The Time for Climate Action is Now

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This community solar facility in the Bronx is where we “get” our energy now (that is, it feeds into ConEd’s massive grid on our behalf)

Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire report which suggests that, in the absence of an almost total transformation (and decarbonization) of the global economy by 2030, catastrophic global climate disruption is likely to unfold by 2040. Frankly, this is not news, but if it is to you, I encourage you to go dig into the report’s details.

The key distinction the report makes is that between a 1.5-degrees-Celsius temperature rise (the Paris Accord target, which is looking increasingly unreachable and some say has already been locked in) and 2-degree-Celsius rise; basically, with the former, things will be bad (massive insect die-offs, most coral reefs dead, millions of climate refugees owing to sea level rise, drought, lack of access to clean water, heatwaves, etc.) while with the latter, things will be – again – catastrophic, with near total global loss of coral reefs, cascading ecological and agricultural consequences from reef and insect loss, hundreds of millions more people subjected to water scarcity, tens of millions of additional climate refugees…

If we don’t act by 2030, by 2040, the latter scenario is what we are almost certain to face with all its attendant social and political disruptions.

My goal here, however, is not to recapitulate the IPCC report. My goal here is to issue a call to action. I have been alarmed to see many leading liberals meeting this latest news with resignation. Albert Wenger – the prominent venture capitalist (with whom I maintain a friendly personal acquaintance) – writes, on his decision to support geoengineering research, “I have concluded that we will not get on top of greenhouse gases in time. That means we will need more dramatic interventions to halt a further heating up of the atmosphere.”

A close friend (and successful financier) writes that he is “fluctuating [between] despair / acceptance of what seems to be the inevitable [and] trying to make an impact.”

One need not look far to find other prominent examples of liberal elite climate-towel-throwing-in. People who know me, or who have consistently read my work, will be aware that I am highly critical of both the roots of the American project (in genocide and slavery) and of the contemporary state of American geo/politics (characterized by imperialism and white supremacy). I find it nonetheless deeply discouraging that the country that put human beings on the moon and has driven and shaped the hypertechnological contemporary world order now suddenly confronts the global crisis we’ve made with outright denial, or a helpless shoulder shrug.

So, sparing choice words, I’m instead calling upon – beseeching, imploring – my peers and the people in positions of power and influence in the United States and beyond to embrace this crisis and this challenge as the defining struggle of a generation, and really of the century, a civilization, perhaps a species, and certainly of the millennium to come.

According to the IPCC report “we” have 12 years to get it together, or my generation’s children will be facing (as I replied to that financier friend) “a fracturing world order and escalating catastrophes that make [the] current global situation look very rosy” by the time they are graduating college. Let’s set aside that in many places around the world, and for many people, catastrophic climate disruption is already unfolding and has been for years or even decades. If you care about your children, your grandchildren, or your own future, the time to act is now.

It bears noting that these same elites, liberal or otherwise, are by far the most responsible for global climate disruption. That is, we are.

For perspective, the US is estimated to have been responsible for nearly 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions between 1850 and 2007, and the top ten emitting countries accounted for more than 70% of global emissions during that same time period. The cumulative percentages have no doubt shifted in the last decade as the economies of China and India, especially, have rapidly expanded their consumption of fossil fuels, but the fact remains that Germany, France, greater Russia, and the Anglosphere account for something like 50-60% of all cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions. Imperialism and colonialism cast long shadows on the present and the future.

Additionally, something like 50% of all historic anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been released since ~1970, yet those of us who bear the most responsibility as a class are now going to wash our hands of the matter and dream of injecting (toxic) sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in perpetuity as a “solution”? Now, a choice word. That’s bullshit. More than that. It’s an utter abdication. For decades, techno-optimists promised real climate solutions through innovation. Now, suddenly, we careen from optimism to pessimism, and the only alternative is insane experimentation with biogeochemical cycles at a planetary scale?

