When I am fed up with humans driving our climate out of the hospitable zone, I find solace at one of my favorite sanctuaries of civilization: The Philadelphia Museum of Art. I head up the Rocky stairs and under the stone columns and make a beeline for the masterpiece by Peter Paul Rubens titled “Prometheus Bound.” You may recall that the bad day the Greek god is having is Zeus’s punishment for giving humans fire. Rubens had no idea when he put oil to canvas over 400 years ago what an apt metaphor the tale would be for the unleashing of fossil fuels, from the first blast-furnace fire in Coalbrookdale, England in 1709 to the conflagration which obliterated Lytton, British Columbia in July 2021, immediately after the town’s high-temperature record was broken by a whopping 8ºF (4.6ºC).
In this second blog post documenting my emergence from climate ire to climate action, I want to explain why I feel our best hope is primarily political (I’ll actually do something in the next post, I promise!). My reasoning gets down to three things: First, we need massive action immediately. Second, lifestyle/behavioral changes will only come on any meaningful scale with incentives and infrastructure. Finally, we must open and streamline the path for existing technologies, which are sufficient to save us (sorry, Bill Gates).
The first argument really drives the other two, and I assert it simply because we have been asleep at the wheel for so long while greenhouse gas emissions have exploded. We have very little time to do quite a lot. Here is what we know about keeping warming to 2.7ºF (1.5ºC) above pre-industrial levels, a fuzzy line above which we will confront very expensive and vast social and environmental disruption, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): We must halve emissions in ten years and reach net zero carbon additions by 2050. At this point we invoke all the clichés, like “moon shot,” “war footing,” and, dare I say, “New Deal.”
Such mobilization comes only through large-scale policy implementation and spending programs, which in turn can only come from governments. Realistically, action may happen more quickly in autocracies such as China, the world’s biggest emitter, leaders willing. The other gas giants are democracies — the U.S., the E.U., India — and citizens need to hold politicians accountable. Most people not only believe in human-caused climate change today, but they also are hungry for action. This attitude is growing in the U.S. and globally, which can translate into political will (see chart below). I think this kicking of sitting politicians’ asses is the best we can hope for from most citizens now, which brings me to my second point.
Efforts to change people’s behavior to prevent environmental damage have been going on for decades, and yet in the U.S., only a third of solid waste is recycled, SUV and pick-up trucks dominate vehicle sales and keep growing, and bottled water and beef remain loved by consumers. There is a debate between personal lifestyle and political change as agendas for a climate fix, but although both are ultimately necessary, we simply don’t have time to focus on the former, at least not through individual-by-individual education campaigns. When the house is burning down because Ernest fell asleep in bed with a lit cigarette, it’s a little late to convince him to quit smoking.
Besides, “education” isn’t always done right. Perhaps you’ve been a victim of flight/meat/you-name-it shaming. Denigrating people for lifestyle choices is usually counterproductive and sometimes hypocritical. It is divisive, and deflects responsibility from the fossil fuel interests who are way less innocent than your aunt who flies to visit her grandchildren in Tuscon. And many of these choices aren’t influential enough anyway: If everyone stopped flying, we would get less than a three percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, we’ll all be better off if we eat less meat, bike and walk more, and replace our lightbulbs with LEDs, but these too will best occur through policy changes in concert with a good understanding of behavioral economics and groupthink. Incentives and popular regulations (you heard me right, check this out), infrastructure (frequent, fast, on-time trains), and research (feed you steer seaweed!) will go a lot further than dirty looks and self-righteous lectures. Buy-in is much more likely when people feel a genuine pride in climate-friendly choices made of their own volition.
So we come to my third point. John Kerry, Biden’s international envoy on climate change and a man whom I respect greatly, made an unfortunate comment recently. He said that half of the necessary carbon reductions must come from technologies not yet invented. This feeds the technophilia such as described in Bill Gates’s new book, which has been criticized for underplaying renewables and the role of politics, while overplaying engineering as a primary path to “avoid a climate disaster.” But, as Kerry implies, these solutions are nowhere near viable yet (nor cost-effective, and may in fact be dangerous, I might add). Meanwhile, we already have the means to achieve net zero by 2050 with existing technology.
The political connection here is that we must, through our governments, streamline and incentivize current technology, and expand infrastructure to support it, such as installing charging stations and modernizing the electricity grid. And let’s not forget to de-incentivize fossil fuels, which are still subsidized by an estimated $4.7 trillion a year globally according to the International Monetary fund.
Keeping our climate livable is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. For decades, many have had the foresight to acknowledge this and worked arduously for change, yet emissions — and temperatures — continued to rise. Time is becoming very short, but the good news now is that we absolutely have the means to meet the challenge. Our elected representatives must be pushed to embrace that insight before it’s too late. They must massively promote renewables, halt the use of carbon-based fuels and recognize them as the fossils they are, and make the necessary individual choices compelling, easy, and affordable.
Prometheus’s black fire fueled the Industrial Revolution and led to incredible technologies which elevated millions to a material security, but it is high time to extinguish it. In fact, the Greek playwright Aeschylus provides an encouraging ending to the story: Prometheus makes peace with Zeus, is freed from torment, and becomes his prophet. Perhaps by unbinding politics we can release this Titan’s cool intellectual side and invoke his literal name. Prometheus means “forethinker.”
Thanks to all of you who read my first blog, made comments, and began following me. Special thanks to my friend and Penn State colleague Carolee Bull, who turned me onto an activist opportunity. I also owe much of my general argument in this post to Michael Mann and his new book, The New Climate War, which I highly recommend.
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