Fortifying the Future: the Next American Dream

This is Part 4 in the Sustainable America series.

Americans are unique in our aspirations for the future. Whether it’s Manifest Destiny, the ideals of liberty, or the ambition of the moonshot, Americans have always had a dream in our hearts to guide us. Whether or not we can agree that America needs to be made great again, most Americans can feel that our country is hurting these days. Perhaps it’s our collective grief that our political institutions are souring into a bad joke on the world stage; perhaps it’s the fact that all too many Americans are still economically insecure following the collapse that was the Great Recession. Maybe it’s racial and social strife that is fueling our national unease. Whatever it is, there’s no denying it: there’s a lot to deal with right now.

But the one issue that needs to be addressed above all — and that gets the least attention — is climate change. As Teddy Roosevelt so presciently said, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.” You can’t have racial equality without a livable climate. You can’t solve hunger and eliminate poverty on a dead planet. Thankfully, solving climate change is exactly what America needs to get back to work again. Imagine a future where every hand is put to work, every person on an even playing field, every day looking better than the last. This is the real possibility of climate change: not a desolate hellscape, but a gleaming 21st century utopia. It is the new American Dream, and it will fortify the future for generations to come.

What if I told you that the American government will charge you $200,000 for living in the 21st century? You’d probably be rather upset. We’ve long known that the only two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes, but $200,000? That’s outrageous. No one would accept that. There would be protests on the street, violence, possibly even revolution. It simply wouldn’t be allowed.

Now what if I told you that Mother Nature was cashing that check instead? No negotiation, no revolution to stop it; she just took the money and burned it. It wasn’t even invested in anything. It just got stolen. $200,000 per person, just for being alive. I wish I could say this was mere speculation, but no, this is happening right now: climate change is costing Americans tens of billions of dollars a year, and it’s only just beginning.

Since even just a few decades ago, extreme weather events have been rapidly increasing, already four to five times more likely than the 20th century, and this is only with our current level of global warming. If we continue on our current path, extreme weather events will be 60 times more likely, and you can imagine how much more that will cost. The final bill for Hurricane Katrina was $108 billion; Sandy, $75 billion. Even all this time later, the effects of both storms are still being felt, and relief has been provided from the federal government, paid by — none other than — the American people. For those who hate tax increases, this cost is essentially a tax. It’s a disaster relief tax, and it’s growing every year.

Here’s the thing about climate change: it’s crazy expensive. The good news, however, is that the solution is cheap. Climate impacts are already happening; there’s nothing to equivocate over this. Mother Nature’s cashing checks left and right. The only way to stop the bleeding is to stop our carbon emissions and control global warming. There are people who are worried that this is expensive — clean energy will drive up our energy bills, they say. To that, I say refer to the numbers above as to why that argument is bunk. Nothing will cost more than climate change, not even a few windmills.

According to the International Energy Agency, the world is poised to spend around $318 trillion on fossil fuel infrastructure between now and 2050. This means more pipelines, more fracking, and more money diverted away from clean energy technologies that would alleviate climate stress. By comparison, it will cost around $359 trillion over the same time period to solve climate change. It’s a difference, but not a big one. And it’s the difference between paying year after year for severe weather cleanup, or living comfortably in a world with a stable and familiar climate. If we’re going to spend the money anyway, why not invest it in something worthwhile?

The political and social movements to bring about this 21st century infrastructure revolution are already at play. Clean energy prices have tumbled in just the past few years, to the point where in many cases green power is cheaper than dirty fuels. States like California and New York have a suite of laws in place designed to ramp up clean energy generation, and cities have also taken the lead on progressive climate action. On the national level, although much of Congress remains mired in climate denial, bipartisan cooperation on climate is beginning to take shape in the form of the Climate Solutions Caucus, proving that even on what was once the most divisive of political topics, both sides of the aisle can come together to work on the problem. Climate change isn’t about creating divisions; it’s about overcoming them. It is the great unifier, because it will take all of us to adapt to it.

