Our Responsibility for Climate Change

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first of three installments of the Sixth Assessment report. Working Group I, as the IPCC refers to it, reported on the Physical Science Basis of “past, present, and future climate change” activity and was approved by 195 member governments. The report cements the scientific consensus “that human activities are the primary cause of the observed climate-warming trend over the past century,” while also establishing that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying [emphasis added].” 

Climate change is happening faster than scientists previously thought, and the less we do about it, the worse the effects are. Therefore, we need to prioritize passing legislation that accounts for this while also understanding our individual responsibilities in tackling this problem. For the sake of success, we must better understand the political atmosphere surrounding climate change. If we are to achieve the best policy, we must fight in all the arenas. We must deeply consider the influence of our speech and rhetoric and, most importantly, start pushing for the monumental infrastructural shift towards an energy system that can give us a balance between greenhouse gasses emitted into and taken out of the atmosphere (i.e., net zero carbon emissions). 

First, it is crucial to acknowledge the complexity of climate change. A climate that is heating up due to the excessive buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has proven to have effects that go far, far beyond just increasing temperature. These effects include detrimental changes in our growing seasons, ecosystems, agriculture, sea levels, and precipitation patterns and heighten negative occurrences such as droughts, heat waves, dry spells, hurricanes, and the melting of Arctic sea ice. These consequences will affect different regions of the Earth in various ways and would most likely spawn continually damaging phenomena, including rapid loss of biodiversity and habitats, proliferation of invasive species, forest fires, and others. Additionally, each effect links to other problems through a destructive chain. Droughts and dryness, for example, will threaten agriculture to the point of causing regional famines, especially in developing countries marked by food insecurity. The political repercussions could prove colossal when we consider climate displacement of refugees who have nowhere to live other than countries with better established food systems. More developed countries would have to make difficult decisions regarding climate refugees; considering how challenging it was for Europe to deal with their refugee crisis beginning in 2011, one can only imagine the effort required to adapt to the massive scale of people who will be forced to leave their increasingly unlivable regions due to a changing climate. The better we prepare for the consequences of climate change, the better off we will be in avoiding these deep-cutting crises. 

So how do we do it?

Inventor, engineer, and MacArthur Fellowship winner, Saul Griffith, gives an answer. The U. S. Department of Energy contracted his scientific research lab, Otherlab, to develop an in-depth picture of the U.S. energy economy for the purpose of “identifying research priorities and to model scenarios for new energy technologies and policies.” This resulted in the U.S. Energy Flow Super Sankey, a graph which proportionally charts the entire flow of energy in the United States from its natural acquisition or import to its most minute usage, such as how much energy roofing contractors use. With this, Griffith, along with Sam Calisch and Laura Fraser, wrote a thoughtful handbook on how to tackle the problem of climate change. 

Their answer? “Electrify everything.” Electrifying, Griffith claims, is the fastest and most practical way of replacing fossil fuels on a large scale. The effects would also prove incredibly positive, from creating millions of jobs to saving households thousands of dollars a year. Griffith’s economic studies have shown that a mass mobilization effort to decarbonize America could produce “up to 25 million jobs” in manufacturing, tech, construction, and other sectors that could not be offshored. These jobs can be taken by those workers already in the energy industry, offering a ready alternative for them instead of leaving them unemployed. 

Furthermore, Griffith reminds us that electric energy is also much more efficient. Electric cars have proven to save drivers approximately $6,000 to $10,000 over the life of the vehicle when analyzing the cents-per-mile and cents-per-kilowatt ratio. With solar power, households can save thousands of dollars a year on energy and even receive energy credit for future use from the grid by contributing excess energy back to the grid, ultimately saving more money. The investment is not only more climate-responsible, but also financially advisable. 

The obstacle, Griffith notes, is the “regulatory environment” in the United States that needs to change in order to keep the cost of electricity as low as possible to incentivize consumers to install solar panels, which can very well be more affordable than current utility providers. Griffith reminds us that the current costs of the fossil fuel industry are by no means exemplary. By electrifying everything and decentralizing our energy, American consumers can save the U.S. economy billions in the transmission, maintenance, and construction expenses of the fossil fuel industry and can erase the industry’s subsidies, to which taxpayers and the international community contribute, that total to more than $500 billion. The last point that Griffith makes is regarding the localization and decentralization of energy. Energy will be generated in local communities with new jobs for retrofitting all kinds of buildings with solar panels. 

