Sunday, April 17, 2016

Out of time on Planet Earth - Climate "World War II" needed

We are out of time on Planet Earth.

In the three months since the Paris climate summit declared a 1.5° C global warming target to hold climate disruption dangers in check, rapidly escalating world temperatures came within a hair’s breadth.   The average for the January-March timeframe was 1.47°C above the 1890s, the baseline before mass fossil fuel burning began to significantly heat the planet, the Japan Meteorological Agency reported.  For the first time in the historical record the planet has neared or crossed the agreed danger threshold for three months in a row.  

Never has radical climate disruption caused by fossil fuel pollution been so visible.  Besides the temperature spike, the Arctic is raising red flags.  An Arctic Ocean ice pack at record lows could be setting up a record melt season.  The Greenland ice melt season started around a week ago, nearly a month ahead the previously recorded start and two months before normal.

Whether this is a temporary spike or a jump to a new climate state, the message is clear.  We have used up all time or space for anything but the most urgent actions to eliminate the carbon pollution that is twisting the climate.  We need a people power upsurge to demand immediate, deep reductions in fossil fuel burning and pollution.  That is the goal of Break Free, a worldwide popular mobilization in May aiming for the greatest wave of direct actions against the fossil fuel industry in history.  The Pacific Northwest action targets refineries in Anacortes, Washington, source of nearly half the vehicle fuels used in the region.

Here are three key demands people power must make:

Rapidly move to 100% renewable power – Dramatically expand wind and solar energy production. Modernize the grid so it can transmit variable sun and wind energies between different regions. Shut down coal and gas power plants as quickly as possible.

Electrify transportation – Quickly build out a comprehensive network of electrified mass transit, including buses, urban rail systems and interurban rail. Ban production of oil-powered cars. Amp up production of electric vehicles to make them affordable to ordinary people.

Make buildings efficient and clean – Commence a program of universal building energy efficiency retrofits.  Switch out fossil fuel powered heating/cooling systems with heat pumps run on renewable electricity, and direct solar hot water collectors. Require top efficiency and renewable power in new buildings.

We cannot rely on the market to make the changes quickly enough.  It will take public investment and mandates.  The only way our nation and the world will achieve these goals quickly enough is with a World War II-scale mobilization of political will and resources.  The U.S. has a particular responsibility to lead.  Our nation invented the power grid and mass automobile mobility. One-quarter of human carbon pollution now in the atmosphere came from the U.S.

The new World War II message is quickly coming in from the climate movement’s leading edges to the mainstream.  One group leading the call for a climate emergency response is Climate Mobilization.  The group aims to zero out U.S. climate-heating pollution by 2025.  Its Pledge to Mobilize asks that we, “Immediately commence a social and economic mobilization to restore a climate that is safe, stable, and supportive of human civilization. This heroic campaign shall be carried out on the scale of the American World War II home front mobilization, and will require hard work and shared sacrifice from all Americans.”

Climate Mobilization has called for people to take to the streets July 10 for a Climate Emergency Day of Action. More on that here.

An Iowa Climate Emergency Caucus held in conjunction with the January presidential caucus crystallized the call.  It has now been taken up by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In his recent Brooklyn debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders said:

“We have a global crisis. Pope Francis reminded us that we are on a suicide course . . . We have got to stand up and say right now, as we would if we were attacked by some military force, we have got to move urgently and boldly . . . approach this . . . as if we were literally at a war. You know, in 1941, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we moved within three years, within three years to rebuild our economy to defeat Nazism and Japanese imperialism. That is exactly the kind of approach we need right now.”

We must do this, and we can.  Scientists tell us we must end fossil fuel use by 2030 at latest.  A new University of Sussex study concludes the world has the capability to end fossil use for energy by 2025.

Climate disruption is accelerating, but so are the ideas needed to address the challenge at the scale it must be addressed.  The concept of 100% renewables, on the fringes even a few years ago, has now moved to the forefront. The message was flashed on the Eiffel Tower at the Paris summit. Sierra Club officially launched its Ready for 100 campaign in January. Environment America is also forwarding the 100% message. is making 100% a central part of the Break Free actions, putting it in the proper Post-Paris urgency framework:  “World governments have agreed to global action – but without a clear commitment on how and when they will transition off of fossil fuels. The way to make that transition a reality is by organizing to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground and accelerate the just transition to 100% renewable energy.”

Just transition is a crucial concept.  The world energy system will not be transformed without disruption.  Workers in conventional energy industries must be given help to transition into new occupations that pay as well.  Fortunately, there will be more jobs in new clean energy sectors.  A plan for 100% renewables in the U.S. done by Mark Jacobson of Stanford projects that while 3.9 million old energy jobs will be lost, 5.9 million jobs will created in new energy sectors.  Old energy skills are highly transferrable to the new, and displaced workers should be given explicit preference in hiring.  They should also be provided with job training, and full pay and benefits until they are placed in new jobs.   

Now is the time to push the idea of a new World War II for clean energy to the forefront.  A rapidly changing climate is sounding a red alert. We must respond with a people power movement calling for rapid and just transition from fossil fuels to 100% clean, renewable energy.  We can’t wait a moment longer.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

100% renewables or climate chaos? People power needed

We now know we can run the world 100% on clean, renewable energy. The question is whether we can do it in time to prevent the world from plunging into full-blown climate chaos. 

An avalanche of studies points the way to a 100% world largely based on wind and solar energy. They illuminate how to reach 100% in all sectors – electricity, transportation, and heating/cooling – by 2050.  Most prominent are roadmaps for 139 countries and 50 U.S. states done by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and his team, and the Energy Revolution series done by Greenpeace.  There are many others.

