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Marty Nathan: Responding to climate change emergency we face

 

Recently the Massachusetts legislature passed the long-awaited Omnibus Energy Bill. As a climate change activist, I joined hundreds of others making calls to our legislators to request a bill that would decrease the state’s investment in the acquisition and burning of fossil fuels.

We won some things. There is a good plan to identify and plug methane leaks from our cities’ natural gas pipes. The state is set to acquire 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power and the bill encourages onshore wind development as well.

In another victory, it did not institute a measure to require electric ratepayers to fund new gas pipelines in the state.

But the bill was emblematic of the gradualism adopted by our political leadership that simply cannot meet the challenge of the climate emergency we are facing.

Our house is on fire, and we are using a teacup to douse the flames.

I do not blame our legislators too much. Meeting the climate crisis, the task that should be the focal point of our thinking and action, requires not responding to all the appeals to continue the status quo. When lobbyists or reporters accuse one of being an alarmist or destroying jobs, charges that could mean defeat at the next election, it is difficult to stand one’s ground.

However, our task now will require throwing off convention and adopting wisdom and courage seldom seen in politics. It means fully understanding the implications of the emergency we face.

In his recent article featured on the cover of the New Republic, climate activist Bill McKibben compares our plight to a new world war waging all around us that we have yet to engage. This time, however, the enemy is not a Hitler or Hirohito plotting to steal resources and land, destroy towns and dominate nations.

Instead, the enemy is climate catastrophe, the physical and chemical product of industrialization and its rapacious mining and burning of fossil fuels. The lethal opponent was created by us humans, usually from the best of intentions, to improve our lives and society.

However, the buildup of greenhouse gasses that resulted has heated our Earth beyond levels seen since long before civilization began, with the rate of warming unprecedented in the last thousand years. “Carbon and methane now represent the deadliest enemy of all time, the first force fully capable of harrying, scattering, and impoverishing our entire civilization,” McKibben writes.

He states bluntly that the war has already begun with heat waves and megastorms, out-of-control forest fires resulting from massive droughts, quickly melting polar ice raising sea levels, decimation of species and new tropically based infectious diseases appearing far out of their traditional range.

As usual with most wars, many of the first victims are those not responsible for the conflict: Those of the global South are most vulnerable and first to be ravaged by such disasters as the Philippines Typhoon Haiyan and the massive Pakistani floods.

McKibben spins the metaphor of the war against climate change, describing scientists clamoring for decades for a massive offensive against the enemy, only to be ignored and abused by this country’s “Fifth Column” – the fossil fuel industry and those in its financial thrall.

The call to mobilizeNow, though, in 2016 we as a nation must realize that all of the isolated climate change-related disasters we have faced add up to our new Pearl Harbor. Consequently, our task is to mobilize for the clean energy and conservation offensive needed to drop the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases. We cannot rely on the gradualism of the present system whose apex agreement – the Paris Climate Agreement – will inevitably heat up the world by 3.5 degrees centigrade by 2100.

We must and can enter emergency mode and implement the plans that scientists such as Mark Jacobson of Stanford University have been forming to power 80 percent of the U.S. economy with renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

To do so requires massive investment in solar and wind energy, about 300 huge factories to produce each in this country. There must be unprecedented growth of public transportation, realistic pricing on fossil fuels (including jet fuels) that reflects their actual social cost, a fracking ban, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands (which contain half of the untapped carbon left in America), a climate litmus test for new development projects and an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants.

As a start.

A national conversion of this magnitude was successfully undertaken 75 years ago. What is needed parallels the efforts of 1941 to 1945, when our government invested in building and transforming factories all over the country to turn out the bombers, tanks, guns, uniforms and all the equipment necessary to fight the Nazis and Japanese. War bonds, Victory gardens, gasoline and food rationing cards, Rosie the Riveter and the draft affected all of society as it converted to wage the war.

Though McKibben does not say so, much of the investment necessary for today’s gargantuan undertaking can and should come from the $600 billion yearly military budget. It would make ironic sense, since the military is the most carbon-intensive institution in the country.

Despite what the deniers and gradualists say, such a publicly funded conversion would not mean loss of jobs. To the contrary, the fossil-fuel-based economy is less job-rich than a green one, by about two million workers, and in general those green jobs would pay more and be less dangerous than those in gas, oil and coal.

As a society we simply cannot afford to pursue the present course. The damages already wrought in the U.S. by the western drought, superstorms Katrina and Sandy, the recent Louisiana floods and all the lesser climate change-based disasters are costing tens of billions of dollars, with much more inevitable in the near future. If we are afraid of losing money and jobs, the present approach is a debacle.

It is time for each of us, individually, to respond to the climate emergency, assess our lives and become engaged in fighting the greatest threat of our times.

As a start, we have a unique opportunity to involve ourselves with the elections taking place this fall. We need to campaign and to demand that our politicians submit neither to the denial nor the gradualism that will mean climate defeat. We must engage our political leaders and persistently show them we support only bold action and comprehensive approaches that will swiftly convert us to clean energy.

We have to impress upon them that piecemeal approaches are no longer acceptable in this historic struggle.

Marty Nathan, MD, lives in Northampton and writes regularly on environmental issues. The first part of her essay appeared Wednesday and can be found on GazetteNET.com.