Collective action will save a planet in peril

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Xinyu Li/File

The planet is in peril — there is no question of that.

Human-caused climate change is a fact — sorry, fake news enthusiasts — and it is causing increasingly costly impacts on everything from human health to ecosystem health. It is increasing inequality, creating situations where the poor do not have the means to respond to higher food, energy or medical costs.

We face other environmental crises as well: The depositing of toxins in our water and air, especially in predominantly poor and minority areas, our addiction to pesticides, and our seemingly obsessive fixation on consumerism are some of the serious maladies we are confronted with. But for an incredibly creative species on a small and fragile planet, climate change brings into focus some of our key weaknesses — namely, our lack of attention to long-term strategic planning and inability to recognize the benefits of social equity.

After too many decades of discussion about the challenges of detecting climate change, the realization came that action was needed, and that (surprise!) collective action is hard. It is now clear that by the mid-21st century, emissions must fall by 80 percent, or ideally, even more.

The United Nations implemented the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 in an effort to slow the world’s rate of pollution, and it failed to do what it promised. So in 2014, a new approach emerged.

First, the United States and China — which together account for more than a third of both global energy use and greenhouse gas pollution — took a truly creative new direction. Instead of bringing a policy proposal to a U.N.-sponsored convention for what would have been endless debate, China and the United States made a joint agreement: The United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-quarter by 2025, and China would put a peak limit on its emissions by 2030. At first glance, China’s promise might seem meaningless, given that by the time we reach 2030, emissions could be at 10 percent or even 100 percent higher than emissions today. However, as it stands, China is now projected to be able to cap emissions before 2030. Conversely, the United States is currently the only country in the world that is not a signatory to the historic 2015 Paris climate accord, an agreement that established that the United States had to make much-needed 80 percent emissions cuts and a two-degree Celsius cap on temperature rise. Sadly, we are not making sufficient progress toward that goal.

So, what should engaged students and citizens worldwide do next? Fortunately, the fundamentals of a clean(er) economy are now all around us, so truly useful steps to a sustainable economy and planet are readily available.

First, know your numbers. Carbon footprint calculators such as the one my students and I built at the request of then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are easy to find and use.

Second, taking the climate-smart and health actions recommended by these calculators is no longer hard or expensive. Invest in energy efficiency. Purchase or lease solar energy for rooftops to control yourself. Make the switch to electric vehicles and adopt low-meat, carbon-friendly diets.

Third, recognize that as divided as the United States currently is politically, all political parties need to and will promote job growth. That is great, because as my research and that of many other groups show, energy efficiency and renewable energy generate significantly more and better jobs than does a dirty energy economy. If we had a president who actually valued working-class citizens, this would be where to put a massive stimulus package, not into  escalating the military budget, or even more absurdly, building a wall.

Fourth, invest in research and action to learn how to adapt to the climate change we can’t prevent. We have already polluted too much to ignore this. Adopting a “social cost of carbon” would be a good start.

Fifth, take heart in observing the rising tide of diverse, often environmentally educated and committed candidates — many of whom are outstanding women — for public office who have emerged for the 2018 midterm elections. That means that in most places, valuing the environment at home could be reflected in available candidates.

Sixth, recognize that environmental racism — both dumping pollution on predominantly poor and minority communities and preventing them from taking part in the clean energy revolution — hurts everyone. New, progressive campaigns and policies are needed to make “going green” a social movement, not just a privilege for the affluent.

Seventh, sadly, we have to recognize that these actions alone, while vital, won’t be enough. A healthy climate benefits us all, but collective action is difficult to maintain. The anti-apartheid movement and more recently the #MeToo movement took committed young people willing to buck the slow-moving system. We need that again today.

Daniel Kammen is a campus professor and chair of the Energy and Resources Group, and a faculty member of both the Goldman School of Public Policy and the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering.