No global trend presents a greater local threat in the United States than climate change. Yet the gulf between scientists’ warnings about climate catastrophes and the U.S. government’s inaction to abate carbon emissions has never been greater. Many politicians act as if the climate threat lies well over the horizon, while climate science tells us otherwise — as does 2018’s epic fires and storms in the U.S. Urgently needed in Pennsylvania and across the country is a transition to a clean-energy economy, and to underpin such action, a people’s movement that becomes an unstoppable force spurring political, economic, and technical responses.
To generate this movement, mind-sets must change. The media is amply covering climate change these days. But in looking at the dire predictions, many feel that their efforts today won’t make a difference, or that problems will in time get resolved anyway. This is dangerous because climate damages will be irreversible in a process that has already started.
Pennsylvania is at the front end of climate impacts both as a victim and as a contributor to the problem. On the one side, sea level rise around Philadelphia has accelerated in recent decades making for a one foot sea rise over the past century, which could triple by the end of this century. Temperatures in the U.S. have increased by 0.435°F per decade since 1970, and Philadelphia estimated to be the 17th fastest warming U.S. city. On the other side, in 2015, Pennsylvania’s economy ranked third in the U.S. in terms of the total C02 emissions emitted. In per capita terms, Pennsylvania’s C02 emissions are more than twice those of New York state.
To inculcate a sense of urgency, everyone needs to see how the climate and energy dots connect. The United Nations’ report in October and the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment in November could not be clearer about the links among human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric warming, and a rise in extreme weather disasters. Importantly, scientists are starting to attribute global warming to the probability of the occurrence of individual events, such as Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Southeast Texas in 2017 and Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey and the Eastern Seaboard in 2012.
The world’s leading scientists have urged that we get global emissions to peak by 2020, and then fall sharply in order to keep temperature rise to below 2 degrees centigrade, ideally even 1.5. But the prospects of meeting that goal are dimming fast. A just-released report from the Global Carbon Pact reveals that global carbon emissions were at an all-time high in 2018, due to increases in coal use and in automobiles. Carbon emissions are estimated to rise in 2018, including in the top three emitters, China, the U.S., and India. The major carbon-emitting countries need to make profound changes to their economies. China’s carbon emissions continue to rise, even as the county is making progress on renewable energy. The United States administration gutted its climate-care policies this year, replacing them with fossil-fuel friendly actions that could see a vast increase in carbon emissions in the coming decades.
Meanwhile, there are examples of state and local governments initiating policy and technology solutions for reducing carbon intensity. A 2018 law in California requires that all its electricity be generated by renewable energy and no carbon sources in 25 years. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has proposed to cut carbon emissions 80 percent from 2006 levels by 2050, using more energy from renewable sources, stepping up energy-efficiency programs, and developing an energy system resilient to climate change. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has indicated that he wants to get 10 percent of the state’s power from solar energy by 2030.
But the good examples must be scaled up, and that requires a groundswell of public and political support. After all, public opinion and political support were important drivers of the efforts that changed the tide in many other crisis situations, including counter-terrorism in the 1970s and after 9/11. The role of public opinion is also clear looking at campaigns, such as vaccination, against pandemics. And when it comes to the climate crisis, we need a clear articulation of the direct link between carbon emissions and climate catastrophes, and of its deadly impacts here and now.
The potential benefits of far-reaching climate action will be huge in saving lives and livelihoods across the country, and especially in the coastal areas. Pennsylvania’s stakes in climate action are high, worthy of a people’s movement behind radical change.
Vinod Thomas is author of Climate Change and Natural Disaster (Routledge, 2018) and former senior vice president at The World Bank. Vndthomas91@yahoo.com