600+ Environmental Groups Urge Congress to Phase Out Fossil Fuels
Omar Chatriwala / Moment / Getty Images
On Thursday more than 600 environmental groups called on the U.S. House of Representatives to pursue ambitious climate legislation that matches the scale and urgency of the climate crisis.
The groups' letter calls for a thoughtful phaseout of fossil fuel production, a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, complete decarbonization of the transportation system, use of the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, a just transition to a new green economy and the adherence to treaties upholding Indigenous rights when pursuing these actions.
"To effectively tackle climate change, policymakers need to commit to transforming the global economy to serve the interests of people and planet, and not the profits of the one percent," said Angela Adrar, executive director of Climate Justice Alliance. "Such a new, green economy needs to be guided by the leadership and knowledge of those most burdened by pollution, poverty and other forms of institutional violence waged by the corporations causing this global ecological crisis."
"As the world teeters on the brink of climate catastrophe, we're calling on Congress to take large-scale action," said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Americans want a livable future for their children, and that requires keeping fossil fuels in the ground while greening the economy on a wartime footing."
"The disproportionate impacts of climate change and dirty energy development in the traditional territories and lands of American Indian and Alaska Natives must be taken into account to ensure the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples are fully recognized in the just transition to a new green economy," said Tom BK Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "Indigenous and other frontline communities are ready to take the lead with real solutions to move away from a fossil fuel economy."
Months before the 116th Congress opened, a series of scientific reports warned of the dire consequences of inaction on climate change.
In October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that policymakers must take "unprecedented action" to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In November the Fourth National Climate Assessment reported that the health and economic costs of climate change are already being felt in the U.S., and that those harms will intensify without "immediate and substantial" cuts to greenhouse gas pollution.
"At precisely the time that we need our energy policy to swiftly move us into a managed decline of fossil fuel production, the Trump administration is working with the fossil fuel industry to tear down policies and dangerously expand our fossil fuel extraction," said David Turnbull, strategic communications director at Oil Change USA. "We need real climate leaders willing to stand up to this onslaught and work to phase out fossil fuel production, rather than digging the hole deeper."
"We cannot stop climate change and rising inequality with the half-solutions of the past," said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels manager at Friends of the Earth. "We need action on climate that ends our dependence on dirty energy, puts power in the hands of communities and provides good jobs. If candidates and elected officials say they are committed to climate solutions, this is the litmus test."
Thursday's letter also notes that the groups will oppose legislation that rolls back existing climate policies, shields the fossil fuel industry from liability or promotes market-based approaches like pollution trading and offsets.
"The excitement around the Green New Deal should energize Congress to take bold, transformative action on climate change," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "This means a halt to all new fossil fuel development now, and it means a rejection of dangerous false solutions like market-based emissions trading programs."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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