By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University
As the climate crisis accelerates, many well-meaning people are energetically promoting grand visions under Green New Deal banners to prepare the US for a post carbon future. The visions are extremely appealing, covering seemingly vital needs such as clean energy, transportation, affordable housing, ecological restoration, with justice as a goal and creating in good jobs in the process. Yet if we are not careful, all of these plans will come with an unbearable climate cost: the embodied emissions inherent in the proposals represent nothing but an emission blitz that will only make the crisis worse.
It would be the height of injustice – but par for the American course – to unleash this emission blitz on the rest of the planet simply because we built everything wrong and waited too long to realize it. Climate science doesn’t allow for a grace period in which the U.S. is afforded an opportunity to “finally get it right this time.”
The crisis is rapidly worsening. An April 2020 study found that, without massive changes to our current emissions trajectory, 2°C of global warming is likely to be reached sometime around 2040 – less than 20 years. Climate writer David Wallace Wells recently described the consequences of reaching that bleak temperature landmark: “more than 150 million additional people would die from the effects of pollution, storms that used to arrive once every century would hit every single year, and that lands that are today home to 1,5 billion people would become literally uninhabitable, at least by the standard of human history.” According to climate scientist Joëlle Gergis,“the implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought.”
A late 2019 study shows that Global heating has already triggered 9 of the 15 known tipping points of the planetary regulating system, potentially leading to a cascade of unstoppable, devastating climactic events. These could destabilize living conditions over large swaths of the planet, causing immense human suffering and likely leading to sustained global military conflict over the coming decades. Leading climate scientists recently published a paper in the journal Naturethat concluded that “this is an existential threat to civilization.”
This relentless rush toward 2°C of global heating will set in motion “disastrous consequences” possibly beyond humanity’s control as preeminent climate scientist James Hansen and others concluded in a 2013 study. There is no doubt what the consequences will be. According to writer Wen Stephensen in the book What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice, these consequences will be “to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives — and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives.” He concludes: “There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.”
Climate science is absolutely clear as to how to avoid this: we must end all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, land use change, ruminant animals and cement. And further, we must do everything possible to draw down excess CO2 in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the UN climate report in 2018 that suggested we had until 2030 to reduce emissions by roughly half in order to limit warming to 1.5C has given us a false sense of time to address the problem.
This should now be apparent: there are no years left to reduce emissions – we must end them now. On our current trajectory, the planet is heading towards 3C to 5C of additional heating this century. Therefore the conception that we have any carbon budget leftis just monstrous. This means the end of sweeping high emission dreams of a better way, only the truth that any more emissions will perpetuate global climate violence and injustice.
How are any extravagant Green New Deal plans compatible with this?
Certainly, the ideas contained in many iterations of the Green New Deal hold out exciting possibilities. A nationwide high speed rail network, public light rail, bus rapid transit, electric vehicles, a smart grid connecting the country with renewable electricity coupled with enormous manufacturing of wind turbines, solar panels and other essential clean energy components, needed infrastructure upgrades, and affordable, safe, and adequate housing. All thisand more would no doubt be vitally needed, were we not fighting for our collective lives.
But the unavoidable fact is that all these things would be underpinned by vast embodied emissions. Achieving all the proposals would need massive amounts of steel and concrete, which currently account for over 10% of all annual CO2 emissions. Then there are emissions associated with the transport, construction and required infrastructure. Whatever the ultimate embodied emission cost for these proposals, it is too much.
There is no decoupling from the creation of what we think we need from carbon emissions. None. We don’t get what we consider to be a modern society without carbon emissions.
Many policy creators miss this all-important fact. Instead they have framed these Green New Deal ideas as challenges to imagine “what will our cities and towns look like, moving forward?”; and “the biggest design idea in a century”;and “we need to visualize and give form to the exciting, new low-carbon landscape.”
Further at least one respected climate futurist gives cover to these emission schemes by stating that we “can’t get off carbon without burning carbon.” This enables emission-laden policy suggestions by rationalizing them as, “we’re doing good work.”
These are fundamental misreadings of our predicament, based on early 20thcentury approaches to large problems. Despite affirmations to the contrary, they do not come from serious understanding of climate science. This is planning for a world that no longer exists nor can be brought back without massive injustice in the form of an emissions blitz. Sadly, there is no acknowledgement that these plans will increase CO2 in the atmosphere at a time when it must be reduced; there is never any carbon accounting with these plans.
Instead we get platitudes about “innovation” “low carbon,” and glossed over with the shameful use of the term “justice.” In the real world, these plans would be a gross injustice. As writer Kate Aronoff recently said, “…let’s judge climate policies by how many people they’ll kill, anywhere, based on our best scientific understanding of the problem…” It is disgusting that many otherwise well-meaning people think that somehow Americans are, or should be, exempt from the laws of physics. We don’t get a do-over to rebuild our living arrangements.
What has caused this? Perhaps a partial answer lies in the concept of “mitigation denial,” a term recently coined by climate scientist Kevin Anderson. Mitigation denial is evident in people who otherwise would never deny the reality of the crisis, but yet are not ready to accept the blindingly obvious solution: completely eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation denial is a reaction by high emitters – including almost all policy makers – who fear losing lifestyle and professional perks. It also demonstrates an absolute lack of imagination.
Yes, ending emissions will radically change our lives, but it doesn’t mean that we have to surrender to doom. No, we don’t get all the great things we are capable of dreaming of. We will go into the post carbon future with the world we’ve already got, not one built with an emissions blitz. To meet this reality head on, we must unleash our imaginations in other directions to address without emissions the problems confronting us.
An emission-free Green New Deal can lead us to a better place. There will be multitudinous jobs in undoing the harm in our environment and restoring it to health, transitioning to a low energy, healthy food economy, repurposing and increasing efficiency of existing buildings for housing, developing micro-mobility options and using the trains we have for long range transport, salvaging materials in areas from which we must retreat, and much more.
Learning to live well without emissions is lasting sustainability. Most importantly, an emission-free Green New Deal will help us achieve the true justice we must have to succeed in the face of the crisis.
Lead Image: © Steve Austin (used with permission)