Whitelee Windfarm on the outskirts of Glasgow (Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)
Report after report tells us our planet is in trouble. Most recently, two teams of researchers concluded that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s gradual collapse due to global warming has become unstoppable; as a result, sea levels will rise by feet, not inches, in the centuries to come. This is just one of the many frightening effects of climate change.
Yet Americans remain unfazed. Only 40 percent of us are concerned, a Gallup poll recently found. Twenty-five percent remain global warming skeptics. Legislative attempts at climate action are inevitably derailed, and political hopefuls increasingly play the science denial card to win support.
So what can we do?
We reached out to a handful of scientists, policy experts, writers and activists to ask: “If you could require America to do just one thing — any one thing — to combat climate change in 2014, what would it be?” Here’s what they said:
Change How We Eat
Dr. Jane Goodall
I want Americans — and others — to eat less meat. As more and more people worldwide eat more and more meat, vast areas of forest are cleared to grow grain to feed livestock. Ever-growing herds of cattle and goats destroy more areas of forest. Destruction of forests releases CO2 from trees and forest soils — and leaves fewer forests worldwide to absorb atmospheric CO2. Large amounts of methane are released (especially by cows in the form of farts and belches). Gallons of fossil fuels are used to transport and prepare feed, to transport livestock from factory farms to slaughter and meat to the market.
Remember the Space Race
Scientist and broadcaster
Faced with the magnitude and seriousness of global warming, and the tremendous opportunities in addressing it, we need the kind of leadership America is known for. We need an all-out effort as great as or greater than the determination to pull ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race. The America that set me on my path would never deny the reality of a scientifically proven problem, or claim nothing can be done about it or that meeting the challenge will destroy the economy. By committing to seek solutions, we will reap benefits — expected and unexpected. It’s time to revive the American know-how and gung-ho enthusiasm that has long characterized this great nation.
Do What You Uniquely Can Do
William D. Nordhaus
Sterling professor of economics, Cowles Foundation, Yale University
People ask, what can I do? My answer is that people should address the threat of climate change in ways that best fit their personal interests and capabilities. Students can learn, and teachers can teach. Citizens can inform themselves. Engineers can develop low-carbon technologies. Politicians can confront the realities and speak the truth. Media can avoid meaningless balancing of good and bad arguments. As an economist, I can explain why carbon pricing (such as through carbon taxes) is the most effective mechanism to reduce emissions. There is much to do, for everyone.
Take Action in Your Communities
Executive director, Greenpeace USA; creator, The Story of Stuff
If I could require Americans to do one thing, it is to get active! Already millions know and are concerned about climate change, now we need to move that passive concern into action. That action could take many forms depending on each person’s skills and interests: shut down coal-fired power plants, get your university to divest from fossil fuels and invest in a clean energy economy, encourage companies and state and local governments to switch to renewable energy, demand leadership from our elected officials. It doesn’t matter so much which thing we do, as long as we all do something.
Pass a Carbon Tax to Fund Next-Gen Research
Professor of atmospheric science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
If I could be a czar for a day (or a few days!) I would direct substantial federal resources toward research and development in a) next generation passively safe, modular nuclear fission reactors, and b) carbon capture and sequestration technology. I would implement a carbon tax to fund these ventures and otherwise encourage migration away from fossil fuels. At the same, I would force all industries to pay for their externalities; for example, the coal industry would be required pay for the health problems and premature mortality that arise from dumping waste into the atmosphere and waterways. I would provide strong incentives for producing more energy-efficient vehicles and buildings and for developing more efficient and effective renewable energy sources. Finally, I would start a movement to amend the Constitution to make it illegal to influence (whether by voting or through money) elections outside one’s own district.
Follow in the Footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.
Executive director, Greenpeace International
Throughout history, when people have faced the greatest injustices, from apartheid to slavery, positive social change has happened as the result of peaceful civil disobedience. We are at the point in the struggle to save the climate where we must put our lives on the line. I would encourage Americans to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. and take peaceful action to stop the burning of fossil fuels and the collusion of our governments with industry interests, joining in the great worldwide tradition of civil disobedience. When we stand up together we can make the greatest change.
Author, founder of 350.org
Treat It Like It’s World War III
I’d put a serious price on carbon, and send the proceeds back to every American every month; and I’d push for renewable energy as if it was the start of World War II and we needed tanks and fighter jets. But these obvious steps won’t happen until we break the power of the fossil fuel industry, so what I’d really do is ask everyone to come join us in the streets of New York on September 20.
Physicist, philosopher and environmental activist
Stop Letting Corporations Rule
This is the one thing I would ask of the USA: Stop promoting corporate rule and corporate greed. Stop giving corporations personhood.
Author, biologist, distinguished scholar in residence, Ithaca College
Thanks to the heat-trapping gases already stashed in our atmosphere from two centuries of fossil fuel dependency, we are rapidly approaching the last-straw-breaks-the-camel’s-back moment in the story of climate change. To stabilize the situation, we need to control methane. The best science
shows us that methane is more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over the short term — the only timeframe now left to us. Thus, to sidestep disaster, my single act would be to declare a ban on fracking and redirect toward renewable energy projects all the capital investment now invested in blowing up our nation’s bedrock to extract the vaporous, inherently leaky, climate-killing fossil fuel called natural gas — which is the leading source of methane emissions in the United States. Cement well casings leak, crack, age, shrink and crumble over time. Each gas well is a methane chimney that can never be completely turned off. Stop drilling, baby.
Clean up Polluting Power Plants
Executive director, Green For All
Climate change is already taking a toll on human health and safety. And the most vulnerable among us — poor folks, people of color and kids — are hit first and worst
. We have a chance right now to make a huge dent in the pollution that causes climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering safeguards that would, for the first time, set limits on how much carbon power companies can spew into our shared air. Outdated, dirty power plants would be required to use technology to cut their pollution — or switch to cleaner, more modern forms of energy. Oil and coal companies have gotten away with poisoning our air and water for too long. They’ve been raking in billions in profit, leaving the rest of us to shoulder the costs — from asthma treatments and hospital visits to disaster response. It’s time for them to take responsibility for the harm they’re causing our communities. It’s a simple choice: We can protect polluter profits, or the health and safety of our kids and grandkids.