The Climate in Paris
Welcome to our first deep dive into helping nature. This one's about climate change, the Paris Agreement, and how we can help.
In the future these articles will be for paid subscribers, but for the next little bit, I’m going to share all articles with everyone.
Let’s talk about Paris.
If you’ve signed up for this newsletter, you probably agree that it’s good for the United States to be back in the Paris Agreement. Today’s article is to bring that into focus, so we can better understand the best ways each of us can help with climate change, and how to talk coherently to those who do not yet understand the magnitude of what we are up against.
Of all of the mountains between us and a healthy planet, global warming is our Mt. Everest. Rejoining the Paris Agreement means that we have only just agreed to embark on the expedition. Whether we reach the summit, and keep a semblance of the natural world we depend on for food and comfort, rests solely on our actions over the next few years.
The Paris Agreement
Though we have known about human caused (anthropogenic) global warming since the ‘80s, and arguably since 1896, in 2015 the world finally decided it was a problem we should address as a species. That year 195 countries agreed to the Paris Agreement, pledging to keep planetary warming “well under” 2°C (3.6°F) and with luck below 1.5°C (2.7° F) above pre-industrial levels. With the U.S. back in, that means the entire planet has signed on, except Iran, Iraq, Libya, Turkey, Eritrea, South Sudan, and Yemen,
Paris is a flawed agreement. Most scientists think the goals are not lofty enough, many countries are not meeting their goals (check out the Climate Action Tracker), and the whole affair came much too late to make change easy. But without it, without nations working together, we have no hope. Zero. So, Paris is what we have, and it’s way better than nothing.
Just a few countries have been responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases. The United States has churned out a quarter of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1751. Today Americans make up about 4 percent of the world’s population, but we are currently the second largest greenhouse gas producer, behind China. Combined, our two countries produce almost half of global emissions.
Basic math dictates that the world cannot save itself without the United States being on board. The U.S. is also one of the only countries strong enough to put meaningful pressure on China and other large emitters. If the U.S. can start being a leader again, setting a good example both morally and financially, it will really help get other countries and private industries on board. As that happens, doing the right thing for the atmosphere also becomes the right thing for the economy. More people working on the problems leads to more innovation, and eventually lower prices on the green technologies we need.
Biden recently said he wants net-zero emissions by 2050, and to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from electric power by 2035. To meet this goal, we need major changes in our infrastructure: switching from coal to renewable energy; overhauling transportation and industry; cutting car emissions and methane leaks from gas wells; raising energy efficiency standards in buildings and appliances; retrofitting houses and high rises; and probably shifting our farming to methods that better capture carbon. All of these not only mean cutting emissions, but also a cleaner, more vibrant planet than the one we are currently living on.
The math says it’s doable. But it’s only possible if Congress gets on board. By Congress, I mean the members who are hellbent on destroying the environment, who are mostly Republican (I’m not trying to single out a political party here, but the fact is that the people blocking environmental change are overwhelmingly Republican). If they were to look at this logically, economically, scientifically, and compassionately, it would be a no-brainer. As Biden’s climate plan states, "Getting to a 100 per cent clean energy economy is not only an obligation, it's an opportunity.” But for whatever reason, they can’t seem to understand the tipping point we are on, and if we fail, how miserable it will make life for all future generations. All of them, like the next thousands if not tens of thousands of years. So it is up to us seemingly insignificant individuals to change that, and fast.
Why Some are Against Positive Change
The opponents of rejoining Paris, whose campaigns are most often funded by companies who profit from finding, extracting, and burning fossil fuels, are arguing that rejoining means losing American jobs and having to pay higher utility prices. Many analyses show that is completely untrue. So far, forty one states have increased their GDP while reducing carbon emissions. And even if it ended up being true, arguing that keeping coal mining and pipeline jobs is more important than having a stable atmosphere is like arguing that we have to keep eating fast food every day, even if it gives us a heart attack, because otherwise the gal at the drive-through window would have to find a new job. Like getting rid of slavery, sometimes things just need to change right away, even if it’s a bit messy in the interim.
Yes, it will be hard for the workers who have to switch industries, but at least their children will have air to breathe (Germany is setting a pretty good example of how it can be done). To say that it’s better to destroy the future of humanity than to help them transition into new jobs follows no line of logic… well other than politicians wanting to ensure their shortsighted goal of getting re-elected.
If you use the logic of a free-market economy, which most politicians celebrate, their argument holds even less water. For example: people like to use the buggy whip analogy, which goes something like this, “You can be the best maker of buggy whips in the world, but once the world no longer needs them, your company better adapt. Free market means only the best survive.” If you follow this line of logic, then it’s clear that before too long the world will no longer need its current gluttony of fossil fuels. Under free-market rules, that means the Exxon’s and BP’s of the world will have to adapt, or become obsolete.
Unfortunately, so far, they have chosen plan C — cheat.
