It's Time for a New Strategy to Cut Carbon Emissions

Bill McKibben calls for truth and a new movement to pass climate legislation

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If you’re ticked off about the Senate’s failure to vote on, much less pass, climate legislation this summer, you’re not alone. Climate activist Bill McKibben recently published a provocative op-ed on TomDispatch that reflects the anger and disappointment felt by many Americans eager to keep the planet from melting.

McKibben, like many others, has been sounding the alarm on global warming for decades, yet in many ways we’re no closer to preventing a global climate catastrophe now than we were in 1988 when James Hansen first testified to Congress that global warming was already underway.

Now that climate change legislation has once again been shelved, where do we go from here? McKibben offers a few intriguing answers to this question in his latest article. He argues that the time to endlessly pander to the industries and legislators intent on weakening the climate bill just to get something passed is done, over, finito. That strategy obviously didn’t work, so let’s try a new one.

To get started, McKibben challenges people to start calling a spade, well, a spade. In other words, we need to stop dancing around the term "global warming." Though green jobs and energy independence are just two of the nice things that America will achieve as byproducts of cutting carbon emissions, the fact we are altering the planet’s climate in irrevocable ways is the real issue at hand, so let’s focus on it.

Writes McKibben,

"It is the heat, and also the humidity. Since warm air holds more water than cold, the atmosphere is about 5 percent moister than it was 40 years ago, which explains the freak downpours that seem to happen someplace on this continent every few days.

It is the carbon — that’s why the seas are turning acid, a point Obama could have made with ease while standing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. ‘It’s bad that it’s black out there,’ he might have said, ‘but even if that oil had made it safely ashore and been burned in our cars, it would still be wrecking the oceans.’ Energy independence is nice, but you need a planet to be energy independent on."

The second step, argues McKibben, is to start asking our government for what we actually want, rather than what we think we might get. We need to aim high by asking for policies that will ratchet down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, a figure that many respected scientists and climate experts have said is the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere.

Aiming high is a negotiating tactic that has been used successfully by politicians and pre-schoolers alike. If you want a new bike from your parents, you don’t start by asking them for a used ten-speed with worn tires. You ask for what you really want, a full-suspension mountain bike with rear shocks and a cycling jacket to boot. That way, at the very least you’re sure to get something that falls in the middle.

Sure, we may not get what we ask for, but consider the alternative: by lowering our standards in this latest round of climate negotiations we created the possibility of getting a climate bill that didn’t actually do much for the climate.

Completing these two steps is crucial to creating the movement necessary to achieve real action on global warming because, just as we saw with this latest round of climate talks, you can’t get people fired up about watered-down legislation.

It’s time to change tactics.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.