After the cultural and political argument for sustainability has been won, fortifying the future becomes a simple task. Simple is relative, of course — winning World War II certainly wasn’t simple, but once the wartime economy took shape and was firing on all cylinders, America became a high efficiency machine. This is the most direct analogue to what will happen in this Great Adaptation. This was also the last time America had a national purpose, a sense of righteousness about its work. World War II was a just war, to stop an encroaching evil from taking our rights and freedoms. Sounds a lot like climate change, come to think of it.

The crucial difference between America now and America then is that back then, science was given a high priority. The Manhattan Project, a gargantuan effort of the nation’s best scientists, 130,000 employees, and billions of dollars in funding, was a scientific breakthrough that may have won America the war. Its cost at the time was the equivalent of nine days of wartime government spending: in other words, a mere fraction.

Fortifying America against the impacts climate change will require a generous investment as well: in clean energy generation, new windmill designs, improved efficiency in solar panels, smart grid technologies, and in whole industries just waiting to be birthed in this effort to attain sustainability. All forms of environmental damage are ultimately caused by the same thing: human waste. Carbon dioxide is waste; plastic is waste; extinction is waste. By reorienting our economy to eliminate waste, we can stop the damage and invest in an economy that can sustain itself indefinitely.

New plastics are in development right now that are completely biodegradable. If their production can be scaled up, it’s a no-brainer to phase out fossil fuel plastics that persist in the environment for generations. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish; this is an unsustainable condition. But the technology exists right now to avoid this disastrous future, and it needs a champion, the sustainable state. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is the template for this plan. By outlawing unsustainable plastics, as harmful chlorofluorocarbons were phased out in the Montreal Protocol, we can avoid a well-known catastrophe from playing out.

Eventually this development will lead to its inevitable conclusion: the entire economy and all products that move through it must be assessed on their environmental and climate impacts. Every link in the supply chain will be factored into this analysis, and the results presented to consumers in a straightforward manner: a sustainability rating. All products bought and sold in America will have this information, just as all food has nutrition information on the label. Consumers will be encouraged to purchase more sustainable goods, and heavily-polluting manufacturers will be forced out of business through free market mechanisms. A climate tax will be levied on all goods based on factors like resource availability, mode and length of transport, and recyclability. The hidden evil of climate change is that almost everything in the carbon economy touches oil at one point or another, and therefore contributes to the global warming problem. If we were paying the true price of these products, accounting for their pollution and climate impacts, then prices would rise. As of now, however, our products are being subsidized by the future generations that stand to lose everything to climate catastrophe.

Once the American populace wakes up to the need for sustainability, all manufacturers will be forced to redesign their products with durability and recyclability in mind. Anything not using recyclable materials will be out-competed. The economy, as in World War II, will reorient itself around a single purpose: survival in an uncertain future. All waste will be eliminated, and all resources will be used to maximum efficiency. It will be a new age of American prosperity, and it will empower the populace, knowing that their consumer choices aren’t destroying our fragile home.

While investment in these sustainable technologies will be paramount to a zero-waste economy, the greatest potential tool at our disposal to achieve a sustainable society is the biggest game-changer humanity has ever engineered: artificial intelligence. Already, AI is enabling productivity orders of magnitude greater than what had been achieved only through human power. In the past few years, AI has demonstrated that it offers more possibilities for technological progress than virtually anything man has yet discovered or created. Intelligent enough AI can design whole societies, analyze enormous datasets, and offer economic and social assessments that can glean new insights into human behavior, and new strategies for how to direct it.

