There will never be a better time to save the planet
Why we’re going to win the climate change fight — despite Trump’s election as denier-in-chief… maybe even because of it.
My fellow Americans (and concerned people everywhere), this is not the time to give up on meeting the planetary crisis.
This is the time to prepare to win.
Here are some notes on why I think we can.
The Bad News
Let’s get the tragic reality out of the way: Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States, and — on top of all his other moves to increase income inequality, attack immigrants, stoke racism and religious hatred, undermine workers, threaten civil liberties and undercut women’s rights — he will certainly attack the progress that has been made on climate change under President Obama. Trump is anti-climate. That’s the simple truth.
Now, for three decades, climate advocates have focused on climate strategies at the Federal level. For good reason: the unparalleled power of the levers of national government to change economic, energy, agriculture, housing and transportation policies. The Feds can get shit done.
But we’ve never made as much progress as we should have, and now, even that progress will be undone by an anti-climate president — with the support of two anti-climate houses of Congress. Climate denialists will sit in the Cabinet. Others will chair the U.S. Senate Committees on Environment and Public Works; Energy and Natural Resources; and Commerce, Science and Transportation. A large majority of Republican lawmakers are overt climate denialists. There has not been a U.S. government this hostile to climate and environmental progress since Reagan was elected in 1980.
There is a very good chance that many, if not all, of the key climate action achievements of the Obama administration will be undone in the next year or two.
The Ticking Clock
Meanwhile, the planet continues to warm.
Many smart people are in despair right now, because they understand that a Trump election has at least cost us time, and time is the one thing we don’t have.
Every day, we add carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Adding CO2 to the atmosphere heats our planet. To stay within any given range of temperature, we must limit to total accumulation of CO2 in the sky: we must stay within a carbon budget.
The warming limit the world agreed to last year in Paris is two degrees Celsius. Staying under 2ºC demands massive change — but even more, it demands massive change quickly. And with every day we delay action, the changes we must make to stay under 2ºC become larger and must be deployed faster. Climate change is a steepening problem.
That’s why Trump’s election is such bad news for the climate. Trump cannot stop the global march to a carbon-balanced society. But he can slow it down in the U.S. (and to some extent abroad) — perhaps even slow progress enough to make 2ºC no longer achievable for the planet as a whole. Dave Roberts argues this over on Vox, when he writes “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees.”
“Game over, man! Game over!”
Should we give up, then? No.
Dave’s likely right: 2ºC is a vanished target now. But this isn’t a 2ºC or bust fight. It’s a fight to limit consequences. It’s a fight for every 1/10th of a degree. If we fail to hold to 2ºC, we have to fight for 2.1º; failing that, we battle on for 2.2º. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4ºC. For future generations, 4º is still better than 4.1º.
“Game over” is neither realistic nor responsible. Even the most catastrophic outcomes humanity aren’t the apocalypse — the end of the future itself — they’re just appalling failure and tragedy. We have a duty to people who will live after those failures.
The world won’t end, even if we lose completely. Life will go on, but people will suffer profoundly, human possibilities will be dwarfed, lives impoverished, beauty undone, achievements lost — for millennia, and sometimes forever.
(And we’ll have done all of this not to create wealth, but simply to deliver another couple decades of profit to high-carbon industries: that’s what makes this planetary crisis such a heart-rending fight. So much lost, for so little gain. It’s fucking depressing, for sure.)
Better is better, however, even in a damaged world. Even after we’ve missed 2ºC, our fundamental fight does not change. Until we get to zero emissions, that will remain our goal, in every scenario. Disastrous Trump administration? Get to zero carbon, as soon as we can. Breakdown in global climate agreements? Get to zero carbon, as soon as we can. The Amazon burns and the tundra thaws? Get to zero carbon, as soon as we can. Our main job doesn’t change, the curves we face just keep getting steeper.
So, blowing the budget for 2ºC is not game over, it’s game on. It won’t be “over” in our lifetimes. We never get to declare defeat.
We may, however, be able to declare victory.
The Good News
So, how do we fight to win? How do we fight for 2.1º in the next four years?
We must begin by understanding that the U.S. Federal government — while hugely important — is not the only game in town. And Trump will not last forever.
The key to facing the planetary crisis now is looking to other leverage points, and creating momentum that be turned into rapid action when sanity has once again returned to D.C. Those leverage points can deliver significant action even as Trump bumbles malignantly through the Oval Office.
