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Fossil fuels are impoverishing us

FILE – Bruce McDougal watches embers fly over his property as the Bond Fire burns through the Silverado community in Orange County, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. New research shows climate misinformation has been flourishing on Twitter since Elon Musk purchased the platform in 2022. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

How dire a warning must there be for us to do something about global climate change? Is there anything scientists can say or the weather can do to persuade us to stop dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

Perhaps not.

After issuing five detailed “synthesis” reports about climate change since 1988 — each more certain and urgent than the last — the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just issued its sixth report. It minces no words. Our final chance to avoid a global catastrophe is to make massive cuts in fossil-fuel emissions within 12 years. If we don’t, we will see devastating climate impacts that could last thousands of years.

Yet, energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide set a record last year. Countries still provide fossil fuels with trillions of dollars annually in direct and indirect subsidies. The world’s 60 biggest banks provided $4.6 trillion in fossil fuel financing, including $742 billion in 2021, since nations agreed to the Paris climate accord in 2015. Four of the biggest oil companies had $1 trillion in sales and record profits last year. And 20 of the biggest oil companies plan to spend nearly $1 trillion to develop new oil and gas fields by the end of 2030. Even President Biden, fully aware of the climate crisis, has given the go-ahead to an $8 billion oil project in Alaska.

In other words, the global oil and gas industry has never been better, while the world has never been closer to simultaneous environmental, economic and humanitarian disasters expected to displace 1.2 billion of the world’s people by 2050 and have violent impacts that will last thousands of years.

The oil and gas industry denied for decades that climate change is real and now would have us believe that new technologies will allow it to keep producing and profiting from fossil fuels even in a decarbonized world. But the latest IPCC report makes clear there is no more time to count on technical fixes. At this stage, they rank somewhere between wishful thinking and greenwashing. Climate change hangs over us, particularly the young, like the sword of Damocles, causing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. In its study of this, the Oregon Health Authority reported that our youth says they “feel isolated, doomed, and ignored. Some of us have lived through traumatic climate disasters like wildfires, extreme storms, or deadly heat waves. The rest of us understand the science and know our future will be severely impacted by climate change, which adds to all the stress, anxiety, and depression we’re already dealing with. All of us feel ignored by adults, who almost all have some power to make a change to protect us, and they aren’t acting urgently.”

A year ago, The Guardian reported on climate-related “doomerism” — even  resulting in suicide in some cases.

“Studies have shown that while alarm over worsening wildfires, droughts, flooding, and societal unrest is on the rise, not many of us talk about climate angst with others to avoid political arguments or simply avoid bringing down the mood. Those who do speak out are often younger activists – research has shown that half of people between 16 and 25 years old believe the Earth may be doomed, while three-quarters feel anxiety when they think or hear about climate change. Some speak openly of not wanting to bring children into a hotter, harsher world,” according to The Guardian.

“But the worst part is that everyone’s acting normal — it’s like we are zombies,” clinical psychologist turned climate activist Margaret Klein Salamon told The Guardian. “The sense of helplessness and hopelessness is holding back conversations and political action.”

So, will the masses wake up and force industry and governments to take the radical steps necessary at this late date? In a brilliant essay published by the Washington Post, author and historian Rebecca Solnit suggest that since wealth accumulation and retention seem to rule, we should redefine what wealth is. While fossil fuels make a few people financially wealthy, they impoverish the rest of us in ways not measured by goods and money.

“Even the affluent live in a world where confidence in the future, and in the society and institutions around us, is fading,” Solnit points out, “and where a sense of security, social connectedness, mental and physical health, and other measures of well-being are often dismal. This is the world we live in with fossil fuel — the burning of which makes us poorer in many ways.”

We are less wealthy, too, as fossil fuel pollution undermines public health, economic security and the environment. Ecological economists have valued nature’s contributions to human welfare at $125 trillion annually. Unfortunately, we lose $20 trillion in services between 1997 and 2011 because of land-use changes — a broad term for the impacts of climate change and human activities.

Whether we realize it or not, we are losing financial security in the carbon economy. Economists warn of a “carbon bubble” similar to but much bigger than the “housing bubble” that helped cause the financial crisis of the 1980s. Fossil fuel assets are substantially overvalued by not counting their detrimental climate impacts and their own climate risks­ — not to mention that their infrastructure will be useless and valueless in a net-zero world. In addition, solar and wind energy, among other renewable resources, are now less expensive than generating electricity with coal or natural gas.

We overvalue real estate that isn’t prepared to withstand climate change and coastal property vulnerable to sea-level rise, rising insurance rates and so on.

Some investors and money managers have pulled funds out of fossil fuels because of risks like these. Several Republican-led states, including Florida and Texas, want to punish any company that “boycotts” fossil fuels, which under the circumstances seems to punish asset managers for fulfilling their fiduciary duty to consider risks.

Corporations also don’t seem prepared for climate-related disasters or decarbonization. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 40 percent of global CEOs think their organizations will not be economically viable 10 years from now if they don’t change course. Additionally, 10 percent said new energy resources and supply chain disruptions from climate change would impact their profitability. Most said they must reinvent their business models for the future. Yet, 70 percent of U.S. companies said they have no plans to apply a carbon price to their decisions, even though doing so could help them manage better in the climate era.

So, what is wealth? If we include all its forms, we see how little there is to lose in transitioning away from fossil fuels and how much we gain in societies powered by inexhaustible, free and clean energy. Good health is wealth. Hope for the future is wealth. Security and stability are wealth. A healthy natural world is wealth because of ecosystem services and nature’s proven psychological benefits. The satisfaction of living in service to life is wealth.

“Much of the reluctance to do what climate change requires comes from the assumption that it means trading abundance for austerity, and trading all our stuff and conveniences for less stuff, less convenience,” writes Solnit, the author and historian. “But what if it meant giving up things we’re well rid of, from deadly emissions to nagging feelings of doom and complicity in destruction? What if the austerity is how we live now — and the abundance could be what is to come?”

We’ve seen all the science we need to see and heard all the warnings we need to hear about the imperative of clean energy. We have all the technologies we need. So now, what will it take to overcome the oil industry’s insatiable greed, formidable political power and futile resistance to change? It’s stealing wealth we may never get back.

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 extreme weather Fossil fuels Global warming IPCC Joe Biden oil and gas Pollution

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