We Have to Stop Pretending That Solving Climate Change is Complicated

Pssst…you. Yeah, you! I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but we actually do know what to do about climate change.

It isn’t even that hard–certainly not compared to the alternative. And it’ll make the world better for all of us.

Other countries have already begun: announcing upcoming bans on internal combustion engines, instituting congestion pricing, building affordable housing, and investing in renewable energies like there…. is a tomorrow.

By pretending bold and immediate solutions don’t exist, we’ve made even baby steps impossible. It’s time for that to stop: now.

Some inconvenient truths

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about urgency—how to respond to the overwhelming urgency inherent in the need to avoid the climate feedback loops that might make human survival impossible. How to talk about it, how to relate to it day to day, and how it changes the meaning of our every interaction with one another and the world.

How urgent is it, really? There are many answers, none of which are “not very”. You can read this, for a short version that now gives us less than two years left to keep catastrophic climate change from being “permanent,” or this, for a more gruesome version. There are many others—and occasionally there’s a small ray of hope; this one suggests that phytoplankton may be quicker to adapt than we thought, which is a very big deal (they make roughly half the oxygen we breathe), but still only gives some larger marine life maybe “a few more decades.” That tells you something about what “hope” looks like these days.

Many people respond to this—naturally, I think—with overwhelm and hopelessness, especially because there’s no certainty that we haven’t already tipped the feedback loops that would make warming all but irreversible. But given that the people most in danger are people who have done the least to cause climate change, given that “wealthy” countries are the ones who continue to do quite a lot to cause it, and given that America is the only one of them that explicitly rejects attempts to rein it in….it may be a natural response, but it cannot be called a moral one.

It’s not an imaginative one, either. And most importantly, it’s not an honest one. We know how to stop making climate change worse: stop using fossil fuels; we even know how to start making it better (change agriculture and forestry practices). Again, it’s simply not that hard; solar panel prices have plummeted so fast that in many places, renewable energy is cheaper than coal, and thanks to Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, we literally have a map of how to get to 80% renewables by 2030 in all 50 states.

The transition will involve some inconvenience—that part is true. But what’s also true is that we know how to do it, it’s well within our powers, and it doesn’t have to make our lives worse. In fact, we know that it will make our lives better in daily, palpable ways.

Up, not out

If you read articles on urban changes that de-prioritize cars (like parking restrictions or using “congestion pricing” to invest in public transit), a theme emerges: everybody resisted it; it happened; everybody loved it.

That’s because—beautifully and crucially—the changes that will make the biggest difference in our immediate emissions will also make our cities more equitable, healthier, livelier, and (physically) greener.

People living in dense urban areas have carbon footprints that are half of the average, so making sure our urban areas are affordable and well-served by (ideally electrified) transit could have the biggest positive impact in the next few years—and the next few years are what matter most.

In growing cities like Seattle, this means building up so that we don’t push everyone out (as we are now) to places where they have to drive, and pave over the last remaining wild lands. But “up” doesn’t have to mean a concrete jungle of skyscrapers; encouraging citywide low- and medium-rise multi-family dwellings would make us look more like Boston’s Back Bay, or Paris, than like Manhattan. Vienna, which is very like Seattle, has dense and affordable multifamily construction that leaves over half of the city area for parks (in Seattle, we’re at 12%); it’s consistently rated one of the world’s three most livable cities.

Density also makes genuinely useful public transit much more viable, and as people get out of their cars, we have far more space for dedicated transit lanes, bike lanes, sidewalk life, and trees. It’s a feedback loop, and it is 100% possible to start making it work for us instead of against us.

There are equity issues in how we do all this—we can’t push low-income people out to suburbs with no good transit and expect them to somehow not drive—but there are also many that begin to resolve when we rein in fossil fuels. Stockholm recently discovered that even though it already had had air quality rules far stricter than ours, its congestion pricing has resulted in 45% fewer asthma attacks in children.

Some people will grumble, no doubt, if the cute little house next to them is replaced by a three-story apartment building—but cities have always been dynamic, and if the grumblers truly want to have suburban-style housing, they can move to the suburbs: there are plenty of people who want to take their place, and live in a vibrant, walkable city.

Other cities have, er, paved the way. When Buenos Aires made major changes to its most traffic-clogged street, resistance came from all sides. But the end results of the ambitious project—which prioritized pedestrians and public transit riders—are widely popular. “The busiest part of the city,” says one piece, “is thus becoming a pleasant place to go for a walk. Early in the morning, it’s possible to hear birds singing and the patter of footsteps on pavement.”

Unlike devastating hurricanes or other weird and destructive weather, we’ve gotten so used to the non-climate costs of fossil fuels that we don’t even see them; we don’t see how our urban planning prioritizes car storage and private convenience over pedestrians and bicycles and housing; we don’t see the added heart disease and asthma and the cortisol spikes from the noise and pollution (especially if we’re white and/or well off). But when these things change, we thrive.

Copenhagen knows what’s up.

A WWII-style mobilization for affordable, zero-carbon housing and transit won’t be enough by itself, of course—we also need to follow the lead of other countries and define a middle-term ban on internal combustion engines and a shift to 100% renewables…both of which will involve some expense and inconvenience, while making life better in measurable ways almost immediately (even without the part where we might get a stable planet back).

Here again, we have all been so conditioned to believe it’s impossible, but the fact is that in other parts of the world, it’s already being done. While Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke dismantle environmental regulations and divvy up our public lands for drilling, other countries forge ahead, putting people to work in the service of a new green economy. Iceland, for example, expects to be carbon-free by 2040. France, Norway, Germany, and others have announced upcoming bans on gas engines; even India has a goal of having all-electric vehicles by 2030.

