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As climate crisis worsens, it’s Interior Secretary Jewell who’s being naïve

I was deeply disturbed to read Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s latest dismissal of the growing national call to keep federal fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change as “naïve.” And that, as a nation “dependent” on fossil fuels, it is “naïve” to think we can shift to 100 percent renewable energy.

Jewell is no minor player in our nation’s quest to stem the climate crisis. As Interior secretary, she is a key decision maker for the fate of publicly owned, federally managed coal, oil and gas and the 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas emissions they hold. The decisions from her Department will have a very real impact on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. That’s why it’s so troubling to hear her blithely dismiss the “keep it in the ground” movement as “naïve.” 

{mosads}Naïve is believing we can curb the climate crisis through half-measures. Naïve is hoping that continuing to do business as usual with the fossil fuel industry gets us anywhere close to what’s necessary. Naïve is ignoring the overwhelming advice of scientists who say we must act now – in a very big way – to avoid the worst effects of this crisis by keeping up to 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves safely in the ground.   

Recently, while at a Washington, D.C., reception, I was talking with Secretary Jewell about oil and gas fracking on America’s public lands. When I raised the necessity of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, Jewell looked at me and in a gotcha kind of way and asked me whether I drove a car? It’s pretty disconcerting when the secretary of the Interior is using the exact same talking point as the Western Energy Alliance, a consortium of oil and gas companies that promotes increased drilling and fracking, whose representative I debated on a panel a few months back at the Tulane School of Law conference.

I drive a used plug-in Prius hybrid powered in large part by the solar panels on my roof in D.C. – but that’s beside the point. Jewell repeats time and again that we are a nation “dependent” on fossil fuels and the transition to a “blend” of fossil fuels and renewable energy will take time because, as she explained recently, it is “complex.”

Unfortunately, climate change won’t wait for Sally Jewell or the fossil fuel industry to be “ready” to transition. In order to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change and meet the commitment by the U.S. and other countries to decarbonize the global economy over the course of this century, the world needs to be largely powered by renewable energy in as little as three decades.

With the cost of solar power now comparable to fossil fuels, is it naïve to think that we can rapidly transition to renewable energy? Not according to many experts. For example, a 2015 study led by Professor Mark Jacobson with Stanford University, presented a national road map for powering each of the 50 U.S. states’ electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and industry sectors with solar, wind and water energy. The study found that by 2030, renewables can power 80 percent to 85 percent of our energy needs and by 2050 we can be fully powered by the sun, wind and water. Doing so would also create far more jobs than those lost in the declining fossil fuel sector.

To call the growing movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground “naïve” is cynical denial. Denial that the age of fossil fuel addiction must come to an end to help the world cope with droughts, floods, food insecurity and extreme sea level rise of runaway climate change. Denial that future growth and prosperity can be powered by clean renewable energy that will also protect our air quality, public health, lands, oceans and wildlife. Denial of the fact that ending new leasing of federal fossil fuels will make a significant contribution to limiting U.S. greenhouse emissions. We already have decades worth of federal oil, coal and gas under lease. We do not need to lease any more. It’s time for Secretary Jewell to get on board.  

Randi Spivak is the Director of the Public Land Program Center for Biological Diversity

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