Opinion: Is There Still Time?

Mayan Temple, over 1000 years old, Tikal National Park, Guatemala. Photo:Russ Vernon-Jones

Russ Vernon-Jones

When I was a very young child I loved books and I loved being read to.  My mother, or my father when he was available, would read to me at bedtime.  It was a brief, happy time each day. It always ended with the announcement that it was time to turn out the light and go to sleep.  I couldn’t tell time yet, but each night I knew that time for books was running out.  My constant question was, “Is there time?  Is there time for one more book?”

Many of us have that question about climate change. Is there still time?  Is there still time to reduce emissions, sequester more carbon, and avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming?

In the fall of 2018 the  Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC),  the UN body that assembles the research of climate experts around the world — issued a report that said humanity had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050, if we are to limit the most disastrous effects of climate change.  It immediately became common at climate rallies to see t-shirts made by the Sunrise Movement, emphasizing the 2030 deadline, that said “12 More Years”.

Do We Have Ten More Years?
Now that it’s the fall of 2020, do we still have 10 more years?  Given that the policies and the practices of the federal government in the United States under the current administration have made things worse, not better, and given that the fossil fuel industry still seems determined to make every bit of profit it can regardless of its horrible effects, is there still time?

There are some bright spots, some big challenges, and some hard realities in the current answer to this question, as I see it.

The Pandemic
The pandemic initially lowered CO2 emissions as factories were shuttered and people stayed at home, but as economic life in much of the world has resumed, emissions are back to dangerously high levels.  In the pandemic period we’ve also seen a tremendous outcry for racial justice triggered by the police murder of George Floyd and others.  Much of the climate movement responded with a new understanding of how related racial justice and climate justice are, and our movements are stronger as a result.  The early days of the pandemic also demonstrated the ability of people to work together for the common good, and the ability of governments to quickly provide surprisingly large amounts of money to meet needs. (In the U.S. the amounts were inadequate and unfairly distributed, but the $1.8 trillion was unprecedented.)  Both working together and government money will be key in the coming years, if we are to respond successfully to the climate emergency.

Short Timeline For Some Decisions 
The pandemic has also changed the timeline in some unexpected ways.  We always knew we would need to restructure the energy sector, retrain workers for green jobs, invest heavily in green technology, and create climate-friendly government mandates.  It appeared that we could work this out over the next ten years.  Now many economies are suffering serious downturns as a result of the pandemic.  Governments will be making large investments to restart their economies. If the new investments are based on recreating the fossil fuel economy of the past, we are likely doomed.  If, instead, the investments to stimulate economies are used to build green infrastructure, retrain workers for green jobs, and move us away from fossil fuels, this could be a key turning point.  Many of these decisions will likely be made in the next three years.  These next three years may be the tipping point that determines whether or not we can respond successfully to the climate crisis.

Show Up — Be Visible
It is unfortunate that this opportunity comes at a time when the climate movement in the U.S. is not yet strong enough to be the primary driver of business and governmental decision-making.  We aren’t there yet, but having that power is within reach.  We must immediately redouble our efforts to elect the most climate-friendly candidates available, to get involved in climate organizations, and to join every climate rally, action, and advocacy opportunity we can find.  We must show up (well masked and socially distanced) for every racial justice, social justice, and climate justice action we can find.  We must be proactive and creative in finding ways to be visible in our support for a society that cares about all people and the planet.

Bright Spot
In addition to the challenges, there are some bright spots and some hard realities to answering the question, “Is there still time?”  One of the bright spots is a new in-depth energy, engineering, and jobs analysis from Rewiring America, (helpfully explained in Vox).  It finds it’s still possible to eliminate 70% to 80% of U.S. carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies.  This would require a massive, World War II type mobilization which would create 15-20 million new jobs and save people money.  Right now job creation is badly needed.  The current unemployment rate in the U.S. is higher than at any time since the Great Depression.

Hard Realities, Pain, And Love
The hard reality is that for far too many people it is already too late.  People all over the world are suffering and dying from wildfires, hurricanes, floods, agricultural disruption, extreme heat and more, all caused or exacerbated by climate change. As much as we may want to focus on solutions, I think we also must keep our hearts open and grieve the losses that are happening in so many places.  Solving the climate crisis will require our full humanity and must be rooted in our caring about all people and places.  Such love and caring includes real pain, but it is the only solid foundation available for the work that lies ahead of us.

Russ Vernon-Jones

Russ Vernon-Jones was the Principal of Fort River Elementary School from 1990-2008.  He is a co-facilitator of the Coming Together Anti-Racism Project in the Amherst area.  He co-chairs the Racism-Climate Change Connections working group of Climate Action Now of Western Mass, and blogs regularly on climate justice at www.RussVernonJones.org.

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