The climate crisis is here, and heartbreak is all around us. The early promise of dramatic action from President Biden is sinking in the old mud bog of fossil-fuel politics. Meanwhile, despite 40 years of warnings from scientists and the decline in the cost of clean energy, carbon pollution is still increasing and the world is heating up as fast as ever. The final sentence of last February’s U.N.’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of that warming is stark and unequivocal: “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” Or as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres put it after an IPCC report on the mitigation of climate change was released this month: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
The heartbreak comes not from a fear that the battle is lost, but from the realization that there will be no transformative moment when the world wakes up to the climate crisis. There will be no fixes. There are winners and losers, for sure. But collectively, we are heading into the unknown — politically, ecologically, economically, morally. “The climate emergency is not an issue,” futurist Alex Steffen says. “It is an era.”
This does not mean it’s time to give into doomer-ism. On the contrary. Every ton of CO2 that is kept out of the atmosphere makes our future a little cooler. Every gas-burning furnace that is replaced by a heat pump gives fossil-fuel gangsters like Russian President Vladimir Putin a little less leverage over our lives. And every climate protest makes it more likely that we can seize this transformational era to build a better world.
But the politics of climate action have shifted. Nobody is arguing anymore about whether or not burning fossil fuels heats up the Earth. Now the fight is about justice and equity. It’s about the widening gap between the Saved and the Doomed. It’s about dealing with our grief about how much has already been lost and how much more loss there is to come. There is certainly good news to call out, including the fact that most climate scientists now agree that because of actions to slow the growth of carbon pollution in recent years, the worst hell-on-Earth future climate scenarios are unlikely. But that is hardly a cause for celebration. “This is going to be a really grim year for climate politics,” says Green New Deal activist and UC Berkeley professor Daniel Aldana Cohen. “Let’s remember the big picture, and fight like hell for the best projects and campaigns.”
In that spirit, here’s a list of the 10 actions we can take in this new era of climate disruption. Some are stubbornly idealistic; others are imminently practical. The list leaves out a lot, from investing in grid upgrades to the benefits of rent control and raising the minimum wage to help the most vulnerable among us. Even if everything on this list were achieved, it wouldn’t “solve” the climate crisis. But it would be a helluva start.
1. Tax carbon.
In February, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse took to the Senate floor for his 280th “Time to Wake Up!” speech about the climate crisis. The centerpiece of Whitehouse’s plan was the need for a tax on fossil fuels. It is an argument that speaks to a truism of economics: to make something scarce, tax it.
Here’s Whitehouse’s argument in a nutshell: Clean-energy tax credits and a clean electricity standard — two popular proposals to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels — are a step in the right direction. But only a price on carbon will get us all the way. Pricing carbon reaches every corner of the economy; it fuels innovation (“suddenly every carbon-reduction strategy has a revenue proposition; no more government-chosen winners and losers,” Whitehouse said); it raises investment by sending a market signal to Wall Street; it puts a tax on imports from countries like China with less-strict climate policies; finally, Whitehouse argued, a carbon price helps to unravel what the International Monetary Fund says is more than a half-trillion-dollar subsidy propping up the fossil-fuel industry in the U.S. “You want to know why the fossil-fuel industry can so easily corrupt American politics?” Whitehouse thundered. “That’s your answer. That’s 660 billion answers. A $660 billion subsidy every year is one hell of a motive.”
The problem with pricing carbon, as Whitehouse well knows, is that saying the word “tax” is political suicide in America. Which is why corporations like ExxonMobil have come out in support of it. As a former senior director on Exxon’s Washington team put it in a video secretly recorded last May by undercover Greenpeace activists, the company backs a carbon tax “as an easy talking point” and an “advocacy tool” because “there is not an appetite for a carbon tax.”
But appetite or not, the idea is slowly gaining ground — if not as a straight tax, then something more creative, such as under the guise of a carbon-trading program that caps carbon pollution and then allows the market to set a price for any pollution that exceeds the limit. The trend is clear: As the world heats up, the drive to put a meaningful price on carbon pollution will only grow.