Here are five reasons I think so:
1. International Agreements
First, there are the global inter-governmental climate agreements themselves, many of which Trump is simply unable to sabotage. They deserve our loud, enthusiastic, on-going support. Other efforts bundle the actions of cities, industries or scientists to produce global outcomes. None of these efforts demand presidential support or Senate approval. One of the most effective things we can do is to make clear that these agreements and efforts are good for the world and good for America, as often as possible.
2. The Bright Green Economy
Second, there’s the economy.
Not the economy of coal, oil, cars, cows and logging (not to mention bombs and prisons) Trump is hoping to bring back to reward his donors. I mean the much bigger, more powerful economy emerging now. The economy of solar and wind energy; dense green building in low-car cities; sustainable infrastructure; electric autonomous vehicles; clean technologies and digital efficiency breakthroughs; on-demand shared goods and awesome low-carbon lifestyles; sustainable farming and forestry… and so on and so on and so on. The economy the real-world future demands.
The new economy is already here. Within the working lifetimes of many people reading this, low-carbon business models, technologies and practices will be the norm in every industry. What’s more, low-carbon systems are in high demand around the world — like, tens of trillions of dollars-worth of demand — and meeting that demand is by far the greatest economic opportunity in a generation.
Trump can do nothing meaningful to slow that economic change, for three reasons. A) because it is driven by long-term, massive trends. B) because most of the change that is already happening is happening outside U.S. borders. C) because even within U.S. borders, the power of presidents is limited, and it is especially limited in ways to block advances in technology and design.
We owe it to ourselves and our children to do everything we can to launch the new economy into hyper-drive in the U.S. That means supporting clean economy policies and companies and fighting new high-carbon infrastructure. That means divesting from high-carbon industries and re-investing in low-carbon competitors. That means exerting professional influence and public pressure to push every business in America to prepare for a zero-carbon future.
3. Accelerated Action from States and Cities
Third, there’s Blue America. Trump takes the office having lost the popular vote, and in a country where climate action is already supported by a large majority of all Americans, and by overwhelming majorities on the West Coast.
State, regional and local governments already have enormous power to change climate policies. And in Blue America, the political will already exists for bold and decisive climate action.
States can follow in the footsteps of the California’s bold new climate action laws. California, in turn can step up its own efforts, adding serious housing development policies, strict smart growth rules, rewriting obsolete anti-development laws and encouraging a rapid shift away from auto-dependence.
Most boldly, states can implement their own carbon taxes. (I’m not going to go into the ins-and-outs of Washington State’s disastrous failure this year to pass the nation’s best carbon tax, except to say I think it actually proves the viability of state-level approaches.)
If set high enough, started soon enough and raised fast enough, state-level carbon taxes could have a transformative effect on their economies. Given that California, New York, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and the New England states alone make up roughly half the U.S. economy, changing these states’ carbon prices inevitably means changing the national economy as well.
Cities and urban regions are already the epicenters of American climate action. Now it’s time for them to genuinely take the lead, and they can. A whole host of smart solutions are waiting to be implemented, right off the metaphorical shelf, from passivhaus building standards to rapid-deployment bike lane networks, eliminating parking requirements to implementing congestion charges.
By far the most important thing blue-state cities can do is the one that for the last 25 years has proven the hardest: build much, much more housing.
As I wrote recently,
Unless you’ve been completely out-of-touch with the debate on climate solutions, you probably understand that urban density is one of the best (and best-proven) climate solutions we have. People who live in dense, walkable communities use far less energy and far fewer materials than people who live in sprawling suburbs. (I wrote a whole book on the importance of cities in solving climate change, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.)
The only way to make denser communities is to build more housing. This, it turns out, is something we can do and need to do, because essentially every successful city in America now has a serious housing shortage. We need millions more homes, and we need them now (this is obviously a social justice question — housing costs increased by our housing shortage fall heaviest on low-income people — and an economic priority, as well as a climate solution).
If we build the millions of urban homes we need in dense corridors, served by transit and made walkable by good urban design, they will not only drop the emissions of the people living in those homes, but emissions across the whole city, even the region. In fact, building lots of new low-carbon housing is the single best climate action plan a city can have. Conversely, anti-housing policies are anti-climate.
