Climate crisis won’t wait for world leaders

Environmentalist activists form a human chain on the side line of the United Nations Climate Change Conference near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Environmentalist activists form a human chain on the side line of the United Nations Climate Change Conference near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. AP

The Paris agreement could be a step toward stabilizing global climate disruption, but only if it’s followed by massive and concerted action. This will require greater public engagement to overcome the clout of entrenched corporate laggards.

Various business leaders now say they will help advance the clean energy revolution because global warming is already harming them. And rising sea levels, storm surges and extreme weather will add to the imperative for real action.

But among the serious shortcomings in the Paris accord is failure to match the science. Leading climatologists agree that overall warming since pre-industrial times cannot be allowed to exceed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – and we’re already two-thirds of the way there. The Paris conveners hope to keep warming to less than 3.6 degrees, far too high to avoid irreversible global catastrophe.

Also, the lack of enforcement mechanisms leaves too much power to the Washington and Raleigh-based protectors of fossil-fuel corporations. A more vocal U.S. public must help offset the clout of corporations hampering climate protection progress.

In North Carolina, we cannot allow the Duke Energys and the Koch brothers and their front groups to continue expanding dirty fuels – and stifling the growth of clean, affordable solar competition.

Reports from Paris implied that we have decades to begin acting. But climate change is not linear, and feedbacks that are well underway mean that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak and start downward very soon – probably within five years – to avert a tipping point toward irreversible warming and potentially abrupt changes.

One such feedback that’s speeding the melting of Greenland and Western Antarctica led prominent scientists this year to warn that sea level could rise 10 feet within 50 years unless we begin cutting overall carbon emissions immediately.

Coal burning must stop. Another emerging body of science argues that the quickest way to slow the warming is to cut emission of methane, the dominant component of natural gas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says methane has a global warming impact 100 times that of carbon dioxide over the first 10 years in the atmosphere.

Cornell scientists and others have documented that large amounts of methane are leaking from both conventional and fracking wells. They warn that, in order to slow global climate change in the critical short term, it is essential to immediately begin to greatly reduce methane emissions.

Deep financial straits for fracking

In addition to the climate-wrecking aspects of methane, the natural gas industry and captive federal agencies have grossly overestimated the underground reserves of gas. Even while continuing the vigorous hype that fracking can bring about energy security and climate protection, the fracking industry has been riding a financial bubble that’s now plunging them into deep financial straits.

As early as 2011, cost volatility led Jim Rogers, former CEO of Duke Energy, to call fracking gas the “crack cocaine” of the electric power industry.

Despite these climate- and economy-wrecking realities, Duke Energy is moving to greatly expand the burning and piping of fracked and conventional natural gas.

NC WARN and The Climate Times are openly pressing CEO Lynn Good to slow down, to weigh the evolving science and economics of natural gas, and to realize that she must share such critical decision-making with the people of North Carolina.

But we aren’t counting on the wisdom of state-protected monopoly executives.

A growing alliance is calling for Attorney General Roy Cooper to assert his constitutional authority to police corporations – and to require that Duke Energy help slow global warming instead of making it worse. Cooper has stood up to Duke Energy in the past, and his leadership now could be a national game-changer. He has the policing authority to bring about the altering of Duke Energy’s corporate charter.

Charlotte-based Duke is the largest utility polluter in the U.S., so requiring it to phase out coal without expanding natural gas can create a positive tipping point toward slowing climate disruption despite the lateness of the hour.

Solar power is now cheaper than coal, nuclear and gas when all costs are counted, and energy storage and efficiency technologies are fast improving. It won’t happen overnight, but decarbonizing North Carolina can be done.

To wait for corporate-controlled governments or big business to solve the climate crisis could be a tragic miscalculation. We need more people to realize our society must begin to balance the immense time and energy we pour into toys and entertainment with the need for active civic engagement.

And to realize that facing an intense challenge by taking action is empowering.

Jim Warren is executive director of NC WARN.