I can’t remember a time before I worried about climate change. I ran for office at age 22 – on a platform largely focused on clean energy – because of that Millennial passion and righteous impatience. But after serving one term as the youngest Massachusetts state legislator, I realised we needed bigger thinking. I set out to wrap my mind around the comprehensive picture of solving climate change, answering the question of what could truly add up. How can the US tackle climate change?
I had studied engineering in college, alongside public policy, so I have an odd but useful perspective to analyse what has to happen to tackle climate change and what has a chance of making it happen. This synthesis was published as The 100% Solution in March of 2020, but I’ve continuously tried to figure out how to do impactful outreach to build better understanding and consensus around climate change solutions.
Climate change is often framed as a political problem, the solution to which is simply building the “political will” for bold action. But I realised that perspective ignores several crucial realities:
First, that climate change impacts will worsen until we solve the problem 100% (in fact until we get into net-negative emissions) so we need to move as fast as possible even if that means not waiting for larger societal change;
Second, that two-thirds of current emissions come from rapidly-growing middle-income countries (China, India, Indonesia, etc) where no amount of political will can overcome the basic economic fact that their population can’t afford clean infrastructure at today’s prices;
Third, that more effective messaging is needed to reassure voters in the US that solving climate change does not in fact mean sacrifice.
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Physically, climate change doesn’t come from our lifestyles. Driving, heating our home, etc – these lifestyle activities are powered by equipment. The equipment we use is what determines greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, most of the equipment is based on fossil fuels. We could cut back on driving, heating, etc, and still be adding GHGs to the atmosphere because we rely on systems that use polluting equipment. And adding any net GHGs annually is incompatible with solving climate change, because warming is tied to levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, not one year’s rate of emissions. We won’t see an end to warming until 100% of net emissions are eliminated.
So think instead: we could enjoy these lifestyle activities in the same amounts as today, but switch to non-polluting equipment. Drive EVs instead of fossil fuel cars. Use solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal instead of coal and methane power plants. It’s not a political problem, but an engineering problem. This solves the third issue above, of messaging to the US public – to tackle climate change in the US means replacing polluting infrastructure with clean infrastructure, not changing our lifestyles. If people internalise that it’s not a sacrifice, they’ll be more supportive of climate action.
But you and I can’t individually affect what type of power plant a utility uses. And many of us in the US – not to mention most people in developing countries, where a majority of emissions come from – can’t afford EVs at their current costs.
The answer is collective action. While climate change is an engineering problem, it requires political action to solve.
Instead of feeling personally responsible for our “carbon footprint,” we need to think of our responsibility as doing whatever we personally can to influence governments and large companies to take action at scale.
Scientists say we need to cross into net-negative emissions around 2050. So very quickly, we have to make all the necessary clean equipment cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. From that point on, not only will middle-income developing countries be able to afford clean infrastructure, it will be the cheapest option and so decarbonisation will become inevitable.
The US federal government (and other large government or company entities in industrialised countries) can achieve that through investments that demonstrate the first full-scale units of emerging technologies, and by creating incentives or mandates or using public procurement to drive a fast early scale-up in manufacturing to bring down costs. We require a massive scale and rapid pace of hands-on industrial policy, comparable to the New Deal, the WWII manufacturing boom, and the Apollo Program.
Our responsibility is to impress upon our political and company leaders both the urgency for bold action and the massive economic benefits (not sacrifice!) that bold and immediate action would create. What better way to put people back to work post-pandemic than by investing massively in industries guaranteed to last well into the 21st century? Shifting the narrative is important, and that’s on us as climate activists to get better at. The Sunrise Movement has made a great start, tying climate action to New Deal-style job creation and equity. We need to get more specific, though, and paint a picture for wary voters of how their energy costs will go down in the long run, how their daily activities will be largely unchanged, and how we can use domestic action that lowers clean equipment costs to drive a global solution and export affordable clean energy to the world.
I think climate activists’ allies need to hear more of this messaging as well, because a lot of them are disengaged, feeling that “we’re doomed.” More specific, ambitious, and accurate messaging can give them hope. We’re not doomed, we simply need to focus our sense of responsibility on driving the collective action that can solve the problem 100%.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose, author of The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change, is a former Massachusetts state legislator and lifelong climate activist. See SolomonGR.com.