On the climate crisis, delay has become the new form of denial
Whether it’s the apocalyptic wildfires that once again ravaged California and the West this summer, a heat dome over the Pacific Northwest that made parts of Canada feel like Phoenix on the Fourth of July or the devastating floods in my state of Pennsylvania after Hurricane Ida dumped months’ worth of rainfall in a few hours, it is clear that dangerous climate change is upon us.
One can no longer credibly deny that climate change is real, human-caused, and a threat to our civilization. That means that the forces of inaction — the fossil fuel interests and the front groups, organizations and mouthpieces-for-hire they fund — have been forced to turn to other tactics in their effort to keep us dependent on fossil fuels.
These tactics include deflection (focusing attention entirely on individual behavioral change so as to steer the societal discourse away from a discussion of the needed policies and systematic changes), division (getting climate advocates fighting with each rather than speaking with a united voice), and the promotion of doomism (convincing some climate advocates that it’s too late to do anything anyway).
But the D-word du jour is delay. And we’ve become all too familiar with the lexicon employed in its service: “adaptation,” “resilience,” “geoengineering” and “carbon capture.” These words offer the soothing promise of action, but all fail to address the scale of the problem.
Empty rhetoric: Adaptation and resilience are important. We must cope with the detrimental effects of climate change that are already baked in — coastal inundation and worse droughts, floods and other dangerous weather events. But if we fail to substantially reduce carbon emissions and stem the warming of the planet, we will exceed our collective adaptive capacity as a civilization.
When fossil fuel-friendly Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tells Floridians that they must simply “adapt” to sea level rise (how? By growing fins and gills?), he’s trying to sound as if he’s got a meaningful solution when, in fact, he’s offering only empty rhetoric and a license for polluters to continue with business as usual. It’s a delay tactic.
What about geoengineering? Should we engage in an enormous, unprecedented and uncontrolled experiment to further intervene with our planetary environment by, for example, shooting sulfur particulates into the stratosphere to block out the sun in hopes of somehow offsetting the warming effect of increasing carbon pollution?
The law of unintended consequences almost certainly ensures that we will screw up the planet even more. The idea of geoengineering also grants license for continued carbon pollution. There’s a reason Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO and Donald Trump’s secretary of state, has dismissed the climate crisis as simply an “engineering problem.” If we can simply clean up our act down the road, why not continue to burn fossil fuels? This, too, is a delay tactic — one that buys time for polluters to continue to make billions in profits as we mortgage the future habitability of the planet.
Not enough: And what about “carbon capture” and the promise of “net zero” emissions by mid-century? Reaching zero emissions by 2050 will indeed be necessary to avert catastrophic planetary warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it is hardly sufficient. We must also cut emissions in half by 2030 to hold warming below the danger limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Merely committing to the former, but not the latter, is like making a New Year’s resolution to lose 15 pounds without any plan to alter your diet and exercise regimen in the months ahead.
Furthermore, understand that the “net” in “net zero” is doing quite a bit of work, for implicit in the word is the notion that we can continue to burn fossil fuels if we can find a way to remove them just as quickly. To quote Will Smith’s Genie in the movie “Aladdin,” there’s “a lot of gray area” in that word. It allows politicians to make vague promises of technological innovation, i.e., carbon capture, that would potentially remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere in the future. Yet there is no precedent for deploying such technology on such a massive scale.
It’s really easy to put carbon pollution into the atmosphere but really hard to take it back out and safely bury it for the long term. Nonetheless, the promise of carbon capture and net zero emissions decades from now allows politicians to kick the can so far down the road you can barely see it. That’s another masterful delay tactic.
Watered down under: Look no further than Australia, a country that deserves better than the feckless coalition government that currently reigns. The parties there have reluctantly and conditionally agreed only to the weak commitment of net zero emissions by mid-century. And their commitment to reduce carbon emission by a paltry 26% to 28% by 2030 is half what other industrialized nations such as the U.S., Britain and the European Union have committed to.
A newly released report based on leaked documents shows that the Australian government sought to water down an upcoming U.N. climate recommendation to phase out coal- and gas-fired power stations. Saudi Arabia and Russia — two countries that have worked to sabotage international climate action in the past — have made a mockery of the current climate negotiations by agreeing only to a laughably delinquent 2060 date for reaching net zero emissions.
Even countries that have made bold commitments are still suffering from an “implementation gap” that must be closed, a disconnect between what they’ve promised and what they’re currently delivering. The Biden administration is currently hampered by Sen. Joe Manchin, a coal-state Democrat who stands in the way of the administration’s clean energy agenda. The E.U. and Britain, meanwhile, are flirting with new oil and gas pipelines even as the International Energy Agency has said there can be no new fossil fuel development if we are to avert catastrophic warming.
The U.N. climate summit in Glasgow can still lay out a path forward, if a narrow one, to a livable clean energy future. But we cannot afford to fall victim to delay tactics. We must hold our policymakers accountable for representing the public interest rather than polluting interests. This is the last best opportunity for averting climate disaster.
— Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is the author, most recently, of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.”