As we enter 2019, we find ourselves speeding toward two different climate tipping points.
The first is alarming. As reported in October by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if humanity does not halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, we will trigger feedback loops that cause warming to continue no matter what humans do. To prevent this catastrophe, scientists say emissions must peak and start downward by 2020.
Yet if last year’s growth in climate awareness and activism continues, it could lead to a tipping point at which climate progress – rather than climate disaster – becomes inevitable.
The fate of civilization hangs upon which tipping point we reach first.
The past year brought many “natural” disasters that scientists agree were significantly worsened by climate change: hurricanes and flooding in the US and elsewhere; wildfires in California, Scandinavia and Australia; and the hottest days ever recorded in Japan, Pakistan and Africa.
When such disasters strike, low-income communities and people of color suffer most, having fewer resources to rebuild and getting less attention from those who rush to help. They self-organize in amazing ways, as did local grassroots organizations in eastern North Carolina after Hurricane Florence. But these people still suffer disproportionately, both from severe weather and from the health effects of fossil fuel facilities routinely sited in communities with the least power to oppose them.
Pretty grim. But 2018 also saw signs of hope.
More than 400 mayors, including 13 in North Carolina, have committed to accelerated climate action; 1,300 state and local politicians have pledged to refuse money from the fossil fuel industry; and 90 U.S. cities, ten counties and two states have adopted 100% clean energy goals. Six cities already have hit those targets. In October, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper established the NC Climate Change Interagency Council.
Even on the Federal level, there is reason to hope. Incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and others are calling for a Green New Deal to invest massively in clean energy and other climate solutions, creating jobs and boosting the economy. One poll found more than 80 percent of voters support the Green New Deal. And the market is ready, with prices for renewables and energy storage plummeting.
The fossil fuel divestment campaign, which began in 2012 with tiny Unity College in Maine, just marked its 1,000th divestment, taking $8 trillion dollars out of carbon-intensive companies.
A worldwide movement is calling for a ban on all new fossil fuel projects.
Twenty-one plaintiffs aged 11 to 22 are suing the U.S. government, asserting it has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources. Youth-led legal proceedings are also underway in all 50 states and 13 other countries.
Some utilities have made significant commitments to renewable energy, with several already generating over 30% of their power from renewables, and one planning to reach 100% this year. (Unfortunately, Duke Energy gets only 3 percent of its power from renewables in the Carolinas, and plans only 8 percent by 2032.)
All of these advances can be attributed to public action. The economics and technologies are in place for humanity to avert climate catastrophe. All that is missing is the political will. Let’s make this the year that a critical mass of people demands real climate action and truth-telling from our government, utilities and media. Write letters to your elected officials and media outlets. Join a climate justice organization. March in the streets.
In the words of Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swede who addressed UN leaders at the December climate conference in Poland, “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”
Karen Bearden is the 350 Triangle Coordinator, an affiliate chapter of 350.org. Kim Porter is co-chair of the Ecological Devastation Committee for the NC Poor People’s Campaign and a community organizer with NC WARN.