On February 13, during an act of planned civil disobedience, we both were arrested at the White House. Along with 46 other citizens – authors and ranchers, reverends and farmers, union leaders and scientists – we had handcuffed ourselves to the White House fence to deliver a message to President Barack Obama: We cannot save our climate if you allow the United State to make bad choices like building a pipeline to carry Canada’s carbon-intensive tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico, which could prove catastrophic for our land, water, and climate. It would only feed the expansion of strip mining the boreal forests and wetlands for tar sands crude.
Tar sands are far from the only one in this age of extreme energy sources. Mountaintop removal mining is devastating the Appalachian mountains in the US. Offshore drilling threatens the Arctic. And the highly controversial drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has set off an unprecedented rush to exploit shale gas deposits around the globe.
The exploitation of these extreme fossil fuel resources comes with both inherent (at times catastrophic) risks and guaranteed harms to the health of people and the environment. Every year, many thousands die as the result of fossil fuel pollution. In exchange for energy, humanity has tolerated these negative consequences for more than a century. This no longer an option. These resources will not last forever, and our environment can’t continue to take this level of pollution. There are also far better energy alternatives.
We cannot continue dumping carbon pollution into our atmosphere without drastically disrupting our planet’s climate. Already, we’re seeing the results of nearly two centuries of unrestrained carbon emissions. Droughts, storms, and wildfires have struck the US and other nations. At this point, the question isn’t whether the planet’s climate will become warmer, but how much warmer before we can stabilize it. The only certain way we know to stabilize it is to stop using fossil fuels.
Of course, we cannot stop burning fossil fuels overnight. But the science is clear about the upper limit of how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere before global climate warming exceeds 2C. According to the International Energy Agency, that limit is equivalent to burning about a third of known fossil fuel reserves on the planet. In other words, to avoid climate disruption that could threaten civilization, we must leave at least two-thirds of all the oil, coal, and natural gas that we know about in the ground.
Instead of developing extreme fossil fuels like tar sands, it is critical that we focus on transitioning from dirty fuels to clean energy as quickly as possible. Obviously, we cannot rely on fossil fuel companies to take the initiative to make this transition. It is up to the people to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions and insist that they do the right thing
Fortunately, the best answer to a bad idea is a better idea. We have better ways to power our global economy. The growth of renewables in just the past four years has been extraordinary. Clean, renewable energy is already taking the place of coal-fired power in the United States. Installed wind power has more than doubled, and last year it was the number one source of new American electric generating capacity, accounting for 42% of all new capacity.
Renewable energy as a whole accounted for 55% of all new American generating capacity. In Spain, wind power this winter surpassed that from all other sources. Thanks to solar, Germany is on track to get 35% of its electricity from renewables by the end of the decade. But Germany soon will be surpassed by China as the country with the largest installed base of solar. This year China will more than double its installed solar from 4 gigawatts to 10 gigawatts.
The most exciting thing about renewable energy is that we still don’t know what, if any, limits there are on how much of it we can create and how quickly we can make the switch. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory reports that the US has sufficient renewable energy resources to provide 80% of the nation’s electricity by 2050, using only currently existing technologies. If we invest in the research and development of clean energy technologies, rather than fossil fuel boondoggles like Keystone XL and Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic drilling escapades, who knows what new and exciting technologies we might have?
We know what we need to do: stop using fossil fuels. And we know how we can do it: by refusing to subsidize fossil fuels and by increasing our investment in renewables and energy efficiency. We have the solutions right now that can put fossil fuels in our past forever. What we do not have is time to waste. The climate is already changing, and people are already suffering the consequences. We must start making the right choices now.
President Obama knows this as well as we do. The question is whether he is prepared to make those right choices even when they are tough politics. His decision on Keystone XL will give us an answer. We are hopeful that he will show the world that the United States is ready to lead and begin solving the climate crisis.