Climate change is such a gigantic problem that it will require every single human being living a sustainable lifestyle in order to solve it, and even that may not guarantee success. We can certainly use some help in this fight — and since aliens look increasingly unlikely to be coming to our rescue anytime soon, artificial intelligence could be the higher power we seek. Beyond maximizing economic efficiency and directing consumer behavior, AI can analyze genomes and make breakthroughs in the gene editing industry that have thus far eluded us mere humans. After all, it’s hard for us to comb through millions of base pairs to figure out which genes do what, but a computer can do it in a fraction of the time. From there, we will have the power to design whole organisms from the genome level, and unlock a new battleground to win our war on warming: the biological front.

With so much plastic in our ecosystem and no organisms to break it down, what is a sustainable human society to do to clean it up? We could invent organisms that do the job for us. With the secrets of biology at our disposal, and our powerful AI computers helping us make sense of it all, there will be no limit to the variety of life we can create. Let’s be honest with ourselves about one crucial fact: humanity has changed life on Earth forever. Whether it’s in the countless species that we’ve driven to extinction, to changing the chemistry of the sky and ocean due to our pollution, to the new geological age our global warming has kicked off, humans are now firmly in control of the destiny of our planet. Genetically modifying organisms may sound unwise, but it isn’t anything we aren’t already doing. Climate change is too grave a threat to let our greatest tools go unused.

Diversity has always been a strength of American society, and in the Great Adaptation, this will be truer than ever. In a nation engaged in sustainability, every citizen must be doing their fair share to contribute to the effort, no matter where they come from or what they believe. Sustainability will be a holistic synthesis of every industry: construction, automation, software development, marketing, teaching. It will employ architects, artists, lawyers, singers, and writers. If someone has a skill to contribute, which everyone does, then no matter their race, creed, or sexual orientation, their skills will be put to use. We will all be put on an even plane, because we’ll all be looking out for one another. Sustainability is an all-or-nothing enterprise, and the social barriers that currently divide us must come down if true sustainability is to be achieved.

The question at the end again comes down to money: who is going to pay for all of this? Never mind that the savings will far outweigh the initial investment, there still needs to be money up front. The American government must take up the responsibility: first by coding sustainability into its laws, and then investing in the technologies to enable it. Since the Pentagon considers climate change a threat multiplier, solving it would thus be a matter of national defense. As with the Manhattan Project before it, a large scientific enterprise must be undertaken with military precision. The fossil fuel industry must be seized and redirected into clean energy. Most importantly, however, is that overall military spending must decrease. Too much money is currently spent on warships and planes that serve only to protect America’s fossil fuel colonies around the world, which will become irrelevant in the era of home-grown clean energy. Over half a trillion dollars a year is poured into the American military, precious recourses which must be invested in the sustainable society instead.

Given that climate change is a unifying force, the money spent on endeavors to divide us is wasteful. Just as democracies tend not to go to war with one another, sustainable societies likely won’t either, given that they’re both engaged in the same game of harmonious living with the planet and with each other. Destroying things is expensive, and it’s money we can’t afford to be spending anymore. Even modest cuts to the American military budget would fund climate adaptation for years to come.

So the reality is, the 21st century will look nothing like the 20th. All those old ideas have to be thrown out. Yes, the fossil fuel industry has enabled spectacular economic growth and technological progress, but at the expense of a stable climate, which is quickly deteriorating before our eyes. In the 1980s, severe weather cost $20 billion a year; today, it’s $100 billion. FEMA estimates that every dollar invested in resilience saves society four dollars down the line. So we can either spend the money now to make ourselves safer, or opt into paying increasingly large checks to rebuild later. The sea is getting higher, the heat getting hotter. It’s up to us: fortify or founder.

Americans have always believed that a better future is possible, a future attained through hard work and high ambition. There is nothing more ambitious, more principled, than working hard to achieve a sustainable society. It will employ people by the millions — even now, five times as many Americans work in clean energy than the fossil fuel industry. It will increase efficiency, reduce inequality, and create a stronger America ready to deal with the realities of the 21st century. The work is already getting started, and before long, it will eclipse all national priorities. This is the Great Adaptation, and it will be the grandest accomplishment America has ever achieved.