In the U.S., the real question is not will it happen, but how fast, and what shape the policy will take. Whitehouse and other lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate finance committee, have been advocating for a carbon fee-and-dividend program. “Fee and dividend” means that money raised from taxing the consumption of fossil fuels would be sent back to Americans in the form of a dividend check. In other words: We tax Big Oil and Big Coal, and you get a check for a few hundred bucks every year. You can see the appeal. A carbon fee could be crafted to return higher dividends to low-income consumers, thus abiding by Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on families earning less than $400,000 annually.
How effective would it be? A recent analysis by Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environmental research organization, found that a U.S. carbon fee that started at $15 per metric ton and escalated to $50 per metric ton by 2030 would cut the country’s carbon pollution by about 44 percent from 2005 levels by 2040 — doing a lot of heavy lifting for Biden’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
2. Electrify everything.
In the U.S. there are roughly 290 million cars and trucks, 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves. What if all those were electrified? Saul Griffith, an Australian American engineer and author of Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, thinks electrification can reduce 80 percent of U.S. emissions by 2035.
The logic is straightforward: Using electricity is more efficient than burning fossil fuels for almost every purpose. And while coal and gas still power about 60 percent of the U.S. grid, the falling price of clean energy means that a low-carbon grid is not a utopian fantasy. The cleaner the grid, the cleaner and cheaper the electricity, and the stronger the argument becomes to ditch any appliance or vehicle that can be replaced by one powered by electricity.
According to a study co-authored by Griffith, mass electrification in the U.S. would create up to 25 million new jobs. Most of them — installing solar panels and wind turbines, upgrading the grid, and replacing dirty heaters with clean ones — would necessarily be local (you can’t offshore the installation of an electric heat pump in your basement). The investment sums are staggering: Globally, the auto industry is on track to invest half a trillion dollars in e-vehicles. It will refit and build factories, train workers, write software, upgrade dealerships. In the U.S., a dozen new electric-car-battery factories are in the works.
“It’s one of the biggest industrial transformations probably in the history of capitalism,” Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen, told The New York Times. “The investments are massive, and the mission is massive.”
None of this requires new technology. Electric cars have enough range for almost everyone, and the purchase price is nearly the same as a gas guzzler, while the cost per mile to drive is much lower (a 2018 study from the University of Michigan found that electric vehicles cost less than half as much to maintain as gas-powered cars). Heat pumps have such efficiency now that they beat traditional furnaces and boilers in many climates. Modern induction stoves are safer and more precise than cooking with gas. In most parts of the country, wind and solar are now the cheapest ways to generate power. And let’s not forget e-bikes! In 2020, Americans bought around half a million e-bikes, outselling electric cars and hybrids combined. And the impact that even modest usage of e-bikes is huge: A 2020 study from Portland State University revealed that if e-bikes replaced just 15 percent of car travel, total carbon emissions from passenger transportation could be reduced by 12 percent.
3. Go local with solar.
It’s now obvious: The future is solar on homes, solar on apartment buildings, solar on malls, solar on parking lots, solar on fast-food joints, burrito stands, and strip clubs. With the sun, small is beautiful. Wasted space becomes a platform for power generation. With solar, cost has always been a problem, but that is ending now as the price of solar panels has plummeted over the past decade. Nobody pretends that you are going to make steel from solar, or that it will be the best way to generate power in every situation,but it is clean and reliable and won’t go down in a blackout like the one in 2021 that left 11 millions Texans freezing in the dark for days and was responsible for as many as 700 deaths.
Going local with solar doesn’t mean giving up on wind energy and big utility-scale solar projects (which can, in some cases, be cheaper). But the energy potential of local solar is enormous. An analysis last year in Nature Communications found that rooftops in the U.S. could host enough capacity to effectively match current electricity generation. On a more modest scale, a recent report by the nonprofit Environment America found that the amount of space available on the rooftops of shopping malls and big-box stores like Walmart, Home Depot, and Target in the continental U.S. amounts to 7.2 billion square feet, or about the size of El Paso, Texas. The report finds that superstore roofs could generate enough clean energy to power almost 8 million average U.S. homes. Or to put it another way, rooftop solar panels on big-box stores could provide half of the annual electricity that these stores currently demand.
