My Dentist Thought Emissions Would Drop 50% This Year

I should’ve dropped a sitcom-style laugh track in response.

Danny Schleien
Jul 29, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

The other day, I did the unthinkable: I put on a mask (so hard!) and went to the dentist (a bit harder).

When I told my dentist I’m writing a book about climate change, she asked how much of an impact the pandemic will have on greenhouse gas emissions. I said current estimates range between a four and seven percent decline in year-over-year emissions. She responded incredulously, “That’s it?” She said she expected a much bigger drop, like 50%.

I should’ve dropped a sitcom-style laugh track in response. Instead, I said her reaction was spot on.

A neutral observer should react incredulously upon hearing that a global pandemic that has stopped modern life as much as anything short of a major war or similarly violent event will only reduce emissions by a handful of percentage points.

Fossils Fuel Our Lives

Fossil fuels fuel our lives more broadly and deeply than many of us expect. Much of this goes on outside of our daily lives, so we don’t see it. We don’t see the coal mined out of the ground, transported, refined, and finally burned to create energy. We don’t see the oil drilled out of the ground, transported, refined, and finally burned to create energy.

Modern life is very deeply interwoven with the fossil fuel infrastructure. To maintain our modern ways of life without fossil fuels will require a massive mobilization on a global scale to reform how we power our daily activities. Even at the economic nadir of the pandemic in April, emissions fell 17% compared to the average daily emissions from 2019.

The global carbon footprint is much bigger and broader than driving your car and flying. Transportation certainly accounts for a large proportion of global emissions, but there are plenty of other emissions sources integral to our daily lives. People still eat during a pandemic, so food-related emissions haven’t materially changed. People still require energy; so electricity-related and similar emissions haven’t budged much. People still build things and have buildings, so those emissions haven’t changed.

And one other thing that doesn’t change during a pandemic: people still consume a lot of stuff. Consumption might be a bit different in these circumstances, but people still feel inclined to satisfy their consumerist urges. If anything, dire times induce a greater appetite for the sugar high of consumption.

As just one manifestation of this trend, Internet shopping has spiked during the pandemic despite depression-level economic conditions. People love to shop and consume stuff they don’t need.

All of those things require vast amounts of energy. But that energy doesn’t need to come from fossil fuels. Eventually, we’ll physically run out of fossil fuels. More importantly, our atmosphere will run out of room to absorb their emissions much sooner.

We Need Long-Term Systemic Change, Not Surface-Level Behavior Change

The bottom line is that I can’t imagine people will suddenly stop living the way we’ve grown accustomed to living in the developed world. We like our big cars and fancy houses and free two-day shipping and giant malls. We also like our air conditioning, our refrigerators, our electronic devices, and our shiny offices. Behavior change will not fix climate change.

In the words of Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. and the lead author of the study which analyzed emissions declines stemming from the pandemic, “this is not the way to tackle climate change — it’s not going to happen by forcing behavior changes on people. We need to tackle it by helping people move to more sustainable ways of living.”

And one year of reduced emissions is not nearly enough to fix the climate crisis. “Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a very long time, so climate change is driven more by the total amount we’ve ever emitted than any amount we emit in a single year,” said UC Berkeley climate scientist Zeke Hausfather. “From a climate standpoint, what really matters is long-term systemic changes that can drive emission declines over decades.”

Hausfather made sure to add that to keep global warming below the 2 degree Celsius threshold targeted by the Paris Agreement, we must maintain similar levels of emissions declines for the remainder of the 2020s.

Good luck achieving 7% annual emissions declines in our fossil-crazed world.

Governments Are Waking Up

Luckily, governments are beginning to understand the gravity of this challenge. In May, the European Union passed a green recovery plan that entails exactly what Hausfather suggests: long-term systemic changes.

Of greater importance to Americans like me, Joe Biden seems to finally comprehend what must be done.

Earlier this month, former Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a firmer climate action plan as part of his bigger “Build Back Better” economic proposal. His campaign’s previous policy plan had proposed $1.7 trillion in spending over 10 years; now, they’re talking about $2 trillion in just four years. The plan would achieve 100% clean, carbon-free power generation by 2035 and aim toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

To quote the man himself, this is a big f***ing deal. Biden’s been under a lot of pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to step up to the plate on issues like climate change. It seems like if nothing else, he and his campaign are certainly listening.

“If I have the honor of being elected president, we’re not just going to tinker around the edges. We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity and meet this moment in history,” Biden said in a clear nod to progressives eager for hope and change.

Biden’s plan received widespread praise, but it will likely mean little without congressional cooperation as a Biden administration seems poised to take command in January (as Biden carries a large polling lead less than 100 days away from Election Day).

Biden’s beefed-up climate plan is certainly a sight for sore eyes. It reflects a sincere recognition of the urgency of the climate emergency, which will require a federal (and global) mobilization on the scale of a war effort to address. We have a decade to fix this or the planet will destabilize beyond repair.

There’s a headline I should be seeing when the presidential debates roll around in a couple of months.

I expect Biden will use that platform to make it loud and clear that we don’t have time to waste.

Climate change is the one issue that will affect everybody. Hard scientific facts don’t respect border walls or zip codes or socioeconomic divisions.

This election cycle, the stakes have truly never been higher.

So go out and vote. If you want a healthy planet, it’s the least you can do.

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Danny Schleien

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Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

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