So we Americans need to be visionary about the changes—now. Not next year. Now. Only by targeted, sensible and interlocked decisions (new housing triggering new transit funded by congestion pricing and parking permits, for example) that put the costs where we need them (on fossil fuels, private vehicles, and luxury consumption) and not on what we need (housing and transit) can we achieve the deep emissions reductions we need with some measure of unity.

“Good luck with that,” people say cynically, when talking about getting people out of their cars—but European cities like Copenhagen, on track to be carbon-neutral by 2025, aren’t filled with people twice as good as those in Seattle; it’s simply that the city has made it easy to make good decisions.

Who needs a president, anyway?

Our federal political system is a wreck, with manufactured crises day after day that are explicitly intended to distract us from core truths like the urgency of climate change. And many states, like Washington State, have such divided legislatures that meaningful climate legislation is essentially impossible, so even the best of our legislators don’t propose it.

Not as impossible as life with 4°C of warming, but it sometimes feels that way.

Pssst…you. Yeah, you. This is where you come in. How about the blue cities where we can get these things done, if we try hard? Don’t you think that if cities across the country did this, it would be crystal clear which way the wind blows, and other areas would follow? Who needs the damn president, given that 80% of the US population lives in cities, and cities are almost uniformly Democratic?

If it’s the job of good elected officials to do all they can within the bounds of “political realities,” then it’s our job to change those political realities.

Actually, the first part of that sentence lets them off the hook too much—when life hangs in the balance, they have to change them too. On a panel with Sally Jewell last month, I wondered what kind of political space might have opened up if she had simply refused to sign Shell’s Arctic permits in 2015, given the urgent necessity of shutting down Arctic drilling. She would have been fired, of course, and replaced with someone who would sign them. But think how useful it might have been, if President Obama’s Interior Secretary had said “not on my watch, we don’t,” and he had had to respond to that striking stance.

Still, politicians do need help—a lot of help—changing political realities, and they’re not generally bold thinkers. So we have to help them, by demanding the most outrageous things we can think of—100% renewables within 10 years!—which also happen to be the actual things that make sense: the only actual things that make sense, given the risks.

Necessary boldness

In the last year, New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland have all filed lawsuits against the “carbon majors”, for the money to pay for the major infrastructure changes (like sea walls) necessitated by climate change. Mary Wood—the law professor who developed the theory under which several groups of kids are suing the U.S. government and several states for, essentially, their right to a future—loves these suits, for their clarity of narrative (“You lied to us for decades about climate change? You pay for the changes we have to make as a direct result.”), and wants to take them one step further…so they not only help us survive the problem, but actually fix it. When offshore rigs spill, they have to clean it up. These fossil fuel companies have spilled poisons into the atmosphere for decades: why should they be any different?

Again: we do know how to clean it up—forests and soil absorb quite a lot of carbon, under the right circumstances. So the suits should add “atmospheric recovery” provisions, putting money into a fund for projects that bring the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere back down to 350 ppm (it’s now at almost 410)—in natural, known ways—at which point there’s a fighting chance the climate will be stable. None of this is rocket science; it’s only a question of resources and will.

This is what the necessary boldness looks like: start building homes for people in places where they won’t need to drive; make sure their buses are electric; box your elected officials into a world where they have to make the right, bold choices about shutting down dirty power plants and committing to clean energy; and sue the fuck out of the insanely rich companies that made money destroying our world, while knowing all the while what they were doing.

Anything else is simply inadequate: all of these things have to happen at once, and immediately. But the beauty is, they can. Nothing about them is outside our grasp.

Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires used to have 20 lanes of car traffic. Now four of them are for buses! (Fabrico Di Dio/ ITDP)

Let’s get real

The world has had a glimpse in recent days of what the necessary courage looks like: the willingness to be vulnerable, the unwillingness to be anything but completely real about what the price of failure is. That has to be our model.

For far too long, incrementalism and “political reality” have constrained what we thought was possible; if we keep letting them, all hope is lost. Because the biggest problem we have right now isn’t carbon—we know what to do about carbon. Our biggest problem is our failure to believe we can build the beautiful world that’s genuinely in reach. “Political reality” tells us we’re incapable of courage and imagination, so we might as well give up.

I believe I am accurately reflecting the spirit of the Parkland kids when I say: Fuck that.

We have to be absolute. We have to be clear. We have to show up every single day for the things that will actually make a difference in the next few years.

If we don’t, we consign millions—potentially all of us—to tragedy.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t sometimes accept very partial solutions: we’ll have to, because if we wait for the plan that does everything, we’ll probably still have nothing in five years, and we’ll have lost our chance. But it does mean that we can’t settle for those partial solutions, not even for a moment, and we can’t kid ourselves about how meaningful they are: we have to catalyze them, immediately, with solutions that will deeply reduce emissions, and inspire other places to do the same. We have to be courageous and imaginative, while never underestimating the task before us.

The astonishingly beautiful fact is, showing up in this way might mean those millions of lives at risk can unfold on their own. There’s a fighting chance they’ll have a fighting chance, simply because we acted when it became clear that we had to. We’ll still face climate-related tragedies–many of them—but we’ll have won a real future back, not to mention our souls.

So… what are you doing for the next few years?

Written by Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston is a Seattle poet, essayist and activist, published also in Slate, Crosscut, The Oregonian and elsewhere. She was also a #ValveTurner during the #ShutItDown action in October 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @enjohnston.