Bill McKibben: 100% Renewables Needed 'As Fast as Humanly Possible'
By Jake Johnson
"Given the state of the planet," wrote 350.org founder Bill McKibben in his new feature piece for In These Times, it would have been ideal for the world to have fully transitioned its energy systems away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable sources "25 years ago."
The transition to 100 percent renewable energy is a goal that has gained significant appeal over the past decade—and particularly over the past several months, as President Donald Trump has moved rapidly at the behest of Big Oil to dismantle even the limited environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration. Trump also withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement, a move McKibben denounced as "stupid and reckless."
"Environmental groups from the Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and Water Watch are backing the 100 percent target," McKibben wrote, as are many lawmakers, U.S. states and countries throughout the world.
Given the climate stance of both the dominant party in Congress and the current occupant of the Oval Office, McKibben noted that we shouldn't be looking toward either for leadership.
#TrumpWatch: Bill McKibben, & How to Save the Planet From Trump https://t.co/eHO5oWzqzR @UCSUSA @CeresNews— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1480905904.0
The newest addition to the push for renewables is Maryland, which is set to announce on Thursday an "urgent" and "historic" bill that, if passed, would transition the state's energy system to 100 percent renewables by 2035.
McKibben also pointed to individual senators like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who in April introduced legislation that would transition the U.S. to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050. The bill will not pass the current Congress, "but as a standard to shape the Democratic Party agenda in 2018 and 2020, it's critically important," McKibben argued.
"What Medicare for All is to the healthcare debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle against inequality, 100 percent renewable is to the struggle for the planet's future," McKibben wrote. "It's how progressives will think about energy going forward."
Previously a fringe idea, the call for 100 percent renewables is "gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves," McKibben added. This is in large part because technology is such that a move toward 100 percent renewable energy "would make economic sense ... even if fossil fuels weren't wrecking the Earth."
"That's why the appeal of 100% Renewable goes beyond the left," McKibben wrote. "If you pay a power bill, it's the common-sense path forward."
Writing for Vox last week, David Roberts noted that "wind and solar power are saving Americans an astounding amount of money" already.
"[W]ind and solar produce, to use the economic term of art, 'positive externalities'—benefits to society that are not captured in their market price," Roberts wrote. "Specifically, wind and solar power reduce pollution, which reduces sickness, missed work days, and early deaths."
For these reasons, and for the familiar environmental ones, 100 percent renewables is no longer merely an "aspirational goal," McKibben argued. It is "the obvious solution."
"No more half-measures ... Many scientists tell us that within a decade, at current rates, we'll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the Earth past the Paris climate targets," McKibben concluded. "Renewables—even the most rapid transition—won't stop climate change, but getting off fossil fuel now might (there are no longer any guarantees) keep us from the level of damage that would shake civilization."
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
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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