Pragmatic action areas for climate justice

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We are the Students for Climate Action, part of the core team organizing the climate walkout today, Sept. 20, in solidarity with the youth-led global climate strikes happening around the world. Students for Climate Action was formed by the students on our campus that typically hang out on the north side of campus — the area where “Berkeley goggles” are literally our lab safety glasses. It’s also where we learn the science behind the most pressing issue of our generation: climate change.

The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change’s special report clearly demands a global response to climate change, sustainable development and poverty, as humans must reduce emissions to 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid the catastrophic scenario of the global average temperature rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We’ve learned about technologies that could be part of the solution. Decarbonization technology exists, the research areas exist and the brainpower to solve the more niche complications exists. The laws of chemistry and physics aren’t preventing us from reaching the emissions reduction target —  the laws governing society are. We need drastic systemic change to realize a just transition to a decarbonized future.

We’re calling on the U.S. federal government to listen to science, research and our generation. At the very least, the U.S. federal government needs to take action now to regulate CO2 emissions.

Our demands fall into three categories: federal policy regulating carbon emissions, a just transition to a sustainable economy, and introducing UC policy on climate change.

For generations, environmentalism has been branded to fall on the individual’s responsibility to recycle, decrease their plastic usage, buy organic foods and turn off lights. But climate change won’t be solved by individual actions alone. A decarbonized, restorative economy comes from environmental defenders, indigenous people, activists, scientists and engineers working collaboratively both locally and globally. One simple action to put out the proverbial fire is through federal policies that limit carbon emissions. Many approaches exist, and they should all be supported. Below are just a few.

A carbon fee and dividend would place a rising fee on fossil fuels: $15 per metric ton of CO2 emissions to start, with a rise of  $10 per metric ton per year. One hundred percent of the fees minus administrative costs are given back to households each month. To stop business relocation, it will place import fees on products from countries without a carbon fee and provide rebates to U.S. companies exporting to those countries.

A cap-and-trade system could be taken to a federal level. This system includes capping the greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions of polluters, and creating a market for companies to trade allowances. It’s a strong incentive to reduce costs by cutting emissions. Since 2013, our very own state’s cap-and-trade program (the fifth-largest economy in the world), has driven the regulated industries’ emissions down by 8.8 percent in just the first three years. China and the EU have national and international trading systems that the U.S. should adopt at a federal level.

Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) address power sector decarbonization and establish targets for renewable energy generation. Thirty-five states and Washington D.C. have RPS but only 11 meet or exceed the proposed 50 percent federal standard by 2035 and zero-carbon by 2050.

A “Just Transition” encompasses all of these policies and more. The U.S. energy and food systems disproportionately affect poor, marginalized communities of color. The transition to a decarbonized, circular economy must also create American jobs in sustainability. Climate change is going to affect the most vulnerable populations the most, so these communities need to take priority when distributing the benefits of a decarbonized economy. And globally, how do we expect developing countries to grow sustainably when rich countries don’t take action at home, even though countries such as the U.S. have historically contributed the most to climate change and continue to do so at the expense of other countries?

Finally, we look to our own campus. By divesting fully from fossil fuel holdings, UC Berkeley can show that it acknowledges the climate emergency and is unwilling to support controversial industries. The UC investments are divesting from fossil fuels (thanks to Fossil-Free UC and people power), but UC Berkeley still has its own endowment that hasn’t yet been divested. By meeting and exceeding commitments to campus sustainability goals (Berkeley Food Institute, Carbon Neutrality by 2025, Zero Waste by 2020), we set precedents for sustainability on campus.

Today, the U.S. uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day (20 percent of the world’s consumption rate, which is increasing). Twenty million. Per day. Our society doesn’t have rules to stop this. This is to tell our federal government that we need to make them. We are amplifying our voices through action, by “Walking Out for the Climate” today, Sept. 20, in solidarity with millions of people to demonstrate the urgency of the situation.

Serena Patel is a senior studying energy engineering at UC Berkeley and minoring in energy and resources. She is an energy commissioner on the City of Berkeley’s Energy Commission, works at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and the Student Environmental Resource Center, and co-leads the UC Berkeley Engineers for a Sustainable World chapter.