecological damage that it has heretofore almost universally wreaked. If the train of capital appears to be hurtling us toward the abyss, we can cut the engine loose and cruise someplace more comfortable: same train, same speed, different destination. Like millions of clean-tech jobs and a crisis-induced transition magically unlocking unimaginable wealth, it is an attractive and reassuring idea. The only problem is that there is next to no evidence that anything analogous has ever occurred, or that it is likely to occur in the future.
Examples of successful decoupling tend to involve shifts in the location rather than the nature of industrial production: Rich countries green their economies by offshoring the manufacture of the goods they consume to China and countries in the global south, which they can then chastise for their lax emissions standards. But Earth’s atmosphere is not divided by national boundaries. Greenhouse gases cause the same degree of global warming no matter where they are produced, and to the extent that this kind of decoupling is a meaningful measure of anything, it is only of the colonial relations that still set the terms for the shell game of global capital.
What policy wonks call “absolute decoupling”—the only kind that would do the climate any good—turns out to be a fantasy akin to a perpetual motion machine, a chimera of growth unhindered by material constraints. One recent analysis of 835 peer-reviewed articles on the subject found that the kind of massive and speedy reductions in emissions that would be necessary to halt global warming “cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates.” The mechanism on which mainstream climate policy is betting the future of the species, and on which the possibility of green growth rests, appears to be a fiction.https://3e2ce429ad8218c24d438728d948328a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
This fiction is nonetheless fundamental to the very math used by international climate institutions. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s benchmark Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC—which announced in no uncertain terms that global emissions must be decreased by nearly half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to avoid cataclysm at an almost unthinkable scale—set out a number of possible scenarios for policymakers to consider. It relied on algorithmic models linking greenhouse gas emissions and their climate impacts to various socioeconomic “pathways.” Whatever other variables they accounted for, though, all of the scenarios envisioned by the IPCC assumed the continuation of economic growth comparable to the past half-century’s. Even as they acknowledged levels of atmospheric carbon unseen in the last three million years, they were unable to conceive of an economy that does not perpetually expand. Fredric Jameson’s oft-cited dictum that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism was baked into the actual modeling.
At the same time, all but one of the IPCC’s scenarios that envision us successfully limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rely on the use of technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere after the fact. (The one exception involves converting an area more than half the size of the United States to forest. None of the scenarios imagines that we can reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius target by cutting emissions alone.) But the technology in question is at this point largely speculative. “No proposed technology is close to deployment at scale,” the report’s authors concede, and “there is substantial uncertainty” about possible “adverse effects” on the environment. The international body, in other words, is more willing to gamble on potentially destructive technologies that do not currently exist than to even run the math on a more substantive economic transformation.
A version of this same wager animates the Biden climate plan, which, as Canada, the European Union, the U.K., and South Korea all have, commits to “net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” (China plans to reach the same goal by 2060.) This sounds like great news, and is without doubt worlds better than the status quo ante of no ambitions at all. But “net zero” is a slippery notion. It does not mean zero at all. To avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, emissions need to fall 7.6 percent every year for the next 10 years. Even with the pandemic-induced slowdown, global emissions shrank only 6.4 percent in 2020. Since, as Biden reassured a nervous oil industry during the campaign, “We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” net-zero calculations assume some degree of “overshoot”—i.e., they stipulate that we’re not going to be able to cut emissions fast enough, and that we’ll therefore have to rely on those same untested carbon removal technologies to eventually bring us to zero.
But a planet is not a balance sheet. The climate has tipping points—the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the Himalayan glaciers, the deterioration of Atlantic Ocean currents, the melting of the permafrost, the transition of the Amazon from rain forest to savannah. We are perilously close to hitting some of them already: In February, 31 people were killed and 165 went missing when a chunk of a Himalayan glacier broke off, releasing an explosive burst of meltwater and debris. In the most nightmarish scenario, which could be tripped with less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, those tipping points could begin to trigger one another and cascade, locking us in, as one widely cited study put it, to “conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.” Without major emissions cuts, we may reach 2 degrees Celsius of warming before 2050.https://3e2ce429ad8218c24d438728d948328a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
That’s a heavy risk to bet against, but there it is, pulsing away inside the net-zero promises that not only politicians but corporate boards have been proudly rolling out. Over the last two years, more and more corporations in fossil fuel–intensive industries—BP, Shell, Maersk, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, at least a dozen major airlines—have made similar pledges. Shell’s plan alone would require tree planting over an area nearly the size of Brazil. By the estimate of the NGO ActionAid, “there is simply not enough available land on the planet to accommodate all of the combined corporate and government ‘net zero’ plans” for offsets and carbon-sinking tree plantations. To save this planet, it appears we’ll need another one. This is what currently counts as pragmatism.
“If there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear,” Amitav Ghosh wrote in 2016, “it is that to think about the world as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.” Five years later, the pandemic has drilled the point painfully home. The societies most geared toward individual profit, and most worshipful of economic expansion, have proved least capable of saving themselves. Decades of almost unbroken GDP growth have piled up riches in a few gated compounds while leaving the vast majority of Americans poorer and more vulnerable to illness, imprisonment, homelessness, and the ghastly futures that we know all too well await us. That vulnerability is far from uniform. Covid has charted a precise map of its variegated terrain, of who gets to live and who gets pushed out to die. The same map applies to the climate crisis, too.