Individual Responsibility for Climate Change

We, as Americans, should try to initiate, promote, and realize legislation on the national, state, and local levels that rework the rules and regulations around electric energy, notably those revolving around establishing solar panels. Solar is now the cheapest source of electricity in history. Out-dated regulations on each federal level make electric energy more expensive for consumers with excessive paperwork and fees for permission while protecting utility monopolies. We have assistance on the federal level with scaleable tax-credits, regulatory acts that protect net metering (meaning excess energy that you produce from your personal energy supply will be credited by utility providers and rewired into the local energy grid), and other resources to help better understand solar panel and electric energy legislation. The goal is to reduce the capital costs associated with renewable energy, and we must play the political game to get this done. We can utilize some state and local ballot initiatives, communicate with our representatives, vote for those individuals with clean energy interests for policy, and propose bills and referendums that can repeal the regulations that artificially inflate the cost of electric energy. 

With legislation in place, we can capitalize on opportunities that make our energy cheaper, safer, and more efficient for us in the long run. Even now, states like Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, Florida, Washington, and others can take advantage of a lower average cost to install solar panels and expect a return on investment within “seven or eight years.” This is also without accounting for the benefits of saving money afterward and the potential for extra credit from net metering. Apart from these benefits, Americans can utilize opportunities to replace their household appliances with electric ones. Water heaters, heaters, stoves, dryers, ovens, and grills can all be electrified. Furthermore, with the recent infrastructure bill being passed, we might hope to see electric appliances become more economical than gas appliances considering an emphasis on heavily subsidizing research and development for cleaner energy technology. Our individual responsibility lies in becoming more self-reliant and ecologically friendly, with an eventual return on our investment. 

Additionally, playing the political game necessitates the need for political support. We must expedite the political process as much as possible and maintain a culture that cares about the environment and is willing enough to push for active legislation, all while individuals act within their personal ability to electrify. We must also understand the significance of our cultural attitudes towards climate change. For example, influential right-wing political pundits like Candace Owens, who outwardly declares she does not care about the environment and does not “believe” in climate change, and Ben Shapiro, who centralizes the focus of climate change on alarmism and political posturing, impede our legislative and societal progress. With respect to winning politically, when we discuss climate change in public, we must consider the effects of our speech. We do not want to give climate change deniers and downplayers anything that could simplify the problem or redirect the focus away from climate change. Therefore, it helps when we have some idea of a solution in mind, watch our tone, and resist pathos as a rhetorical device, as it is proven to feed Shapiro’s twitter statements. Saul Griffith even says, “I believe more in selling the story about the carrots than the story of moral righteousness and the environment.” If we are to build political success, we must make sure to not delegitimize our concerns in the eyes of others with high moral talk and petulant attitudes. It is a necessity to compromise in this way while maintaining the true significance of climate change as a strategy against the rhetoric of prominent figures like Owens and Shapiro.

On top of this, the direct political opposition of powerful corporations such as ExxonMobil was revealed as an issue when executive lobbyist Keith McCoy was duped by a journalist team for the show Unearthed into explaining their process for countering climate change legislation. McCoy brought to light their strategies of buying out moderate Democrat senators in conservative states, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, knowing they can be easily swayed out of fear of the bargaining chips Exxon could bring against them, like funding opposing challengers in elections. With these politicians, they conspired to get rid of legislated carbon taxes as well as substantial spending for “clean energy and transport.” ExxonMobil then tried to express its opposition and disagreement with the statements of this senior director while still having him on staff for nearly three months after the events. This example reveals that these corporations with something to lose from climate change policy and the shift to large-scale renewable energy will not go down without a fight and will pay whomever however much to prolong their industry. This is what we are fighting against, and this is why it is important to strategize politically. 

Scandal and rhetoric make up the political atmosphere of climate change, and it can improve only with our individual efforts to consider how we discuss it, what we can get the government to change, and what we can and will do to electrify. Saul Griffith explains the immensity of the economic and political task by comparing it to that of the wartime mobilization of industry during WWII that enabled us to build as many airplanes, tanks, guns, and ships as needed. A task as big as preparing our country and the world for climate change should be felt on the shoulders of each American as they consider how they can help fight it. If we are to save this planet with all its mountains and valleys, all its creatures and crops, all its terrains and habitats, all that is attributed to the heavens, then it is time to think as a collective and act deliberately. What we can do as a country is also dependent on what you will do. So, what will you do?

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