This is more than an academic exercise. Nations are acting. Costa Rica plans to reach 100% renewable electricity this year, and Scotland by 2020.  Denmark has targeted 100% in electricity, heating and cooling by 2030, and to end all fossil fuel burning by 2050. Sri Lanka aims for 100% renewable electricity by 2030.  Hawaii is the first U.S. state to enact a 100% renewable electricity standard, with a 2045 goal.  Some 50 cities including 15 in the U.S. have made a 100% commitment including San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Copenhagen, Sydney, Frankfurt, Munich and Vancouver, B.C.  Some cover only electricity, while others sweep in all sectors.  Four U.S. cities now draw 100% of their electricity from renewables, as do 74 German localities. Companies aiming at 100% renewable electricity include Google, Facebook, Apple, Nike, Starbucks and Proctor & Gamble. 

A 100% renewable world is possible. The big question is - Can we achieve it fast enough to avert a complete climate meltdown?  Because oil companies systematically monkeywrenched the political system to prevent significant carbon regulation for over 25 years, we are very late in the game.  With carbon pollution growing at a record rate, the world is on track for the worst-case climate havoc, a nature-wracking, civilization-destroying 4-5° C heat upsurge this century.

How fast do we need to drop carbon pollution to get off this dead-end track? Almost unimaginably fast.  Some would say at a rate that is impossible. Nonetheless, we must let the best climate science set the goalpost and work backwards from there to make the scientifically necessary the politically feasible.  That means we must break through the political deadlock that has stalemated real progress.  And that calls for a people power revolution.  The upcoming Break Free actions, aiming at the largest wave of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry in history, are an opening salvo.  Northwest actions are slated for the Anacortes, Washington oil refineries May 13-15. 

So what does the science say?  James Hansen, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist, pulled together one of the most comprehensive studies to ground the Our Children’s Trust youth climate lawsuits now underway against states and the federal government. He and his grandchildren are plaintiffs in the latter. (A major victory was just won in the federal suit.)

The Hansen study says we must stop global warming in its tracks.  To do this we must keep total warming to just a little over 1°C rather than the 2°C often cited or the 1.5°C aspirational limit set at the recent Paris climate summit. That means holding additional warming to no more than 0.4°C over today. The aim must be to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million by 2100, the point at which the planet stops accumulating solar heat and climate recovery can begin. They are now over 400 ppm. Says Hansen, “Unless a human ‘tipping point’ is reached soon, with implementation of effective policy actions, large irreversible climate changes will become unavoidable.” 

Coast-drowning sea level rise would be one such change, happening more rapidly than generally expected. When temperature was around 1°C greater than today, ocean levels were 20-30 feet higher. Hansen says oceans could elevate 10 feet in as little as 50 years, taking out large swathes of cities including New York, London and Shanghai.

But the most deadly disruption would be acceleration of feedback loops – global warming feeding global warming – already under way.  Super-potent heat-trapping gas methane will leak from huge Arctic sinks at a more rapid rate. Arctic Ocean icepack that reflects 90% of solar heat back into space will increasingly be replaced with blue water that absorbs 90%. That will melt methane-laden permafrost and seabed ice crystals even faster.  Feedbacks will leave our children in a nightmare world careening into climate disruption beyond any possibility of human control

Hansen’s human “tipping point” entails deep and immediate reductions in carbon pollution. If we had started in 2013 when the study was done, 6%-per-year carbon reductions would have been required. The curve is steeply rising. If the world waits until 2020 required annual cuts will be 15%.

In 2016, it is clear we must aim for at least 10% annual carbon reductions to recover our climate, and something like an 80% reduction in all sectors by 2030 – 10% is the conclusion of other scientists as well. It should be noted that Hansen’s is not even the most challenging science, nor is 2030 the most ambitious goal. A safety margin to account for uncertainties should aim for as close to 100% renewable energy by 2030 as we can get.   The Jacobson team says this is technically doable.  The challenges are political and economic. 

No doubt, achieving carbon pollution cuts sufficient to leave our children with a habitable world will take upsetting the political and economic status quo.  Coal and gas power plants must be shut down before their economic life is complete.  This will require mandates and not just market-tipping carbon prices.  Vast public investments must be made in wind, solar, energy storage and a power grid capable of  handling variable sun and wind energies. A campaign of universal building energy efficiency retrofits must be undertaken. This is not just about replacing energy sources, but using far less.

Sweeping changes must come to transportation. Virtually all road expansions must halt, including those already scheduled – A multiplicity of studies tells us traffic expands to fill the road space available to it. We must electrify transportation to the greatest degree possible.  But it will take more than electric cars. Electrified public transit must be built up at breakneck speed, including buses, light rail and interurban rail. We will need comprehensive bicycle lanes separated from car traffic a la Amsterdam or Copenhagen. A climate mobilization on the scale of World War II will be required to accomplish these transformations. 

In making the 100% renewables revolution we will have to keep our eyes on a lot of balls.  We will have to make sure benefits are distributed broadly, working toward an energy democracy that promotes local and community ownership.  We must make sure low-income people and people of color have a fair share.  We will have to ensure that displaced fossil fuel workers gain a just transition to new occupations that pay as well.  We will have to scrutinize renewables production and siting to make sure that workers are treated justly and environmental impacts are minimized. We will also have to pay attention to non-fossil carbon pollution. Hansen’s prescription includes transforming agriculture and forestry to soak 100 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.

The 100% renewables revolution won’t be simple or easy to pull off. We must defeat the most powerful industry on Earth, fossil fuels, and their corporate allies, notably power utilities.  But to have a planetary future that is not wracked by unimaginable climate chaos, one with which our children simply cannot cope, we must undertake the revolution right away.  We must break free from fossil fuels with a rapid and just transition to 100% renewable energy.