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The atmosphere doesn’t negotiate

Cyclists ride past debris piled up on the seawall road Sept. 14, 2008, after Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast in Galveston. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The late Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross pioneered the study of grief. She found that a grieving person experiences denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, usually in that order. 

The world’s response to climate change is similar. Most skeptics have graduated from the first phase, denial. We know what the final stage, acceptance, should be. We would unite worldwide to replace fossil fuels with energy that doesn’t produce greenhouse gas pollution. 

Unfortunately, the international community is stalled in the bargaining phase. We can’t bargain with the atmosphere because it’s governed by the nonnegotiable laws of physics. So, the responsibility to confront climate change is ours and ours alone. We must face it directly rather than greenwashing or counting on technical fixes that don’t exist. 

So, how do we move forward? Here are some suggestions: 

First, 30 years of negotiations have taught us that voluntary steps to reduce greenhouse gas pollution aren’t sufficient. In deference to sovereignty, national mitigation plans are voluntary and unenforceable. Now we need legally binding goals and timetables.  

Second, climate action must be driven by restoring balance to the Earth’s carbon cycle, not by the wishes of the fossil fuel sector. Yet, nearly 640 fossil-energy executives and lobbyists registered for the recent UN climate summit COP27 — in a reported effort to defeat a proposal to “phase down” all fossil fuels. 

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 in the United States, the industry spent $90.4 million to deploy 689 lobbyists to Congress, more than one for every member of the House and Senate. Their mission was likely to defend the industry’s $20.5 billion annual tax breaks and to make sure lawmakers didn’t do anything rash, like ending oil production on public lands. 

Preventing out-of-control climate change isn’t the industry’s objective. Instead, its business model is to extract and sell trillions of dollars in underground reserves — despite the fact that scientists say these fossil fuels must remain unburned to keep climate change in check. 

Third, current market forces will not drive a transition to clean energy. Government subsidies are distorting market signals. Even worse, consumer prices don’t begin to reflect the actual cost fossil fuels impose on the environment and society. The International Monetary Fund says nations gave fossil fuel interests nearly $6 trillion in subsidies in 2020 — that’s 6.8 percent of GDP. More than 90 percent were “externalized” costs to society and the environment. 

In other words, the U.S. and other countries that subsidize fossil fuels make every loyal taxpayer complicit in as well as a victim of climate change.  

Fourth, we must give up the idea that we can have fossil fuels and climate stability, too. Carbon capture at power plants is one scheme to make carbon fuels compatible with decarbonization. It is doomed to fail economically, if not technically, because electricity from sunlight and wind will be much simpler, cleaner and less expensive. 

Carbon offsets are another questionable tactic to burn fossil fuels in zero-carbon economies. Offsets allow power plants and factories to keep using fossil fuels while claiming carbon neutrality by paying others to reduce emissions.  

Trees, one of nature’s carbon sinks, are a popular option. Governments and businesses intend to plant well over 1 trillion trees in the years ahead. BPShellTotalEniEquinor and ConocoPhillips reportedly have spent millions of dollars on forest projects to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. 

It’s not that simple. Sticking with the tree example, there is no universal agreement yet on tree-planting standards or verification to prove the trees would not have been planted anyway. There are more than 73,300 species of trees with different carbon sequestration characteristics. They don’t start absorbing significant amounts of carbon dioxide until years of growing, so the size and species of trees are essential

Trees require land and water, which may compete with food production to feed the nearly 10 billion people expected to be alive in 2050, the year nations plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Trees may die prematurely because of insects, drought, wildfires, timber harvesting, diseases or removal to make way for growing cities and farmland. The Carbon Community, a British organization specializing in the climate benefits of trees, notes that despite 30 years of research, “there are big gaps in the science of which trees and how to plant them to most effectively capture carbon.” 

In addition to creating standards and protocols to verify the performance of offsets, nations should amend the 2015 Paris climate accord to cap the emission reductions polluters can claim with carbon offsets. For example, the accord could limit offsets to 5 percent of a polluter’s required emission cuts.  

Finally, climate negotiators and policymakers should own the effects their failures have on people. Research shows society at large is grieving, too. The worsening impacts of climate change are causing more than financial losses and physical injuries. They are causing anger, depression and moral injury. Scientific American explains that moral injury is “a specific trauma that arises when people face situations that deeply violate their conscience or threaten their core values.” Regarding global warming, “the trauma is far more widespread and devastating than most people realize.”  

Research published by The Lancet found, “Climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in children and young people in countries across the world and impact their daily functioning.” Young people feel betrayed by their governments. They feel powerless. Some couples are deciding against having children, either because they don’t want to bring babies into a broken world or because they don’t want to add more energy users to the planet. 

Moral injury should be a consequence for those who have, but do not use, the power to end the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.  

We used to say we should spare tomorrow’s children from an unlivable planet. It’s clear we need to spare today’s children, too. Maybe the solution is to turn negotiations over to people under the age of 40 so they don’t have live with the consequences of their elders’ failures to act. 

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House. 

Tags Climate change climate crisis cop27 Fossil fuels Global warming Public health

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