There is a fog that has shrouded my sense of time over the past number of weeks and months, but it is mid-May. The year is about a third over. We are beginning to get a sense of the possible range of impacts from COVID-19 on the global economy and carbon emissions. To some degree, the impacts are what you would expect from a society partially frozen in time. Travel has nearly stopped completely: Aislelabs found year-over-year international flights are down 80% and our very own UC Davis Road Ecology Center found over a 50% decrease in both traffic and collisions in California.
As countries begin to gradually reopen, to say nothing of the justifications for doing so, these trends will start to ebb back towards the norm. Still, we are looking at record carbon emission reductions: a Carbon Brief study found that we could be looking at a 5.5% decrease in emissions from 2019 totals, with a recent update from the IEA forecasting up to an 8% reduction. We now have a case study in what happens if we try to conserve energy like our life depends on it, even if the relation to energy conservation is indirect—It’s the ultimate test of individual action’s ability to fight climate change. Folks, I have some bad news: it’s not cutting it, and for so, so many reasons.
The 2020 carbon emission reductions could amount to up to 3,000 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2. Unfortunately, we don’t measure global emissions in megatonnes, we measure in gigatonnes (Gt). As seen in the graph prepared by the Breakthrough Institute, this two to three GtCO2 reduction in annual emissions is a pinky finger in the global CO2 hydrant (the chart was created when the projected emissions were around 3% instead of 8%, but the scale still stands). The graph is not even showing the whole y-axis! We are expecting massive reductions in travel and consumption, which will devastate the livelihoods of hundreds of millions across the world; what do we have to show for it? A blip!
The aforementioned Carbon Brief study notes that global emissions would need to fall by around 7.6% every year this decade to limit warming to 1.5C. Another Carbon Brief study shows how much more drastically we need to reduce our emissions each year that we don’t take radical action. Think about what that would have to look like under the current status quo: somehow, we would need to travel, produce, and consume less than the previous year by the same proportion we are doing so this year, a year engulfed by a global pandemic. I’ll stop entertaining this train of thought; it’s not happening, and we are unlikely to even continue down the negative slope once the economy begins to “recover”.
Some will read the last paragraph and start to spout off about how population growth and emissions are tied by an unbreakable bond. Those folks are at best unable to see the danger of their words (but more often don’t care); they are suggesting we go down a path of eugenics, which is shrouded in a history of racism and colonization. I promise you: we do not need to resort to such atrocities to reduce emissions, but even if you thought we did, doing so would be an indictment of our humanity and any decarbonized future would be built on the same systematic oppression that led us here today.
No, we need two things (two massive, unfathomable things, but stay with me): government systems that have the capacity and motivation to build a massive amount of clean energy and transportation infrastructure and support sustainable agricultural systems, and a population that demands such a government. There are plenty of great, detailed proposals from the likes of Jay Inslee, Julian Brave NoiseCat, and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, so I won’t attempt to suggest how we could best utilize the first thing in my list. Just know: we have the brain power required to dream big enough to create a future with continually decreasing carbon emissions and environmental and socioeconomic justice. However, the second item is what I worry most about but have the most agency over.
We need loud, empowered voices to ring against local, state, and federal governments. You may hear the phrase “people just don’t care” about climate change. Not true! According to polls from Data for Progress, the majority of people support public investments in major clean tech and infrastructure. The problem is that our government and media have silenced large swaths of our population through a nasty, centuries-long cocktail of voter suppression, government-supported violence, union-busting, and a lack of minority voices represented on major media outlets. Unfortunately, this is a really effective cocktail! Look at how quickly a few dozen white folks with guns coerced governments to move against the interests of public health to reopen states, and then compare it to the national villainization of movements like Black Lives Matter. Obviously, there are many other nefarious reasons that governments want to get people back to work before it is safe to, but the fact of the matter is government in the U.S. listens to white and privileged voices much more readily and sympathetically than it does to anyone else.
My message here is directed to folks with the privilege of energy and agency to speak out. Sitting back and waiting for the government to come around to the clean tech revolution suggests a total lack of understanding of how the government works. Unless you rail against the status quo, loudly and continuously, you will see nothing but lateral and detrimental “progress”. Right now, we are at risk of the climate movement falling into complacency as the quarantine leaves us in a listless daze with a feeling of hopelessness (I hope it’s not just me). That is why it is more important than it has literally ever been to find outlets to protest the government’s current lack of action, listen to what the suppressed voices (that have always been there, mind you) have to say on climate justice, and vote for policies that support radical change. My final word: remember in November that you can vote for incremental change and still loudly protest and organize for the more radical solutions necessary to slow down our race towards unlivable climate conditions.