We can still dodge the worst of fossil fuel-driven climate change

We can still dodge the worst of fossil fuel-driven climate change
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Last week’s alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted in stark detail the perilous position society has backed itself into. Without a massive shift away from a fossil-fuel based economy in the next 10 to 15 years, our planet will almost certainly face the unthinkable: severe and sustained drought in vulnerable parts of the world, mass human displacement, famine, flooding, and wide-scale death.

Some of this climate chaos is already happening, already baked into the Earth’s running program. Unprecedented hurricanes are hitting our shores with regularity. Wildfires now burn year-round in numerous western states. Steady sea level rise is creating permanent flood zones where they never before existed. 

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But the worst effects of fossil fuel-driven climate change can still be avoided if we move fast. We have the knowledge and the means to avert climate catastrophe. We only lack the political will to act.

Resistance to the growing demand for a clean, renewable energy revolution is typically found in two forms. First, there are the climate “skeptics” or “contrarians,” motivated by political zeal or financial conflict of interest, who insist on ignoring settled science. These skeptics foolishly claim we have nothing to fear — or at least nothing to do with it. 

These voices are few but loud. 

Skeptics are apparently selfish or unconcerned with the wellbeing of future generations. Reasoning with them has proven ineffective thus far. But the second group is much larger. These are the people who have been misled into thinking that a truly clean, renewable energy future is somehow not feasible, not realistic. This is the group we are most hopeful of engaging with.

The fact is, an aggressive national transition to at least 80 percent clean, renewable energy for electricity and ground transportation in the next decade and 100 percent by 2035 is entirely feasible (and entirely necessary). It will involve a collection of local and national initiatives all focused on two key elements: rapidly halting the extraction and burning of fossil fuels everywhere, and rapidly ramping up wind and solar power generation, storage and transmission.

The supply and cost of wind and solar power are decreasing markedly by the month. But to speed up this progress, states must improve (or adopt, if they haven’t already) very aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) programs.

Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory programs to encourage renewable electricity generation. These RPS programs set renewable electricity goals and determine which energy sources qualify as renewable. Such programs are a key component of a national transition to a clean, renewable energy future. 

Unfortunately, most state RPS programs aren’t anywhere near strong enough to get the job done. Food & Water Watch recently conducted a study of RPS programs across the country. What the study found was alarming. About half the states are only targeting 25 percent renewable electricity. And almost all of them include filthy, climate-negative energy sources such as wood and animal waste burning in their RPS packages.

In some states, so-called clean, renewable electricity is literally a tire fire. Simply put, states that don’t yet have RPS programs must adopt strong ones now. And states that do must pursue much more aggressive timelines, and eliminate polluting practices from their packages entirely. 

At the local level, we must instill policies that make renewable electricity and all energy even more affordable immediately. One effective way to do this is through net metering. Net metering allows people who install renewable electricity for their homes and businesses to be paid back for excess energy they transfer back into the grid. 

This helps to reduce payback time for people investing in renewable energy, thereby encouraging more renewable energy development. Numerous state studies have even shown that net metering policies benefit ratepayers who don't install renewable energy themselves — it’s a win-win for everyone in the communities that adopt it.

Additionally, we mustn’t forget energy efficiency. Reducing wasted energy is core to reaching a goal of 100 percent clean, renewable energy. Energy efficiency can be achieved through policies that improve building design standards, weatherize existing housing, improve electricity transmission efficiency and make consumer products work while using less energy. Stronger national energy efficiency standards will not only help save our planet, but will also save consumers money and create countless well-paying jobs. 

Thankfully, a national blueprint for enacting this rapid energy transformation already exists. Legislation in Congress called the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future (OFF) Act includes many of the mechanisms outlined here — and numerous others — to mandate a complete transition to clean, renewable energy for electricity and transportation in America by 2035, with 80 percent of that shift coming by 2027. This bill, and other similar legislative efforts across the country, need only a popular wave of support in order to compel their adoption by hesitant political leaders. That wave must come from us, the people. And it must come now. 

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch, and author of “Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment.”

Mark Z. Jacobson is professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University.