One downside to small-scale solar is energy storage. The bottleneck has always been batteries, which are big and expensive. But that’s changing fast, in part because of the push for battery innovation associated with electric cars. Home storage, with batteries in your garage or basement, is now a reality. Also, electric vehicles are evolving into portable power-storage devices, giving homeowners backup power in their driveway. For companies like Tesla, batteries may in the long run be a bigger part of their business than cars.
But big utilities don’t like it. For more than 100 years, power companies have had a monopoly on electric power. Rooftop solar disrupts that and allows customers to be in control of their own destiny. In sunny Los Angeles and Florida, power companies are fighting to levy taxes on local solar installations. In the short-term, these power companies can slow the transformation to cleaner power. But in the long run, the local solar will win out, not just because of low cost, but because it’s extremely popular among both Republican and Democratic voters.
4. Buy out coal plants.
Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, responsible for 30 percent of global carbon emissions. The biggest coal burner is China, which consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. Here in the U.S., coal is slowly being displaced by cheap gas, wind, and solar. But there are still 179 active coal plants, generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Shutting them down and replacing them with cleaner, cheaper energy is the fastest way to lower carbon emissions and slow the climate crisis. “The transition beyond coal is inevitable,” says Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project. “But the timeline on which it happens isn’t.”
In Germany, the government is using reverse auctions to entice power companies to close down coal plants early. In New Mexico and Colorado, new laws have been passed to allow utilities to restructure their debt to speed retirement. In the U.S., Guay and others have suggested what amounts to a cash-for-clunkers program, in which green banks partner with other institutions to buy out the coal plants and shut them down.
But shutting down a coal plant is not just a question of economics. It’s also a question of jobs and community. “How do you replace the good pay, and union jobs, that will be lost as we shut down the coal industry?” Guay asks, saying the Green New Deal and a just transition has been “mostly happy talk” for coal communities. “We still have this abstract conversation about decarbonization and emissions that is purposefully devoid of the dirty words like ‘coal,’ ‘oil,’ or ‘gas’ because many of our national leaders want markets to do the dirty work. But I don’t see how we can envision an endgame for coal unless we talk about it directly.”
The Darth Vader wing of the banking industry hasn’t helped. Globally, commercial banks have channeled $1.5 trillion to the coal industry since 2019. In the U.S., the biggest underwriter for the coal industry is JPMorgan Chase. Jason Opeña Disterhoft, senior climate and energy campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, says JPMorgan’s list of coal clients “reads like a who’s who of the most carbon-heavy companies on the planet.”
“How do you replace the good pay and union jobs that will be lost as we shut down the coal industry?” asks one activist.
5. Start telling the truth about the climate crisis.
How much is that $2 million house on the beach going to be worth when there’s an octopus swimming through the living room? What’s going to happen to all those refineries on the Gulf Coast as the demand for oil plummets? Banks and corporations face huge financial risks as the age of climate disruption accelerates. One just-published report found around $343 billion in weather- and climate-related economic losses in 2021 alone, the third-costliest year on record. A 2019 study concluded that 215 of the world’s largest companies face nearly $1 trillion in climate-related risk as soon as 2024. Very little of this is disclosed in corporate financial reports. “The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable the United States is to sudden, catastrophic shocks,” Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s nominee to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, wrote in The New York Times. “Climate change poses the next big threat.”
Many corporations are also pretending to be more virtuous than they really are. Exhibit A: In February, the New Climate Institute, a European think tank, released a study of 25 of the world’s biggest companies. These corporate giants account for five percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The report discovered that not only are the companies not dropping those emissions anywhere near fast enough to meet net-zero targets, but that the targets themselves were hollow: The report found that in aggregate the promised 100 percent reduction by 2050 will look more like 40 percent.
One of the biggest problems: the overuse of carbon offsetting. Instead of cutting their emissions directly, offsetting allows companies to reduce emissions indirectly, often by planting trees or protecting forests (which absorb and sequester CO2). Except that too many credits go for forests that were never going to be cut down in the first place, or for those that burn up in fires.
