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It will be almost impossible to hold the warming below 1.5°C degrees.
Still, we have to try our damnest. It’s our only real chance, frankly, of holding the warming “well below” 2°C, and as the IPCC has warned us, this is not line we want to cross.
The good news is that after Donald J. Trump, and after the pandemic, and after the collapse of anything we might once have recognized as legitimate climate skepticism, we’re no longer asleep, or even groggy. The mood has changed. One recent study tells us that, under the climate shadow, ninety-seven per cent of young Americans are worried about having children of their own. We’re facing an emergency and we know it.
The pace of events has accelerated, and it doesn’t seem likely to slow anytime soon. There’s the Solar / Wind / Battery revolution, which is hitting its inflection point. And there’s the new and still changing political landscape. One clear sign of that new landscape is that, as we reached the Paris Agreement’s fifth birthday, well over 100 countries committed themselves, at least rhetorically, to “net zero 2050” emissions reduction goals. If you count the Chinese, who committed instead to “carbon neutrality” by 2060, and the United States, which under President Biden is more than likely to join the net zero 2050 club, and this comes to a full 63% of today’s global emissions.
Alas, while that club will include wealthy countries like Norway, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States, not a single wealthy country has made anything like an adequate move to support ambitious transition plans in the developing world. It’s as if the rich expect the poor to quickly and cheerfully follow of their own accord.
But even here there’s movement, and rumor has it that the finance question is on the table in new ways. We shall see. What’s clear is that there’s less patience with empty promises, and a breeze of realism in the air. Witness for example the increased visibility of the fair shares challenge, which is having a bit of a moment, even in the US of A. Hell, even the 2020 Democratic Party platform picked up the trope. It declares that “Democrats will immediately rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, commit the United States to doing its fair share and lead the world in the effort to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
But what, exactly, would the US’s fair share come to? Last year, before the pandemic, a small group of us set out to see if we could manage an agreement. We were ActionAid USA, North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, the Center for Biological Diversity and EcoEquity, all of us members of the US Climate Action Network (USCAN), an association of almost 200 groups that is determined to rise to the demands of the moment. USCAN has long been a redoubt of techno-legislative environmentalism, but in recent years it has become something better—a big tent that still contains the mainline green groups but has been rebuilt to the standards of the justice-first climate movements.
And we did manage an agreement. In the midst of the pandemic, during a very large zoom meeting, we formally adopted the following position:
“USCAN believes that the US fair share of the global mitigation effort in 2030 is equivalent to a reduction of 195% below its 2005 emissions levels, reflecting a fair share range of 173-229%.”
Now we’ve gone public. So know that US Fair Shares website is at https://usfairshare.org/, and that it contains, among other things, a political and technical briefing, which is what you should read if you want the details of this position—how it was calculated and what we think it means. One point I want to stress is that no one thinks we have the keys to the kingdom of global climate stabilization. Far from it. We’re just saying we have a key piece, one that spotlights the logic of global climate justice, one that could help make the global climate mobilization fair enough to actually succeed.
There was some nice early press. Notably, Bill McKibben featured the USCAN fair shares position in his New Yorker Climate Newsletter — in a brief he called The Climate Debt the U.S. Owes the World. It’s the one to read if you want big idea in a nice concentrated package. I myself placed a longer and more detailed rundown in Sierra Magazine , this one called It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change. It’s not as elegantly written as Bill’s piece, but what are you going to do? It does give more of the gory details.
And there’s a very informative press release here. And a YouTube of the press briefing is available here. Climate Nexus’ Hunter Cutting laid down a fine tweet thread here. There’s even a cool little video.
Like I said, check out the US Fair Shares website.
EcoEquity also has some other irons in the fire. One I want to note here is The Pandemic Pivot, a project led by the admirable and depressingly productive John Feffer, who is based at the Institute for Policy Studies. The idea here was a quick, distributed, international think-tank, which Feffer organized to draw some very initial but definitely useful conclusions about Covid lessons learned.
I was pleased to be involved, and to be able to recall that Herman Daly, one of the founders of modern environmental economics, long ago said that the world needed an optimal crisis “that’s big enough to get our attention but not big enough to disable our ability to respond,” and to connect these words to some initial speculation about a future global green new deal. Which I very much hope is now on the horizon.
Speaking of the horizon, it’s difficult to speak too highly of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for the Future, which I was delighted to consult on. (You can thank me for the discussion of the Paris Agreement’s all important Article 14). If you haven’t read it, and especially if you’re sick of dystopian pessimism, you should. If you doubt that serious Cli Fi is a real possibility, take a look at Bill McKibben’s excellent review in the New York Review of Books, or listen to Ezra Klein’s discussion with Kim Stanley on his podcast, which he called The most important book I’ve read this year.
One last point: the changing status of “climate equity,” which is what we policy nerds call our own local version of climate justice. Specifically, “equity” is no longer universally seen as the defining opposite of “realism”. We need both, and this is now so glaringly obvious that even mainline think-tankers know it. Witness Fair contributions versus fastest possible reductions, which Niclas Höhne and Jakob Wachsmuth recently published under the logo of the New Climate Institute. It’s worth the read.