Hurricane Sandy forced us to talk about climate change during the election. But we can’t limit the discussion to every time there is an Irene, a Sandy, or a Katrina. It is time to end climate silence and commit to solutions.
Here are the facts. Climate change is occurring because of the increasing carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gasses” in the atmosphere that started with the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels. The gasses, released by burning fossil fuels, create a gas blanket that lets sunlight in but does not let heat out. The number 350 is a target number, and the name of the now worldwide climate change activist group (350.org—started, by the way, by Vermont’s own Bill Mckibben and students from Middlebury College). 350 refers to the parts per million of CO2 that the planet can tolerate. We are at almost 400. There are other things that happen with increased carbon, most notably acidification of the oceans, which has sweeping ramifications including death of coral reefs and of ocean fish.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, and is continuing to rise. It is coming from our tailpipes, our heating fuel (coal, oil, natural gas), our coal fired power plants. Every day, more carbon dioxide fills the atmosphere, and meanwhile every day the weather becomes a little crazier as the planet tries on its new temperature parameters.
Why are the media and our political representatives not mobilizing on climate change? It boils down to profits, and to money in politics. It’s a page right out of the tobacco industry playbook. The fossil fuel industry’s business model assumes a burning of ALL the stored carbon left on the planet. Just what’s already on the books as reserves is a more than 20 TRILLION DOLLAR CARBON BUBBLE.
With a financial commitment like this there is a web of investment that needs to be dismantled if we are going to deflate the power of the industry to fuel climate change and climate change denial. McKibben and the 350.org team have launched a “do the math” campaign urging everyone to divest from any investment in coal and oil, targeting especially colleges and universities to divest following the anti-apartheid model. (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719)
There is no single thing we can do to solve the climate crisis; there are many things we must do. Here in Vermont there is focus on the tarsands pipelines, one of which threatens to pump tar sands through our own state. We are also looking at transportation innovation, since cars are a huge and presently hard to avoid source of carbon emissions. Making homes more energy efficient is a must, to help us break free from the fossil fuel trap.
Putting a price on carbon is critical, although a dollar amount will always fall short of the true price of climate change. Our future, after all, is priceless. Taxes are a guide to behavior, and a source of funding. If things that contribute to climate change are taxed, it will generate the funds we will need to pay to combat climate destabilization, prepare our communities to protect against the weather we have already unleashed, and fight for freedom from fossil fuels; also known as “mitigation and adaptation.” We need infrastructure that can withstand flooding and drought; we need funds that can help people rebuild better, sturdier and greener homes and businesses. But most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, we need to switch to systems—transportation, heating, cooling, electricity, community design and planning—that do not rely on fossil fuels, and use less energy and greener energy sources.
A carbon tax will do another, very important thing. It will put a value on carbon reduction. By doing so, it will create the financial incentives that are needed for entrepreneurs to come up with ways to actively reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and other gasses. There is one thing we cannot do. We cannot wait for our elected officials to take a stand. Our elected officials work for us, and so we need to tell them what we expect. We expect an end to the silence and a commitment to real solutions.
Future submissions will consider in more depth what these solutions could look like.
Rebecca Jones MD is a Brattleboro physician and volunteer for 350VT and Doctors for America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org