6. Build denser, fairer, more humane cities.
Urban life is far gentler on the planet than suburban life. People who live in cities spend less time stuck in traffic in their SUVs; they have better access to local food; they live in buildings that are more efficient. But cities need a climate upgrade too: more bikes, better public transit, more green space.
Step one: Ban cars in the inner city, or at least minimize their presence. As urban populations rise and cities become gridlocked nightmares, a backlash against cars is growing: Berlin is considering creating a car-free zone -larger than the size of Manhattan; Paris is banning through traffic in the city center. Other cities, including New York, are implementing congestion pricing that levies a toll on vehicles during certain hours, hoping that will limit traffic and raise money for more climate-friendly urban upgrades.
Step two: Revise zoning laws to increase density. Fast-growing sprawl metastasizes via highways and low mortgage rates. One easy fix: Instead of single-family homes, build more duplexes and triplexes. Get rid of exclusionary zoning to allow accessory dwelling units, which is basically a second house in the yard of a home.
Step three: massive investments in new public housing. Ten million new units over the next 10 years would be a good start. In addition, existing public housing needs to be retrofit so it’s safer, healthier, and more efficient. That will help get the most vulnerable people out of harm’s way. Coastal flood risk to affordable housing is expected to triple by 2050. “In places where properties are vulnerable to sea-level rise, land tends to be less expensive, so moving those to higher ground areas means higher costs,” says Priya Jayachandran, CEO of the National Housing Trust, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing. “As a country, we have been comfortable subsidizing housing, but only in the worst areas. We don’t like the idea of spending money to put poor people in higher-income areas. That has to change.” Also important: Restrict development in areas vulnerable to flooding by limiting federally backed mortgages in vulnerable areas.
7. Get loud and hit them where it hurts.
The biggest roadblock to climate action has always been the cowardice and complicity of our political leaders. For many, the lack of significant accomplishments at last year’s Glasgow climate talks and the failure of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda have been a brutal awakening. “Activists have become jaded because there’s been a lot of promises from politicians without a lot of action to back it up,” says Dana Fisher, an environmental-activism expert at the University of Maryland and author of American Resistance. “A lot of young people are looking at other tactics now.”
One example: Student activists are escalating the war over fossil-fuel divestment on university campuses. A group called the Fossil Free 5 is challenging five of the richest universities in the country — Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Princeton, and MIT — to purge fossil fuels from their investment portfolios. Pushing for divestment is nothing new. But now, instead of just trying to convince university leaders that their investments are immoral for contributing to the climate crisis, students at the five universities have filed complaints with their state attorneys general, requesting an investigation into whether the schools have violated laws related to investments by nonprofit institutions.
“The climate movement has to be smarter about where the power really is right now,” says Josie Ingall, a 20-year-old sophomore activist at Yale. Like other activists, Ingall is tired of what she calls “the paradigm of individual complicity” that suggests the climate crisis can be solved by recycling and composting. “We are a group of people who are incredibly privileged to have an affiliation with such a powerful, influential, wealthy institution like Yale, which has an endowment of $42 billion. They’ve made a killing investing [in fossil fuels]. And as activists, we want to use our leverage to move those networks away from environmental destruction.”
It’s not just students who are exploring new tactics. On April 6, more than 1,000 scientists around the world occupied government buildings and chained themselves to the doors of oil-friendly banks to call attention to the urgency of cutting fossil-fuel pollution. “I’m here because scientists are not being listened to,” climate scientist Peter Kalmus said while he was locked to the front door of the JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles. “I’m willing to take a risk for this gorgeous planet — and for my sons. We’ve been trying to warn you for so many decades that we are heading toward a fucking catastrophe.… It’s gotta stop. We’re gonna lose everything.”
8. Fund small-scale geo-engineering research.
Maybe Dr. Evil wants to deliberately fuck with the Earth’s climate, but nobody else does. Nevertheless, it’s probably inevitable, given the risks we face. There are many potential forms of geoengineering, from brightening clouds to stabilizing glaciers, but the technology that gets the most attention is solar engineering, which amounts to scattering particles in the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the Earth. Scientists know it works because it’s essentially what volcanoes do (particles injected into the stratosphere from Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991, cooled the planet 0.6 C for more than a year, until they rained out of the sky).
