I woke up really angry this morning. I think I speak for many people my age when I say that it feels as if the people making decisions about my future just don’t seem to care if I have one.
Just in the last week, both Europe and China experienced the worst rains and floods in generations. The Canadian government instituted its first-ever severe heat warning for the western province of British Columbia. And wildfires so intense that they create their own lightning storms have blanketed the nation in a smoke so thick that an air quality warning was released thousands of miles away in Toronto and New York.
With the rate of climate change increasing every year, it is absolutely critical that policymakers at every level of government are adequately informed on both the science and the environmental repercussions of past and future legislative decisions.
Even Joe Biden, who campaigned largely on the need for immediate climate action, has failed to publicly support the green new deal, allowed hundreds of billions of dollars intended to fight climate change to be stripped from his infrastructure bill, and allowed two billionaires to travel into space without paying a single dollar to offset their carbon emissions (as the rest of us do for every airline ticket in America).
I’m not here to slam Joe Biden, or any other politician, on their apparent lack of climate urgency. I simply want to pose a question to any and every adult making decisions about my future: Have you done your homework?
Have you taken the necessary hours to read the IPCC reports, which contain the facts that will determine whether civilization as we know it will collapse, and what we can do about it? I can’t help but feel that both legislative priorities and general political discourse would be very different if you had.
The most recent report (AR5) issued by the International Panel on Climate Change, a body that is considered to be the gold standard on information pertaining to climate change, states very clearly that on our current emissions trajectory, climate change will become entirely irreversible sometime in the next five to 10 years. Sometime shortly after that, we will begin to set off a series of environmental feedback loops, the confluence of which have the potential to destroy modern civilization as we know it in my lifetime. The scope is unimaginable.
I don’t want to discuss emissions trajectories, warming curves, ocean acidification, or any of the other major issues relating to climate change that may end up irrevocably altering the ways in which Earth’s natural systems function. The science is out there. It’s been out there for decades. It’s your job as a policy maker to seek it out, digest it, and make informed decisions.
On the local level, at least, it seems that some of you have. The language of the new Climate Action Plan passed by the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday reflects statistics discussed in IPCC reports and the Paris Climate agreement. That’s a 50 percent reduction by 2030, and net zero by 2050, if we want to limit warming to around 2 degrees Celsius.
It’s also far from enough. These are the numbers we need to achieve as a global average, assuming we want to avoid the most catastrophic of scenarios. If San Francisco, one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the world, has average as it’s goal, we’re doomed.
Take a minute and think about it. If half of all cities in the world right now, today, followed that same example and achieved their goals, it would still only be half of what is necessary to avoid total disaster. Again, as someone who plans to inhabit this planet for the rest of this century, this outcome is unacceptable.
These goals are simply not ambitious enough. The potential solutions are too abundant for one of the wealthiest cities in the world not to implement.
One modest example: A recent study done on urban parklands in Rome found a massive potential for carbon storage (possibly 1,000 US tons per hectare per year). There are plenty of ways to modify the vegetation in SF parkland to better absorb carbon. If similar numbers were assumed for SF, an increase in carbon storage capacity by 50 percent across all city parks would offset nearly a quarter of the city’s total carbon emissions every year. Does Rec-Park Director Phil Ginsberg just not give a fuck?
The new Climate Action Plan also includes a goal for reducing carbon generated by consumption of supply-chain goods inside the city. That’s great, but what about non-material goods such as digital media/services? What’s stopping us from taxing the carbon produced by Twitter or Uber or Airbnb’s server banks? Can we tax energy being used in server banks in Washington if it’s used by a San Francisco company? Shouldn’t we try? This sort of emerging digital supply chain runs on fossil fuels the same as the one that brings meat to the grocery store, why should it be excluded from our carbon accounting?
So far, our policymakers and legislators at every level of government have failed disastrously at addressing the climate concerns surrounding new and emerging digital markets and products such as cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence/machine learning. If San Francisco, the tech capitol of the world, wants to begin addressing climate change and carbon emissions in a serious way, why wouldn’t we start here?
Our leaders have been talking for years about “new technology” and “creative solutions” to address climate change. Where are they? I want a T-shirt that says “My civilization is on the verge of collapse and all I got was the same fucking iPhone again.”
The Bay Area has the highest density of both billionaires and Nobel Prize winners anywhere on the planet. San Francisco’s former DA is in the White House and our ex-mayor is running the state. We have plenty of access to money, political capital, and genius-level researchers, so what exactly is holding us back?
We need wholescale, systemic change, and we can start locally.
Why is there no dedicated budget for the SF Department of the Environment? Why does the department call a net-zero carbon budget by 2050 “audacious” instead of “The bare fucking minimum?” Why is there no Board of Supes committee on the environment and climate change?
Why do the people who make decisions on the Commission on the Environment, instead of the seemingly random group of lawyers, non-profit directors, and “Brand Builders,” have some advanced degrees in something even a little bit related to the environment?
I don’t mean to slam the great things that San Francisco, and even the state of California generally, are doing as far as environmental policy. Both governments are going above and beyond the standard, and are leading the way among American cities and states in progressive climate policy.
It is, however, a sad reality that the standard against which we are judging our actions will lead to the planet being uninhabitable, possibly for me, and almost certainly for my children. Why are we settling for what we should be doing? Should we not strive for more, if we know we can achieve it? Why are we limiting ourselves to what is relatively easily and straightforwardly accomplished?
Climate change is the problem that encompasses all others. It is the stage on which all other issues facing humanity will play out. Every hour of work spent fighting climate change makes every other future issue that much easier to solve.
I would like to encourage everyone, but especially high-ranking public or elected officials, to read the latest IPCC report, at the very least the summary for policy makers. It was published in 2014, and a lot has changed since then. Most of it for the worse.
The next one (AR6) will be released in a few months. You should read that when it comes out too, and reflect on whether you, as a leader, as someone who sets the policies that will determine the course of civilization as we know it, feel as if you’ve done everything possible to avert total disaster.
We as a city, as a state, as a nation, as a global human society certainly haven’t. It keeps me up at night. It makes me wake up angry. It should do the same to you.
Michael Redmond is an environmental science student at UC Santa Cruz.