The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change



The Climate Action Network (CAN) has issued a position paper calling for immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a complete end to fossil fuel use—to be replaced by “sustainable energy available to all” –by 2050.

CAN points out that only by STOPPING fossil fuel use entirely do we have a realistic chance of keeping the temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees—that’s the limit beyond which catastrophic effects, including runaway feedback loops, become ever more likely. The 2050 transition is possible with current technology and “politically feasible if we so choose.” Can refers to the recent UN report on climate change as further proof of the seriousness of our situation and points out that the existing energy infrastructure is inefficient and expensive, anyway. Switching over could bring a lot of benefits in addition to averting the end of the world.

In all of this, CAN is correct. Plans to merely reduce fossil fuel use will not be enough because burning these fuels, by definition, involves adding greenhouse gasses to atmospheric circulation and that means further warming.

Basically, if you have a bucket that is almost full of water and you do not want it to spill over, you have to stop adding water to the bucket. Adding water slowly is not going to prevent it from spilling.

Of course, any reduction is good—it buys us time and exercises political muscle in the right direction. We should not waste energy by protesting half measures, rather, we should thank the people who take those partial steps and keep fighting for more.

But CAN’s phrase, “politically feasible if we choose” is the rub. The reality is that we don’t need another report, another plan, another timetable. CAN is only saying what has been more or less clear for thirty years, now. Had the world taken definitive, assertive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions then, instead of allowing emissions to increase dramatically, we could have gradually shifted over to an all-renewable energy infrastructure and the transition could have been nearly complete by now. Greenhouse gas emissions would certainly be a lot lower and we would not now be hearing about exploding permafrost in Siberia. Think of all the oil spills, coal ash spills, coal mine disasters and air quality alerts we might have been spared as well.

That ship of possibility sailed without us, not because world leaders didn’t have a plan or a timetable and not because they lacked a specific level of warming to avoid or a specific carbon budget to follow but because, frankly, the fossil fuel industry is politically powerful and doesn’t want to lose its business. Meaningful climate negotiations have so far failed because the governments of certain countries—notably the United States—made sure they would fail. Individuals, such as Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and now President Obama, have worked very hard to provide meaningful government leadership, but have consistently been blocked by Congress and undone by their successors. The reality is that public figures fear they will not be re-elected if they support action on greenhouse gases, and they may be right. Other industrialized countries are, to varying degrees, in the same situation.

CAN is right to advance their uncompromising outline for action, but there is no reason to believe a goal alone will change anything. The political climate must change first.

Climates don’t change unless something changes them. We don’t need to fight atmospheric climate change; we need to stop changing the atmosphere. We do need to fight to change the political climate, and the upcoming march in New York is a great way to do that. We need legally binding greenhouse emissions reductions, with real consequences for violators, both at home and abroad, in every industrialized country on Earth. And we need to show our elected officials that if they do this for us we will reward them at the polls. If they don’t, we won’t.

Even in the United States, where a large percentage of the population does not believe global warming is real, enough people do that if all of us voted for public officials who were serious about climate change (including at the local level)–and refused to vote for those who were not—it would be very hard for anyone to get elected without us.

We can do this.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

5 thoughts on “Can-Do

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