There are 12 million reasons why solar geoengineering is a bad idea that should never be pursued (I explored many of them in my book How to Cool the Planet). Even funding geoengineering research has long been taboo, under the theory that the better we understand the technology, the more likely we are to use it. But a corollary is also true: The less we understand the technology, the less we know about the real risks. Given the hot future we face, and the millions of lives that are at risk from extreme heat and heat-driven crop failures, we need to know all we can about every tool at our disposal. “Yes, there are risks to solar geoengineering,” says climate economist Gernot Wagner, author of Geoengineering: The Gamble. “But there are also large potential benefits. So it’s not just about the risks of geoengineering. It’s about balancing those risks against the risks of unmitigated climate change.”
9. Eat crickets!
America’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) appetite for meat is barbecuing the planet. Livestock eat up a lot of land, drive deforestation, and are carbon-intensive in their own right. Without reforming industrial agriculture and reducing meat consumption, it will be virtually impossible to limit warming to 2 C, much less 1.5 C.
The good news is there’s a lot of innovations and options in how and what we eat, including plant-based meat like Beyond Burgers, alternate proteins like crickets, meat and dairy alternatives made by microbes discovered in the acidic hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, and, soon, cell-based meat grown in labs. The potential carbon savings of a dietary switch is huge: A 2018 University of Michigan report found that producing a Beyond Burger uses 90 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and 99 percent less water than a beef burger.
Insects are a particularly promising alternative. I’ve had them at a restaurant in Mexico City, fried and served in a bowl — spiced with lime, salt, and red pepper, they tasted like spicy potato chips. Insects offer the equivalent protein of beef and poultry. Even if the idea of eating crickets makes you nauseous, they can still have a big impact: Insects can be fed to chicken, replacing land-hungry fields of corn. They can also be ground into flour for baking. And I know it’s impossible to imagine crickets at your next Super Bowl party, but consider this: In the 17th century, Europeans were skeptical of eating a new vegetable called “potato” because it was not mentioned in the Bible or because they thought it would cause leprosy.
Food waste is also a climate problem. About a third of the food grown in the U.S. goes to waste. Globally, food waste is responsible for three times more greenhouse-gas emissions than aviation. It’s a moral issue, too. According to one analysis, a billion chickens, more than 100 million other land animals (turkeys, pigs, and cows), 25 billion fish, and 15 billion shellfish end up in landfills.
10. Fight and win the culture war.
Much has been said about the failure of Big Media to cover the climate crisis. It’s too often pigeonholed as an environmental issue rather than a slow-rolling planet-wide catastrophe. Or it’s infused with “both-sidesism,” in which journalists are duped into the false idea that there is any real debate about the fundamentals of climate science. Or it’s just not discussed at all. When Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast late last summer, six of the biggest commercial TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and MSNBC — ran 774 stories about Ida, an analysis by the watchdog group Media Matters found. Only 34 of those stories mentioned climate change. Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, an initiative dedicated to improving climate reporting, calls it “media malpractice.”
There is also the problem of how the media normalizes catastrophe in a slow-rolling story like the climate crisis. David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, wondered if the quiet response to a new IPCC report this year is a sign that the moment of climate alarm has passed: “What appears in prospect like apocalypse often grows into something more like grim normality by the time it actually arrives.”
It’s time for journalists to gear up for a much bigger battle. The climate fight is quickly becoming the centerpiece of a broader media-driven culture war, where science and data are irrelevant for opponents. Exhibit A: During a 2020 segment about wildfires on the West Coast, Fox News star Tucker Carlson offered this interpretation of events: “Climate change, they said, caused these fires. They didn’t explain how exactly that happened. How did climate change do that?” Carlson asked. “In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systemic racism in the sky. You can’t see it, but rest assured it’s everywhere and it’s deadly.” For him, the climate crisis is just fodder for his lies and distortions. The most important data point for the future of life on Earth may not be the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, but the Nielsen ratings of power-and-money-driven clowns like Carlson. Corruption and disinformation are what’s killing us now. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about this moment. Thanks to 40 years of science, we know what’s happening. We have the tools and technology to address the crisis and to build a better world. We just need to find the political will to use them.