Green New Deal must cut fossil fuel supply and demand

Green New Deal must cut fossil fuel supply and demand
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As a climate scientist, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the gloom and doom of my research area. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was especially alarming.

The panel concluded that policymakers must take “unprecedented action” to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Letting the world warm up by another half of a degree, the report found, would be nothing short of catastrophic.

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Such warming would almost entirely wipe out coral reefs, expose 10 million more people to flooding from sea level rise, make heat waves deadlier, increase the spread of mosquito and tick-borne diseases and more.

That’s why I’m so heartened to see activists from more than 50 organizations rallying at congressional offices all over the country this week in support of a Green New Deal. This policy idea and the advocates who support it have brought fresh energy and enthusiasm to the most pressing issue of our time.

And a study released in mid-January delivered good news: Keeping global mean temperature rise under 1.5 degrees is still technically possible with the type of large-scale action proposed by a Green New Deal.

The University of Leeds scientists found that if we start phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, we have a 64 percent chance of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees.

That means replacing everything that uses fossil fuels — including power plants, cars, aircraft, ships and industrial infrastructure — with zero-carbon alternatives at the end of its lifespan, starting now. If we wait until 2030 to start, our chances drop to below 50 percent and dwindle down from there.

The message is urgent but hopeful: If we act now to end fossil fuels, we can preserve a livable planet for future generations.

Another blockbuster study released the same week highlights why decisions made today on U.S. energy policy could make or break the world’s chances of getting there.

According to calculations by Oil Change International, the U.S. oil and gas industry is gearing up to set off the largest carbon bomb the world has ever seen. The report found that new oil and gas drilling in the U.S. could easily unlock 120 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. That would be equivalent to the lifetime carbon pollution of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants.

In other words, this drilling frenzy will produce enough fossil fuels to drastically undercut efforts we take to consume less fossil fuels in the U.S. and lock us into catastrophic climate damage.

These reports shine a spotlight on the fatal flaw that has plagued the last three decades of U.S. climate policy: it has focused solely on fossil fuel consumption and demand and has ignored fossil fuel extraction and supply.

From the Clean Power Plan to vehicle fuel-economy standards, key U.S. climate policies have focused on addressing greenhouse gas emissions where they exit the smokestack or tailpipe. Make no mistake: These are critically important policies. We must keep fighting to protect them from the climate denier in the White House, and to greatly accelerate them under the next president.

But basic principles of economics and policymaking tell us that the best way to phase out a harmful product is to address both supply and demand. From asbestos to leaded gasoline and CFCs, we take it for granted that policymakers do not just discourage consumers from using these products, but also restrict or prohibit their production. So why have U.S. politicians largely left fossil fuel production to the whims of the market?

The answer is the political power of the fossil fuel industry. Directly limiting oil, gas and coal supply — keeping fossil fuels in the ground — is what the fossil fuel industry fights against the hardest.

And not only are our leaders failing to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they’re throwing taxpayer dollars at sucking them out. Federal and state subsidies to oil, gas and coal companies are estimated to be up to $52 billion annually.

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There’s no excuse for this to continue. We have the resources and technology available to rapidly phase out fossil fuel production while investing in a “just transition” — a comprehensive economic plan to drive job growth and invest in a new green economy that is designed, built and governed by communities and workers.

Though the agenda of the fossil fuel lobby and the Trump administration are indistinguishable, Congress can start laying the groundwork for this transition now.

That’s why my organization joined more than 600 other groups calling on Congress to pursue an ambitious climate policy agenda that includes a thoughtful phaseout of fossil fuel extraction and a just transition.

We need a World War II-style mobilization to stop burning fossil fuels and keep them in the ground. We need to do both, even if — especially if — it strikes fear into the heart of the fossil fuel fat cats who drilled us into this mess.

Shaye Wolf is the Center for Biological Diversity’s climate science director.