Last month in an interview with the New York Times you described the latest climate science as “terrifying.” You made this observation while on vacation in Hawaii, where the Times reported that you spent a lot of time swimming. It may have been difficult to fully let go and relax, knowing that the fine beaches of your beautiful home state on which you were lying will shortly be submerged as the ice shelves in Antarctica and Greenland speed toward collapse.
As a student of Jared Diamond’s works, you know well the history of past societies that were unable to accept ecological limits and collapsed. And yet, here we are, at the very edge of the precipice without any realistic way out.
Do you worry about whether you might have done more in your two terms to stave off collapse? Or are you more in the mindset of most people, which you nicely summed up as, “Meh, we can put this off a little bit.”?
We’re all very aware of the immense power of fossil fuel interests, whose wealth, like a black hole, warps political life, and the challenge of trying to communicate a problem which nearly a third of the nation suspects is overblown or a hoax is daunting. That’s why you tried to push in a positive direction, calling for a New Energy Future while doing the best that any American President might have done pushing for reform on a second tier issue in a hostile Congress with tepid public support. But it didn’t work and we are steps away from global ecological collapse.
It’s tough for concerned citizens like us to know exactly how much time is left because we have to do our own math, based on latest climate science data, to figure it out. Here’s our understanding.
The 1.5°C target for limiting global temperature increase set by the Paris Agreement is too high; we should not have allowed carbon levels to increase above 300 ppm and, in retrospect, should have done whatever it took not to top the 1.0C° increase in global temperature we've already experienced. 1.5°C is a political target, not a sane ecological parameter, given - to take the single greatest impact - that the West Antarctic ice shelf is in “unstoppable” collapse, and the 1.5°C limit is only rhetorical. The likely result of pledges made by the world’s governments, even if they are met, is a temperature increase of roughly 3.0°C by end of the century, which will continue to rise even if no more emissions occurred.
A recent report by Oil Change International finds that “the reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C” and underlines the obvious: “No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them,” and “Some fields and mines – primarily in rich countries – should be closed before fully exploiting their resources.” Oil Change International does not explicitly identify oil sands distillates, but with carbon emissions rates nearly double that of conventional oils, this is the obvious first choice in cutting current emissions.
How long do we have to shift from rapid fossil fuel expansion to a flat ban on all new infrastructure and shut down of coal and oil sands extractions? Depends on how much you like to gamble. The Oil Change International recommendations are based on accepting a 50/50 chance of returning below 1.5°C by the end of the century, and at current rates, calculate that 10 years remain. Carbon Brief calculates 5.2 years remaining at a 66% chance.
We think that if we’re betting on whether civilization continues those are terrible odds and that the sane choice is to act now. Which raises the practical question of what a concerned citizen should do when our governments and economic systems are committed to a course of global suicide and are willing and able to bend the political system and civic discourse to their will.
This is not a problem of a lack of information. Virtually every citizen in the world is appraised of the state of things and voices calling for climate sanity are heard from every corner of the planet and every society, without reference to politics, religion, race, age, gender or wealth. Everyone is informed, many choose not to believe because it is uncomfortable, costly or terrifying.
It is not a problem without solutions. While there are vast differences between an ecologically sound vision of a desirable global future and mainstream, techno-industrial schemes; every proposed functional solution agrees on the fundamentals of an emergency response - we cannot exploit even those fossil fuel resources currently being extracted and must immediately stop coal and tar sands oil use; we must reverse the decimation of oceans, forest, grasslands and other carbon sinks, we must make the long-promised transition to renewable energy in its original meaning, and we must find workable means of drawing carbon from the atmosphere by tending to natural systems that do that well.
It is not that we lack the traditions and values from which a practical and moral course of action might spring. We need only to act with thought for generations to come, respect the earth which nourishes us, cherish wild things and wild places, and value people over things, happiness over wealth, and other people over one’s self.
We have tried every avenue by which engaged citizens might advance such concerns - in this case, ecological – in public policy, and nothing has worked. There is no plausible means or mechanism by which the extraction and burning of coal and tar sands oil from existing mines and fields can be halted on the timeline now required by any ordinary, legal means.
The only option available to us is to engage in climate direct action, which is why we are acting today to shut down the five pipelines used to transport tar sands oil from Alberta, CA into the US. We stand together with indigenous peoples and Canadians who oppose tar sands exploitation there.
We are writing to ask that you support our effort by taking these steps:
Invoke the National Emergencies Act and continue the shutdown of the tar sands pipelines we have initiated;
Immediately begin a process for federal closure of all US coal and tar sands oil extraction, and;
Put before Congress a plan for a national mobilization to transfer US energy use from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, maintain and expand natural carbon sinks, and undertake a US-led and financed global campaign to meet the 1.5°C international target.
We admit that this is a very difficult ask, especially with your limited remaining tenure, but it is an appropriate response consistent with your admitted knowledge. You have a moral and Constitutional obligation to take appropriate steps to safeguard the nation. At the very least you might utilize your few remaining months in office to attempt to wrench reality into the civic hall. If you take no action, you will have presided over the collapse of civilization.
Annette Klapstein, Emily Johnston, Leonard Higgins, Michael Foster, Ken Ward