It is at this point a truism that the responsibility for global warming is not the common property of humanity but lies overwhelmingly with the few wealthy countries, the United States above all others, that profited most from early industrialization. The corollary truism is that the poor countries that disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change contributed next to nothing to the problem. We have since learned that what is true in global macrocosm applies at the societal level as well. The wealthy consume far more resources and emit far more carbon than the rest of us. According to a recent Oxfam report, the richest one percent produce 100 times more emissions than the poorest half of the planet’s population, and the richest 5 percent were responsible for more than a third of all emissions growth between 1990 and 2015. Leveling this gross inequity is a question of survival.
As transcendent as the notion is made to sound, the “economy” is not a god or a temple. It is the order that maintains these inequalities: a highly contingent network of relations among human beings and between humans and the rest of the planet. Like everything we might ever hope to make, it is transitory and eminently changeable. Homo sapiens have walked the earth for at least 300,000 years, but coal-fueled industrial capitalism is less than 200 years old. Its latest, fully globalized stage has been around for just a few decades, even if its roots lie in colonial dynamics that date back a few centuries. Our specific modern exaltation of “growth” dates only to the years that followed World War II. It is younger than Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Donald Trump. Like them, it cannot survive much longer.https://3e2ce429ad8218c24d438728d948328a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Last year, GDP growth in the United States fell 3.5 percent. Emissions tumbled, too. The only other time in the last three decades that they have dropped significantly was, not coincidentally, also the last time the economy contracted. But if it’s guided with intent, the cessation of endless growth does not have to mean impoverishment. The most recent “Emissions Gap Report” from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) projects that warming could be successfully limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius if the richest one percent reduced “their current emissions by at least a factor of 30,” which would allow the poorest 50 percent of the planet’s population to increase their per capita emissions “by around three times their current levels.” For the latter, a threefold jump in consumption is the difference between constant want and a life of basic dignity. Billionaires who drop to 1/30th of their fortunes are still multimillionaires.
As innocuous as it may sound, “growth” should be understood to describe the frenzied ruination of nearly every ecosystem on the planet so that its richest human inhabitants can hold on to their privileges for another generation or two. Rejecting the idolatry of growth means tilting the organization of our societies toward other social goods—health, for instance, and the freedom to exist on a planet that is not on fire. This should not be unimaginable. There are infinite other ways to organize a society, and the fact that we are not widely and urgently discussing them is at this point nothing short of criminal. There are voluminous literatures on degrowth, on circular economies, on mutual aid, and, yes, on socialism, too. There is the 99.999 percent of human history during which we managed to not significantly alter the atmosphere or wipe out such an enormous portion of the species with whom we share the planet. There is the living experience of every indigenous community in the United States, and of others around the globe that have been forced to invent ways to resist and survive a system determined to erase them.
Everything must change. The energy system that is heating the atmosphere was poisoning Black and brown communities in America long before climate change emerged as an issue. The industrial food chain that produces roughly half of all global greenhouse gas emissions is also leaving more than a quarter of U.S. families with children without secure access to food and millions more with a uniquely American combination of obesity and undernourishment. The globalized supply chains that fuel international shipping and aviation—which, per the UNEP, “are projected to consume between 60 and 220 percent of allowable CO2 emissions by 2050”—were deadly to local economies as well as to breathing individuals long before the pandemic revealed their extraordinary fragility.
Transportation, health care, housing, education, everything that the Covid-19 outbreak has revealed to be so murderously broken, every aspect of our lives currently controlled by shareholder profits—does that even leave anything out?—must be rethought and rebuilt in the context of terrestrial survival. The white supremacy that threatens to tear the country down while strangling the rest of the globe has proved inseparable from an ecocidal urge to dominate all forms of planetary life. (W.E.B. Du Bois saw it clearly 100 years ago: “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever.”) It must be confronted head on. A foreign policy constructed to at all costs preserve a hegemony that for most of the last century has hinged on control of the planet’s oil reserves must be radically reconfigured.https://3e2ce429ad8218c24d438728d948328a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
It is of course foolish to the point of derangement to imagine that Joe Biden would consent to any such transformation, much less lead the country toward one. Given the current political geography, it would be equally whimsical to suppose that any American politician or movement could ride to power on the message that this planet does not belong to us, that we share it with the dead and the still-to-be-born and with species we have not bothered to notice, and that we must learn to live among them with generosity, humility, and the sort of wisdom that does not come to human beings cheaply. However, it would be just as naïve to believe that current political configurations are any more stable or permanent than the climate, or any less vulnerable to concerted human action. If we do actually listen to the science, then we understand what ghastly futures await us and we know how bold we must be to avoid them. Any politics that presumes to be anything other than suicidal must take that knowledge as its starting point.Ben Ehrenreich @BenEhrenreich
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of Desert Notebooks: A Roadmap for the End of Time, which was published by Counterpoint Press.