How many crises can people handle at the same time? The Covid-19 pandemic continues; there is a war in Ukraine; inflation is out of control; and people who are refugees, members of marginalized communities, or live in occupied territories continue to suffer around the world.
Looming over all of this is global warming and the ongoing climate crisis. As massive floods, unprecedented heat waves, and other environmental disasters become ever more common across the globe, we seem to put this at the bottom of our list of concerns when we respond to surveys and vote for elected officials. Yet this problem is not going away—indeed it is getting worse, with more carbon dioxide being pumped into the environment now than ever before. Why are we so willing to look the other way when it comes to the climate emergency we are now facing?
It Isn’t Hopeless
One reason is the sense of hopelessness and despair engendered by just what we wrote in the paragraph above, that the climate crisis is getting worse. It now seems inevitable that we will exceed the threshold of an increase in global temperature of 1.50 Celsius over preindustrial levels and that will surely bring us more floods, heatwaves, and misery. If it is hopeless, then the best we think we can do is to try not to think about it at all.
Yet in fact hopelessness in the face of the climate crisis is entirely misplaced because scientists assure us that we now have the technologies necessary to operate our power grids with clean, sustainable energy from fossil-free sources. In a heartening article published in Physics in April, Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University noted that “10 countries—Iceland, Norway, Costa Rica, Albania, Paraguay, Bhutan, Namibia, Nepal, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—produced 97.5 to 100% of all their electricity from WWS [wind-water-solar] resources. Some of these countries even produced excess electricity that they could sell to their neighbors.”
The cost of wind and solar power have declined dramatically in recent years to the point that it is now practically and economically viable to develop them as our main energy producers. Fears that without burning fossil fuels the lights will go out all over the world are unsupported by the facts: Jacobson tells us “I’ve studied the use of [renewable energy] technologies in 143 countries and 50 states and found that the grid can stay stable everywhere in the world with 100% WWS.” Iowa, for example, now gets most of its power from the wind. Batteries to store electricity generated by wind, hydro (water), and solar sources are also becoming increasingly more sophisticated and cheaper, although there are issues with the environmental and human effects of mining the minerals like cobalt and lithium that are needed for them.
Just as climate scientists give us the disheartening news about the devastations we face if we continue to extract and burn coal, oil, and gas, they are giving us increasingly upbeat news that we absolutely have the technology right now to rectify the situation and move to fossil-free energy.
The Climate Situation is Life and Death
Relieving the world of the pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion is in fact as much a life and death emergency as is getting the Covid-19 pandemic under control and ending the war in Ukraine. In vulnerable neighborhoods around the world, people breathing in the pollutants emitted by truck and car exhaust and from incinerators and other polluting facilities suffer a plethora of adverse health outcomes, including lung and heart disease. Low-income neighborhoods are especially burdened by pollutants emitted from vehicles and facilities. That creates the impression that poverty is the cause of this environmental injustice, but studies show that the real cause is racism. As reported in Nature, Dylan Bugden of Washington State University in Pullman found in a survey that “Most Americans do not think that Black people are any more likely to be affected by pollution than white people, despite significant evidence that racism is a root cause of environmental injustice in the United States…” Neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black people were subjected to redlining by federal authorities for almost 40 years, a practice that resulted in restricted mortgages to those neighborhoods and concentration of highways, incinerators, and other pollution-causing facilities.
Here again, there is some hope on the horizon. New Jersey now has the strictest regulations in the U.S. to limit this kind of environmental insult by taking into consideration a community’s cumulative burden in granting permits to facilities that will cause pollution. At the federal level, President Biden’s Justice 40 initiative mandates that 40% of the government’s investment in climate and clean energy will go to disadvantaged communities.
Technologies exist to mitigate the climate crisis and thereby save lives. The situation is urgent, especially for people living in vulnerable neighborhoods who are the victims of racist practices that concentrate polluting vehicles and facilities in their communities. The issue is whether we and our elected officials have the will to take advantage of these technologies and of the examples set up by all the countries that are already using them to put an end to fossil fuel combustion and bring us renewable energy. We also need to see whether other states will take New Jersey’s example and move boldly to restrict further placement of pollution-causing facilities in already overburdened communities.
As an editorial in Nature recently put it “World leaders must listen to the research community, and accept the evidence and narrative offered to help them to navigate meaningful change. Environmental sustainability does not impede prosperity and well-being—in fact, it is vital to them. People in power need to sit up and take notice.”