(Again, I and others have argued this extensively elsewhere, so I won’t go much more into it here. Here’s a talk I gave last summer, if you want to know more:)
As I say, though, for the last 25 years, building has been largely stymied by NIMBY groups and crazy planning laws. That, however, may be changing fast. I see signs that a pro-housing, YIMBY insurrection is waiting in the wings in cities across America. Advances in building construction, meanwhile, make rapid building more possible, once the political roadblocks clear.
Cities which embraced pro-housing climate policies could do much, even in the absence of national support.
4. The Carbon Bubble
Fourth, we need to recognize that we’re living in a carbon bubble. Even when Trump takes office, this will still be true.
A large part of the carbon lobby’s ability to be effective at predatory delay is based on the sense people have that the power of high-carbon companies is unchallengeable, and likely to last for a very long time. But their power is based on their valuation. Their valuations, in turn, are based largely on their ability to keep burning fossil fuels. Maintaining the perception of invulnerability is critical to maintaining their stock prices.
There is increasing recognition that high-carbon business models — from oil extraction to the building of internal-combustion-engine cars — are threatened now, and many are likely to collapse in the next decade or two. Not just because of climate regulations and agreements around the world, but because of the increasing competitiveness of their replacements, like clean energy and electric vehicles.
There’s no long play for high-carbon companies. The faster the awareness of this economic shift spreads, the less power the carbon lobby will have. There’s some reason to believe it’s already a house of cards, and it could come down even while Trump’s in office.
5. The Future Itself
Fifth, and finally, there’s the future itself.
People need futures they can fight for. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Just as importantly, envisioning a better world is the key to beginning it: we can’t build what we can’t imagine.
Darkening the future is the most powerful weapon the opposition possesses (read my piece Putting the Future Back in the Room for more). Acting as if Trump’s election is the end, and everything afterwards is a black hole of unknowable awfulness, is profoundly discouraging and dis-empowering.
But we have never been more able to imagine, portray and share better visions of what our future can be, or more capable of bring vision to reality. The planetary crisis can only be met by a vision of planetary success. Imagining success for all humanity is not something any politician can prevent or stop, unless we let him.
America needs its artists, its writers, its actors, its filmmakers, its librarians, its dancers, its teachers, its futurists, its inventors and its visionaries more now than it ever has. Everyone who kindles inspiration, supports inquiry, nourishes new ideas or works to see the world afresh has a giant job to do, starting today.
America needs a new vision of itself, after this catastrophe. Not least, there are millions of American kids who will need the powers of intellect and spirit. They’ll need to be connected with positive possibilities for the future for their emotional survival.
Let’s invite them into imagining a better world.
What We Do Tomorrow:
On climate, our task now is not to put our heads down, save what little we can, and mourn.
Our task is to raise our vision, mobilize our allies and fight for everything. This is no time for incrementalism, small steps, guilt-relieving gestures. There will be a better America, on the other side of this disaster. Our job is to begin it now. This is the time for demanding the zero carbon America we need.
If yesterday’s elections didn’t raise your expectations and accelerate your timelines, you’re not being realistic. We face the worst case scenario in our national politics. It will make every win harder, so every win must really count, achieve what’s actually needed.
But we won’t get there the way we thought. We can and should fight Trump’s efforts to undo climate progress every step of the way, including in the courts. We can and should get ready for 2018 and fight for a better Congress. We can and should fight in the courts of public opinion, demand more from our media, and organize. But in parallel to all this, we must change our strategies for success.
Climate policy and climate advocacy strategies that made sense on Monday have been irrevocably changed. This is a Permian Event for a host of ideas about how to meet the planetary crisis. The time pressures of this crisis alone make that true. Forget about a national cap-and-trade system: we need an evolutionary explosion of faster, more ambitious visions, solutions and strategies.
New strategies, though, can sometimes end up being far more successful than the old. We may find that — in supporting international efforts, driving forward a low-carbon economy, building climate solutions in our cities, intensifying pressure on the carbon bubble and envisioning the future — we have made ourselves more able to achieve powerful change in Federal policies over the long run.
At the risk of being too far ahead, I want to leave you with this thought: It may be that we’ll look back at Trump’s election and understand it was the last stand of an old, broken model — and the beginning of the massive changes that saved humanity from the planetary crisis we’d created. That giving up hope on a generation of blocked, slow, incremental Federal policies actually prepared the ground for much larger, faster changes, in the end.
Maybe climate action in America didn’t just end. Maybe it’s only just beginning.
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