I don’t know whether the people standing in the way of mitigating climate change are driven by greed, ignorance, fear, or just inflexibility and a lack of the imagination. But what we do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that since the 1980s the oil companies have spent billions to intentionally cover up the harm they are doing by creating a climate change denial movement. They even wove it into our children’s brains in school (when they should have been helping the world transition to green energy), as this brilliant piece by Emily Atkin uncovers. By the way, if you want to know more about the nastiness of fossil fuel companies, her newsletter Heated is a priceless resource of invesitgative journalism. Emily also just uncovered that 90 of the 147 lawmakers who who denied Biden’s victory also deny basic climate science. There are common threads between climate denial, white supremacy, misogyny, and other delightful topics, and at some point we’ll delve into that more.
But back to the oil companies’ cheating. Because of their campaign of misinformation, many, many people still don’t understand the crossroads we are at: We are facing the brink of global catastrophe, and it needs our rapid focus. Some others, who accept the science of climate change, still think that it’s okay to vote for or give campaign funds to a climate denier if that person is good in other ways. Hello? No, this is the defining problem of our lifetimes. It is not okay to support a climate denier in any way.
Coming together to mitigate global warming should be a no-brainer. But the depth of doubt the fossil fuels industry injected was so thorough that until recently, even most reputable media were duped. For decades they fueled the problem by trying to cover both sides of a story, when only one side was actually based in fact. Climate change, or “climate crisis” and “global heating” as the Guardian is now more appropriately calling it, is strong science, not opinion. (If you want some good facts about the science behind global warming, and how we know it’s anthropogenic, try this National Georgaphic article or this one from the Washington Post).
What We Can Do
The first thing we have to realize is that while it is good for us to have personal goals to reduce our impact on the world, we as individuals do not bear the burden of guilt responsibility for our current situation. The people at the oil companies who continue to cover up global warming instead of retooling their business toward sustainable solutions bear it. The politicians who enable them bear it. BP, the oil company that came up with the idea of a “carbon footprint” — an ingenious attempt to make us feel like we had done some something wrong, not them — bears it.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t take substantial steps to help. Part of the big picture is that all of us, especially in the United States, need to drastically tone down our consumption. We can drive less, fly less, buy less, use less plastic, eat less meat, and live in more modest homes. This all adds up to a big help, but it can’t in itself fix the bigger picture — replacing our infrastructure of fossil fuels with renewable energy. Only the corporate leaders and politicians can do that. And that’s where we can really make change.
Corporate leaders and politicians usually, eventually, bow to public pressure. We are powerful, if we tell them what we think, demand change, and stop doing business with the ones who don’t listen. If we own stocks, we can divest from oil companies (this is going well globally from both a momentum standpoint, as well as from an investor one), and urge our pension controllers and university endowments to do the same. We can tell banks and insurance companies that we want them to not fund and insure new fossil fuel projects. We can educate our bosses. If we are builders, we can start designing with efficiency in mind. If we work for the city, we can get our local government to make changes. If we are lawyers, we can urge our firms not to defend oil companies. It might sound a little impossible, and a little intimidating, but the momentum is already in play. It’s working. But we need more voices.
Au Revoir, Ted Cruz
The new anti-Paris talking points have taken on a twist that would be hilarious, if there wasn’t our whole atmosphere at stake.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote that, “By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, President Biden indicates he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.” Rep Lauren Boebert (R-Colo) who introduced a bill to block the “job killing” Paris Agreement, similarly tweeted, “I work for the people of Pueblo, not the people of Paris.”
It’s hard to know for sure, but probably they are not so utterly uninformed that they don’t realize it’s only called the Paris Agreement because that is where it was signed. More likely, they are doing this intentionally, to keep the American exceptionalism rhetoric of the last administration going (i.e. Biden likes French people more than ‘Mericans!). That rhetoric, however ridiculous, plays to their fan base and appeases their donors, which in turn lets them continue to enjoy the power that they have as politicians. That rhetoric is particularly dangerous because it encourages blind unintelligence and single-thought solutions, the opposite of what we need to tackle the complex problems we face with climate change and beyond.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but if we’re going to have any chance of summiting this mountain, we have to diminish the number, power, and popularity of these sorts of elected officials on all levels of city, county, state, and federal government. And I think the best way to do that is for us to speak up whenever we can, educate our friends and neighbors, and actively demand better from corporations and politicians. We really need to get riled up, get vocal, get out of our comfort zones, and make space in our lives for action. We are short on time with this one. What we do in these next few years really, really matters.
Oh, and a note on the Keystone XL pipeline…
I was going to write something about why it is so great to have the pipeline canceled, but it turns out a brilliant piece on it already exists. It covers everything from the gross overstatement of jobs being lost, to the backwards spin on how fighting climate change hurts poor people, to the toxic work culture of pipelines, to the great hope this decision brings indigenous people, farmers, and ranchers.
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