“Just plain immoral.” That’s how Secretary of State John Kerry recently described those who stand idly by while the world burns—or, worse, obstruct those trying to douse the fire. He didn’t name names, but Kerry was clearly referring to Republicans who lockstep refuse to acknowledge climate science, even as California enters the fourth year of a historic drought and the West Antarctica ice sheet has begun an “irreversible” collapse that will eventually swamp coastal regions the world over. “We literally do not have the time to waste debating whether we can say ‘climate change,’” Kerry said.
Kerry’s use of unabashedly moral language is one sign among many that 2015 is shaping up as both the best and worst of times in the race to preserve a livable planet. Jettisoning the techno-speak that pervades most discussions of the climate crisis in favor of straight talk about right and wrong can re-arrange the political furniture, for it invites regular folk into the conversation. Most politics is decided below, not above, the neck—in people’s hearts and guts more than their brains. Solid information and logical arguments have their place of course, but what moves most voters are their emotional feelings about a given issue or candidate, not an intellectual weighing of pros and cons. Tap into that and real change becomes possible.
A stunning example unfolded in China earlier this spring when a well-known television journalist narrated a searing documentary about her homeland’s horrific air and water pollution. Chai Jing had grown interested in the topic after becoming pregnant with her first child, and her plainspoken account in “Under the Dome” of the health risks facing ordinary Chinese struck an unmistakable chord. Hundreds of millions of people viewed the documentary online before the authorities removed it.
Framing the climate crisis in moral terms is potentially even more powerful in the United States, where religion has been central to the national identity and politics since the country’s founding. President Obama is increasingly making moral arguments on behalf of climate action, citing his own daughters and other youth as a major motivation for reducing carbon pollution. “Dangerous Inheritance,” a new report issued by the NGO Environment America, takes a similar tack. Pointing out that Americans born since the 1980s and 1990s are already locked in to a future where heat waves, droughts, downpours, flooding, sea level rise and other extreme events will be more frequent and severe, “Dangerous Inheritance” urges governments to lessen the impacts by accelerating clean energy deployment and securing a strong action agreement at the global climate summit in Paris in December.
Kerry and Obama’s new moral invocations clash, however, with their administration’s contradictory approach to the Paris summit. On March 31, the Obama administration announced its commitment for the summit: a 26 to 28 percent reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. The commitment basically reiterated what Obama promised in the historic climate agreement he reached with Chinese president Xi Jinping last November, when China pledged to cap its emissions by 2030 and to peak coal consumption by 2020. (China appears to be fulfilling its coal pledge already, undercutting Republicans’ accusations that Obama’s agreement didn’t require China to actually do anything until 2030.)
Most Democrats and environmental groups applauded Obama’s Paris commitment, with only a few outliers pointing out that it remains far from ambitious enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius—the international goal that, scientists say, marks the threshold between dangerous and extremely dangerous warming. As Obama’s administration has done since his first days in power, it was moving the goalposts here: calculating its emissions cuts against a baseline year of 2005. When the international standard year of 1990 is substituted, the administration’s promised cuts shrink to 14 to 16 percent—roughly a third as much as scientists estimate is needed to honor the 2 degrees target. “The starting gun in the race against global warming went off a long time ago, but the United States is still jogging,” said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The timing of the Paris announcement brought a second, darkly humorous layer of contradiction. “On the same day President Obama pledges to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third, he opens the back door for one of the most irresponsible oil companies to drill in the Arctic,” fumed Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA. Leonard was referring to the Department of the Interior’s opening of 30 million acres in the Chukchi Sea to oil drilling. The decision required re-affirming leases originally granted under president George W. Bush that the Obama administration had endorsed in 2012. Shell Oil tried to begin drilling later that year, but its rig ran aground in rough seas, a failure activists seized upon to illustrate the perils of operating in an environment as inhospitable as the Arctic. Shell seems eager to try again, though. A mammoth yellow drilling rig, one football field long and almost as wide, is on its way to Seattle, where it will wait to head north, pending Interior’s possible approval of Shell’s updated drilling plans—a voyage activists vow to prevent. Update, April 8, 2015: Indeed, six Greenpeace activists boarded Shell’s “Polar Pioneer” rig as it lumbered across the Pacific Ocean on April 6, aiming to “encourage more people to take a strong stand against [Shell] and other oil companies who are seeking to destroy this planet for profit,” said activist Johno Smith of New Zealand.
Yet amid such doleful developments, the good news is equally bountiful. The spectacular global boom in wind and solar energy has accelerated to where these technologies qualify as a truly “disruptive” economic force, Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said on April 1. Renewable energy is growing exponentially, including in developing nations, confounding the countless experts who said it would never happen, Steiner told the Atlantic Council. Renewables accounted for 48 percent of the net power capacity added globally in 2014, and the underlying economics promise more of the same. The prices of solar and wind have been plummeting as producers climb learning curves and exploit economies of scale. “The more fossil fuels you use, the more the price will go up,” said Steiner, “but the more renewables you use, the cheaper they become.”
Which helps explain another bright spot in the carbon war: the apparent death spiral of the coal industry. The three biggest US coal companies—Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources—reported combined losses of $1.2 billion in 2014 as activist pressure and federal regulations caused US power plants increasingly to shun coal. Coal executives talk bravely of exports saving them, but investment analysts disagree. “If you look at the long-term, it’s not getting any better,” said Aneesh Prabhu of Standard & Poor’s as S&P downgraded coal company bonds to junk status. “It’s a secular decline.” Hammering an additional nail into the coffin, the leaders of Great Britain’s three main political parties have jointly committed to phase out coal, no matter who wins the elections on May 7.
Also in Britain, the Guardian Media Group has joined with the activist group 350.org to press large institutional investors—starting with The Guardian itself—to divest from fossil fuels. “Money meets mouth,” quipped Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s tweet announcing that the Trust that owns his newspaper will purge $1.2 billion worth of fossil fuel stocks from its portfolio. The Guardian has called on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, the two largest charitable organizations in the world, to follow suit. “When the roll of honor for action on climate change is someday called, the Guardian’s name will be high on the list,” said Bill McKibben, 350.org co-founder.
Of course Republicans keep trying to obstruct progress—US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has all but urged the nation’s 50 governors to break the law by ignoring the Obama EPA’s new power plant regulations—but here too underlying trends appear positive. A new poll commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 72 percent of likely 2016 voters support the US signing an international climate agreement, including 52 percent of Republicans and a whopping 86 percent of voters aged 18 to 34. John Cubelic, who describes himself as an entrepreneur who grew up white and middle class “in the conservative South [but now lives] in the liberal North,” outlined his twenty-something generation’s outlook in a Los Angeles Times opinion article on March 26. Declaring that his vote is “up for grabs,” Cubelic called the “march toward planetary collapse… the only issue.” Framing the issue in moral but not partisan terms, he wrote that any candidate who deceives about climate change constitutes a “direct threat,” and he added, “No politician who threatens me, my home and my family would ever receive my vote.”