Addressing the Climate Problem Will Require A Dramatic Reordering of Our Lives

An Earth Day reflection on the future we want and the choices that will get us there

One night in college, around five years ago, a friend asked what future technology I expected to most transform society in my lifetime. Artificial intelligence? Biotechnology advances?

photo of fossil fuel sign
An effective response to climate change will require a transformation of our political, economic, and social structures. Photo by maisa_nyc.

I suggested the answer would be connected to climate change — a new energy source, perhaps, that would allow us to rapidly transition off of fossil fuels. My friends were dismissive. They didn’t think adapting to climate change would really transform people’s lives. Most of us would barely even notice the switch from one energy source to another.

But as a science major turned climate organizer and environmental journalist, I have come to understand that my friends were wrong. There is no way around the climate problem without a dramatic reordering of every aspect of our lives, from housing to consumer goods to transit to food. Even my prediction was naïve: The solution won’t be a technological silver bullet, but an array of new and old technologies coupled with transformations in our political, economic, and social structures.

Electricity production accounts for only 28 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Every coal and gas power plant could be replaced by solar and wind (or nuclear, or even fabled “clean coal”) by 2030 — as the congressional Green New Deal resolution calls for — and we’d still be less than a third of the way to zero emissions. Let’s imagine that we also replaced all oil-powered cars with electric models and souped-up public transit fleets. All of this amounts to a massive infrastructural transformation and a direct challenge to powerful corporations, an epic planning task that would destroy and create jobs while affecting rooftops and commutes across the country. We still wouldn’t be even halfway to zero emissions — in fact, if that’s all we did, we’d be slightly behind the UN’s call for a 45 percent reduction below 2010 levels by 2030.

Another 11 percent of US emissions come from natural gas used for heating and cooking in residential and commercial buildings. To bring this down, we must retrofit existing buildings for efficiency and alternate heating methods, and change how we build new ones. Tackling agriculture emissions (9 percent) requires an end to cheap meat and the introduction of more sustainable — but also more labor-intensive — food production methods without nitrogen-based fertilizers (which emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide).

The final third or so of emissions may be the most difficult: manufacturing and what’s known as “hard to abate” sectors, including cement, steel, aviation, shipping, trucking, and plastics. Now we’re talking about R&D into alternate materials and production methods, localizing supply chains, and replacing disposable consumer goods with reusable alternatives.

The UN calls on the world to eventually reach net-negative emissions. To do so, we must regulate such practices as logging, agriculture, mining, and sprawl that, while currently integral to the economy, destroy forests and other habitat that could otherwise pull carbon from the atmosphere — and then we must create room to restore this habitat. Effective US climate policy must also rethink our role in the world, renegotiating trade deals to encourage more stringent environmental protections and sharing money and technology to allow poorer countries to decarbonize their own economies.

And that’s not to mention the adaptation component: Our farms and cities, refugee protocol and healthcare policies, must be redesigned to weather growing storms, heat waves, disease outbreaks, displacement, and species extinctions.

It’s this massive yet little-discussed scope­ that inspired me to propose a special issue on climate change at In These Times, the political magazine at which I work. I was adamant that every story in the issue address the problem and its solutions, because over the decades to come, these decisions will shape the stories of all our lives. Whether you are a political activist or a farmer, a steelworker or a stay-at-home parent, the response to the climate crisis will affect what you buy, how you spend your days, how you travel, your job prospects, and your health.

President George H.W. Bush accepted that climate change required action, but insisted that “the American way of life is not up for negotiations.” That way of life, however, is going to change no matter what. It’s crucial that all of us — in our workplaces and neighborhoods, in the streets and in the voting booth — play a role in shaping that change. We could end up with reduced work hours, affordable healthy food, and free buses and trains; or we could end up with mass unemployment, resource shortages, and even societal collapse.

“When you make a fundamental transformation in an economy, the big guys are going to do all right,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, in a recent interview with Vox. “It’s the job of the government to make sure that the little guys also get opportunities and protections. That’s the essence of the Green New Deal.”

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