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Friday, August 24, 2007

Putting Aside Percentages - the Right Target in the Fight Against Global Warming is Carbon Neutrality!

A new rallying cry for the climate solutions movement: "A carbon neutral future for ourselves and our children!"

By Jesse Jenkins...

When it comes to fighting global warming, there tends to be a lot of different percentages and years thrown around: California is planning to reduce global warming pollution 25% by 2020; Oregon's legislature adopted 10% below 1990 levels as the state's 2020 objective; bills floating around Congress push targets ranging from a mere return to 1990 pollution levels by 2020 to a cut of 80% by 2050.

Lost amidst all of these percentages and years, those of us committed to building a movement for solutions to the climate crisis have struggled to find a rallying cry.

In an effort to 'mainstream' the currently-most-aggressive legislation in Congress, the nationwide Step it UP day of action rallied behind a call for Congress to 'Step it UP!' and cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Step it UP was arguably quite successful in this goal: co-sponsorship and support for the Boxer-Sanders and Waxman climate change bills, which call for an 80% reduction, has been building and all of the major Democratic 2008 presidential candidates have now adopted the 80% by 2050 target as part of their platform (with some upping the ante with a call for a 90% reduction).

Step it UP 2, scheduled for November 3rd, plans to reiterate the 80% by 2050 target while adding a few new planks to the call for action.

But amidst all this talk of percentages, is the '80% by 2050' target that has become the de facto rallying cry for our movement the 'right' target? Will it be enough to get the job done and solve the climate crisis? Will it be an adequate rallying cry to inspire a popular movement?

Now that the 80% by 2050 call has become mainstream, it's time for a serious discussion about whether or not its' time for a new, more inspiring, more aggressive rallying cry.

Carlos Rymer recently posted an excellent discussion on what the 'right' target is, scientifically speaking.

There's a strong argument to be made that even an 80% reduction by 2050 will be too little, too late, to give us better-than-even odds of avoiding catastrophic consequences of climate change. I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to bet the future of the world, to bet my future and my children's future on coin flip odds!

Carlos concludes that a 95% reduction by 2030 is probably necessary in the developed world, in order to do our part to reduce per-capita emissions to an appropriate level.

I think Carlos is right on in calling for a more aggressive target, and as he concludes at the end of his post, a call for 95% reductions is, practically speaking, the same as a call for 100% reductions, or complete carbon neutrality.

David Roberts over at GristMill agrees, and proposes a replacement rallying cry:

"Children born today should live to see a U.S. that produces no climate pollution."

Scientifically speaking, a call for complete carbon neutrality - no more human caused global warming pollution than human efforts to absorb and sequester global warming pollution can remove from the atmosphere - is a much more sound target than an 80% reduction by 2050. We ultimately need to model our energy and industrial systems on natural systems: what we put in the atmosphere must not exceed what we can safely remove from the atmosphere - through reforestation efforts, for example.

A call for complete carbon neutrality is also a more inspiring and aggressive rallying point than the 'wonky' call for 80% reduction in global warming pollution by 2050.

Jefferson Smith of the Oregon Bus Project, the MC for the April 14th Step it UP! rally in downtown Portland, Oregon, got plenty of laughs out of the mouthful that slogan presents:

"What do we want?" he shouted, to which the crowd, at his jocular coaching, responded: "An 80% reduction in global warming pollution!"

"When do we want it?" "By the year 2050 or preferably sooner!"

This was followed by plenty of laughs at the inadequacy of such a lengthy and wonky 'rallying cry.'

But self-effacing jokes aside, this dilemma isn't something we should laugh off lightly.

Building the strength and momentum of a powerful climate solutions movement will require an inspiring and aggressive rallying cry, something people can latch on to, something with emotional (not merely intellectual) appeal, something that will help redefine what is politically possible. Unfortunately, I don't think the '80% by 2050' call for action fits those criteria (at least not any longer).

So let's put aside the percentages and the target years. Let's put aside the wonky mathematics. We can leave the targets and the years to the policy wonks who will attempt to translate our powerful call for a climate neutral future into concrete policy proposals.

Instead, let's pick up a rallying cry that appeals to the heart, a rallying cry that inspires, that motivates and that shifts the discussion of what is politically possible!

As David Roberts says, "I want my kids to live in a country that does not pollute the atmosphere with [greenhouse gases]. You don't need to know any math to understand that."

[Photo Credit - Step it UP!/John Quigley/Spectral Q]


Carlos Rymer said...

Whohooo!!! Rock on! I totally agree that we need to call for a climate neutral U.S. ASAP. Once we do all the right things, like shifting the massive subsidies to renewables, putting a heavy tax on carbon dioxide, cutting the costs of renewables and other necessary technologies within 5 years, and making a climate neutral call mainstream, we will become climate neutral, hopefully in less time than we currently think we can. If we go in imposing an annual cap, sectors will try to achieve annual targets, and sometimes fail. But if we start a revolution that calls for an aggressive, quick transition to a clean energy and energy efficient economy, we will make this transition fast!

Carbon/climate neutrality shows the urgency of the problem, and urgency is what we need to make this transition quickly, hopefully within 20 years (of course, let's keep the dates out).

I think Step It Up needs to change 1 Sky's call. We suggested it earlier, and we should keep pushing for it. They need to make a major announcement that says that climate neutrality is what we want. We want to finish our contribution to global warming once and for all, and ASAP.

Great post! Everybody: please pitch in on this excellent call for a climate neutral U.S. If someone is going to be this aggressive, it's going to have to be us, youth, who have everything to lose from failure to avoid climate catastrophe. Forget what adults/policymakers think is feasible. We know we can make this nation climate neutral quickly because we're doing it on our campuses, in our communities, and in our states. We know that the U.S. has done similar things in the past. We know that this is the only way we can provide ourselves of a safe future. This should be the rallying call at Powershift 2007!

Michael said...

Interesting post. It raised a question in my mind. Humans are unique among all species in being able to even conceptualize global warming, to decide it is a problem, and to act on it.

Humans are not unique in their ability to contribute to the problem. Cow methane can contribute, as can plants sucking in CO2, and many other things. Of course, humans are extremely successful colonizers of the planet, and can have a uniquely large effect on warming.

The question is this: What makes carbon neutrality the right goal? I understand the basic principle to be something like "don't mess with stuff around you." That sounds like a pretty good idea. But consider two ways of phrasing this goal more precisely:

1) Ensure human behavior is carbon neutral (and neutral for all other pollutants)
2) Ensure that planetary warming occurs at the exact same rate as it would have if all humans did not exist.

Note these two goals are not the same. The second goal says roughly that humans should "do whatever the non-human rest of the world does" with respect to global warming. This might mean positive, negative, or neutral emissions.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely ... at least as starting point.

We should be heading toward Carbon Negative, seeking to restore the health of the global ecology. This is Global Ecological Restoration ... just as we might seek to restore wetlands, forests, and local ecology.

Neutral in 2050 stills fixes in all the damage to then (with the lag time for further damage).