As I wrote to Albert:

… ~70% of global emissions are generated by ~20% of the global population, ~50% by ~10%, and, one supposes, ~35% by ~5%, so ~20% by ~2%, and perhaps ~10-15% by ~1%. You and I both fall into some of those percentiles, and you fall into all of them. I understand that, through the lens of [an understandable] pessimism… it is hard not to foresee the worst here; however, given that you (and we) are deeply implicated in the escalating climate crisis, it seems both self-serving and a bit disingenuous to throw your hands up now. It is not the time for fatalism among those of us who are the key drivers of the problem.

Basically, I’m calling for some… optimism. Rather than endorse, and throw your not-insubstantial resources behind these dangerous moonshot half-solutions (that, after all, have the convenient ancillary of leaving the root causes of climate change unaddressed, and serving to justify ongoing business-as-usual), why not use your power and influence to push for NYC to embrace Japanese-style (Super) Cool Biz? Why not not-only fly less, but again, use your remarkable position to push for drastic substantive changes in the way that elites operate within VC and startup spaces (that is, encourage your peers to fly less, consume less, waste less, etc.)? Why not put that money (and perhaps much more) into real climate solutions rather than geoengineering research? In short, why not do the hard work now that we all have to be doing if we are to have any hope of addressing this problem?

Okay, so hopefully by now, you’ve embraced that the best time for climate action was 40 (or 400) years ago, but that the next best time is the present. So, what can you do? And what can we?

First, the world is not in need of droves of new (white) climate saviors, but it would probably benefit from fewer (mostly white) climate deniers and obstructionists.

Second, there is a spectrum of actions – ranging from the strictly personal to the more broadly institutional and political – which you might take. Moving from the former to the latter, here are some thoughts on potential action steps:

  1. Consume less: That means fewer flights, less driving, less plastic, turning the lights off, turning the thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer, giving up meat, not buying useless crap and then landfilling it, etc., etc., etc. You might consider giving up Amazon Now; using Postmates, Caviar, Seamless, etc. less; avoiding single use plastics for a month to see how doable it is…
  2. Go renewable: Move your residential and/or commercial electricity to solar, wind, tidal, or – barring other renewable options – hydropower. I don’t see nuclear as renewable (just look to Chernobyl and Fukushima for an explanation why), but there are well-informed people who disagree with me. If you’re in a position to, install solar panels (or a windmill for that matter!), do so. If you’re not, explore community solar or reputable energy services companies (ESCOs) that offer the opportunity to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs). If you rely on an automobile, go electric if possible.
  3. Donate: This is low hanging fruit. Do it, but don’t kid yourself that you’re making a serious dent unless the numbers are huge and the impact is veri- and quantifiable.
  4. Vote for climate sanity: This means being informed about local, state-wide, national, and global climate issues. In New York State, people can look to organizations like NY Renews, Sane Energy Project, Protect Orange County, and We Are Seneca Lake for guidance on issues like moving New York towards 100% renewable electricity generation and stopping the ongoing massive buildout of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State and across the region. (Bill McKibben’s 350.org is obviously also a helpful resource/starting point.)
  5. Take action for climate sanity: See all of the above, but consider going beyond the ballot box. Not everyone is prepared to chain herself to a fracked gas pipeline, or even to protest in the streets, but at very least, you can be on the phone to your elected representatives, at community meetings, and in conversation with your friends, neighbors, and loved ones about how essential climate issues and climate action are.
  6. Divest/Invest: When my father died, I divested his (modest) brokerage portfolio from Kinder Morgan. I’ve been proud to see significant action on fossil fuel divestment in New York City and State, but we need a lot more of it. Individuals and entities should be divesting from (and ceasing future investment in) fossil-fuel companies, broadly speaking. We should also be pressuring not only our city, state, and national governments, but our banks and financial services companies to divest. On the flip side, you can look for sound climate-friendly investments if that’s your thing; I’d only caution that it might be helpful to have a veteran climate activist vet these, lest you simply divert money to something that feels good but doesn’t do much good.
  7. Reshape your organization: Are you an executive, board member, or otherwise decision-maker within a corporation, non-profit, governmental body, etc.? Attempt to apply steps 1-6 to your organization. Convert to 100% renewable energy. Climate audit your supply chain and business practices. Turn off the lights in the office/skyscraper at night. Donate, divest, and invest with climate as a key pillar. Proudly declare that your organization is committed to climate sanity and climate justice and then actually walk the walk on the talk. Use your weight to move political conversations. This will likely be extremely hard as climate sanity and capitalism remain fundamentally at odds.
  8. Support broader civic initiatives: Not that we haven’t already touched on this – for example, in talking about fighting against pipeline projects – but there are opportunities everywhere – and especially in New York City in my view – to make climate progress. We should adopt municipal or regional (Super) Cool Biz: New York is only getting hotter, and a significant fraction of our energy consumption goes towards cooling buildings in the summer (which only further contributes to the urban heat island effect). We need to simply do away with (male) business attire when the weather is warm, set the thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and spare those of us (disproportionately female) who dress sanely in the summer the necessity of carrying around sweaters when its sweltering. Golf courses have proven for generations that one need not wear a suit to close a deal; so when it’s hot, wear shorts and a t-shirt (rather than a blazer like a maniac), then get on with your business. Other ideas include actually enforcing a no-idling ban (I tremble to imagine the emissions tab accrued by New Yorkers simply idling as they wait to move for street sweepers, for example) and legislating against leaving those skyscraper lights on and in favor of stricter energy efficiency standards in new construction (and of retrofitting). Additionally, we should support the subway, the MTA, and public transit more broadly, and demand that the political gridlock and corruption which have starved and partially paralyzed our flagship transit system be broken. Right now, too many of New York’s richest and most powerful people don’t see subways (and buses and transit) as their problem. Meanwhile, the city chokes on Uber and Lyft for-hire vehicles and FedEx and UPS trucks (making Amazon deliveries); few things would make more of a climate dent than improved and expanded public transportation (which relates to why the Kochs, et al are so feverishly fighting against transit projects across the United States).
  9. Support a national Green New Deal, or equivalent: This one speaks for itself. We have roughly a decade to make this happen. We need to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels on our society and economy. We need to massively ramp up installation of renewable energy generation and storage capacity (and continue to drive rapid innovation in the underlying technologies) while putting a total nationwide moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects (that is, pipelines, power plants, LNG terminals, you name it). This may require some sacrifices and some adjustments, but it is the livability of the future for which we’re fighting. Significant outlier challenges involve developing and implementing the use of renewable fuels for container ships and airplanes.
  10. As a friend, quoting Donella Meadows, put it, question “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system… arises”: This will be especially hard and uncomfortable because conversations about capitalism, imperialism, genocide, slavery, militarism, white supremacy, and occupation always are. I’ve tried to have these hard conversations in tandem with calling for climate action, and will continue to do so, but at this juncture, it’s my view that the urgency of the crisis calls for a pragmatic strategy of striving for (real) progress wherever opportunities exist, even if intersecting challenges remain intractable. It is almost guaranteed that profound conflicts will arise in this arena. One need look no further than the example of climate offsets – which are designed to allow the rich in the Global North to continue their consumption unabated, with clean consciences, but often result in the displacement of poor/rural/indigenous people in the Global South from ancestral lands which have been deemed (by for-profit offset companies) as offset preserves – to understand how sinister and complex the dynamics involved can sometimes be.

This week, I’ve initiated a series of conversations with relatives, friends, mentors, clients, and others to urge climate action (which simply represents an intensification and slight formalization of what I’d already been doing). Given my own limited time and energy, I’m reaching out to people in my life who are in positions to effect institutional change at scale; however, I think we could all do to be having more of these conversations. As I’ve said before, almost no interaction should pass at this point without an honest mention of the climate. We used to talk about the weather, but if the stadium is collapsing, it no longer makes sense to focus only on the action on-field. Such is our current predicament.

I’m using this document as a jumping off point for those conversations; invite you to do the same; and would welcome feedback on what’s wrong with it and how it could be improved. Planning to return to my NYC Infrastructure Series next month; in the meantime, be well and stay engaged. Apathy kills and there’s no time like the present.

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