Point of No Return by John Darkow, Columbia Missourian

A record number of Americans are alarmed about the climate crisis. According to a Yale University study, six in 10 Americans (59 percent) are either alarmed or concerned. Yet finding constructive ways to act on that concern can be daunting. Discovering how to solve any problem starts with and flows from a clear understanding of the problem itself. In this case, comprehending the climate crisis leads to two critical areas for action. One is to become involved in decarbonizing our lives, our homes, businesses and means of transportation; the other is to lobby governments to hold polluters accountable.

Consider the big picture. Our world is powered primarily by fossil fuels (coal, oil, and methane gas). We dig them from the earth and burn them to generate electricity, warm and cool buildings, and power cars, trucks, and airplanes. For decades, fossil fuel companies, using their enormous financial and political power, have been able to shift the costs of their pollution onto the public. The air pollution alone kills millions of people, currently more than 8 million deaths worldwide every year. The burgeoning economic costs to the public of climate-related heat waves, rising sea levels, chronic droughts, destructive wildfires and other extreme weather events are estimated to reach trillions of dollars.

If fossil fuels were our only energy options it would be a different story, but they’re not. Clean, renewable energy sources are readily available to replace them. Indeed, solar and wind energy are already cheaper in many places. Further, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that the technologies and policies needed to mitigate climate change already exist — and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests. The challenge is how to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy at the speed and scale required and in a way that protects low-and-middle income households.

Decarbonizing can begin with decisions we make around the kitchen table. If you think about it, our homes resemble mini fossil fuel plants. We burn polluting fuels (oil, gas, or coal) to heat and cool our buildings or to heat water, dry clothes, and cook food. Most of us burn gasoline to power our cars. We can change this by choosing to electrify as much as we can afford.

Until recently there have not been many incentives for consumers to switch from fossil fuels, but that has changed as renewables have become cheaper and billions of dollars in subsidies and rebates have become available through the Inflation Reduction Act. The switch from gasoline to battery electric vehicles (EV), from gas or oil furnaces to electric heat pumps, from gas water heaters, stoves, and clothes dryers to electric versions has never been easier. Households now qualify for thousands of dollars in rebates, with the potential to save as much as $1,800/year on power bills. In addition to saving money these actions improve our health and the health of our communities. Recent studies show that 12 percent of childhood asthma (about 650,000 children) is caused by pollution from gas stoves alone. Electrifying buildings has many health benefits.

Unfortunately, as important as these actions are, they won’t be enough to reach our climate goals. To avoid catastrophic and irreversible impacts the IPCC warns that we must halve emissions by 2030. If fossil fuel companies are allowed to continue to increase their production and profit from their polluting fuels, we face a losing battle. We must lobby governments to phase out these dirty fuels and speed the transition to a clean energy future.

The transition won’t be easy because this industry is arguably the most financially and politically powerful force on earth. They have used their power successfully to prevent or delay government policies that would upset their pernicious business model. At the 2023 annual energy conference of oil executives in Houston, their determination to expand oil and gas production was made clear. One CEO remarked: “Our strategy is to stay as oily as we can for as long as we can”.

Government actions will be required on many fronts, such as eliminating subsidies, restricting future extractions, speeding permitting of renewables, and increasing investments in healthy forests and sustainable agriculture. But one policy option stands out. Thousands of prominent economists contend that “a carbon tax offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.” It percolates through the entire economy, providing an incentive for all decision-makers (governments, businesses, and consumers) to find ways to reduce emissions. As demand for fossil fuels declines the industry’s political and financial power also diminishes. Policies that include a carbon fee, cash-back dividend, and a border carbon adjustment are gaining support in the U.S. and around the world. More than 10 carbon pricing bills have been introduced in Congress in recent years. They need our support.

We can move from alarm to action. Decisions we make around our kitchen tables to decarbonize by switching to electric powered appliances or electric cars will reduce emissions and engage us in the “great implementation” of clean energy. At the same time, lobbying our elected officials can lead to legislation that phases out fossil fuels by making polluters pay, using the revenue to support households through the transition, and achieving a global solution by incentivizing all our trading partners, including China, to adopt similar policies.


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