Once again, the first CNN-sponsored July Democratic presidential debate on July 30th dealt with the climate crisis in brief, at the end of the show when most viewers have tuned out, and in generalities. No leading candidate for President is yet willing to discuss the true dimensions of the crisis, even though a large majority of Democratic voters think it is one. For the most part, candidates are still debating the issues of the 2000s, e.g., health care and the income inequalities exacerbated by the financial crisis, not the issues of the 2020s.
For real action on climate change, we need today’s politicians and business leaders to step up in a big way. My favorite quote of late is from a teenage coordinator of Extinction Rebellion, Sophie Anderson. It went like this: “It’s not our job as high-schoolers to come up with solutions to climate change. We’re not the ones with the answers. We just want people to take action.” Today’s mid-teenagers will likely be alive and retired in 2075. There’s no question that they will be living in a world hotter, more disease-ridden, and more dangerous than we live in today. Would you blame them for being really, really angry at that prospect?
Of course, every presidential candidate has a climate plan, it’s de rigueur. Even billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, unlikely to make the next round of debates because he has zero popular support, only a cool $100 million to devote to the race, has a plan. Steyer’s plan focuses on declaring a national emergency and using the executive powers of the President to implement his proposed sweeping changes. In the same way that federal courts have stalled most of President Trump’s sweeping executive actions, any similar actions by a new President would likely face the same scrutiny, lawsuits and delays. So, emergency declarations are not the way to go – nothing will succeed without massive public support.
The public may be ready, but they have one small caveat: don’t change anything about our current lifestyles. If you’re concerned about carbon emissions, perhaps you might want to reconsider that vacation trip to Europe, the new gas-powered SUV or monster truck purchase, the 3,000-sq.ft. suburban home, the distance between where you live and where you work, etc. Go to the local mall or Walmart sometime and watch what people are buying. Only old people are getting rid of stuff; most people are still accumulating. Stuff causes carbon emissions, plain and simple.
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is coming to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York by sail, instead of flying, demonstrating one way to walk the talk. This is something you can do more easily when you’re 16, of course, and sailing the North Atlantic in September on a 60-foot “zero emissions” yacht is not a bad way to travel. My first thought: why not use the Internet instead and just speak to the conference via Zoom? My second thought: it’s a great media stunt and will get lots of people talking about how to best respond to the climate crisis, so why not?
But let’s not lose sight of the main point: responding effectively requires more than enacting a carbon tax and going “net-zero, carbon-neutral” as a country by 2045 (Steyer’s plan), it requires dealing with a wrenching change in lifestyles. We are prosperous globally largely because we’ve had cheap fossil fuels for the last 75 years. Making an energy-source transition historically has taken 50 to 100 years; we don’t have that much time to get off fossil fuels. This transition will be painful for many, exquisitely costly for everyone, and will leave trillions of stranded fossil-fuel assets. Are we willing to do this?