Start with the simplest thing: People need to eat. You need your machine to produce electricity. You need water and air to breathe. And you’ve got to pee. We run around every day with more on our plates, and we need more for our health, too.
People have shorter lives than they did 30 years ago partly because the amount of heat-trapping emissions we release into the atmosphere keeps growing. Economists call it the “carbon budget.” Every year we pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it shrinks the available amount of carbon in the earth’s soil and oceans — the carbon budget. A particular ton of carbon dioxide, for example, only gets half as good a climate benefit as it did in 1984.
A separate accounting tells us how much of our allotted carbon budget we’ve already reached. But cutting global greenhouse gas emissions faster is essential to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius — a magic number that many think is still doable — given the damage we’ve already done. And that point was underscored by new numbers released this week.
Take the world’s total carbon budget, and stop holding your breath. We’ve already used up 40 percent of it.
Oh, and while we’re using up our budget, why don’t we use the rest to attack climate change? The following graph shows how, by agreeing to a binding agreement to stop greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we’d slash global greenhouse gas emissions by half.
I understand the resistance. The United States has spent more than a century reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The president claims he’s “the greatest climate champion the world has ever known.” It’s certainly true that many of his aides claim that a warming planet is the biggest obstacle to U.S. jobs and growth. But there’s no need to “freeze” the Earth’s temperature to salvage the American way of life. We can grow the economy without risking it.
People have been flooding their homes and drowning cities this summer in the desert heat. An entire town north of Las Vegas, Nev., has flooded five times. It takes a whole lot of humans to produce the energy needed to generate half a ton of CO2 per day. A whole lot of humans can also be seen wearing wetsuits and toting umbrellas.
The American way of life, over the past 25 years, has increasingly become a comfortable way of surviving. Coal and oil have dominated the U.S. economy, and we’ve gained air conditioning and a greater variety of products. (But we can reduce pollution by not using as much electricity for air conditioning, and by using less travel.)
If we use up our climate budget faster than we need to, we’ll find that pollution is still high, the economy is still feeling the pain, and we’re reaching the limits of our health, our children’s health, and the lives of future generations. It may be necessary to give up some of the luxuries that we’ve come to take for granted to protect the planet for the rest of us.
More pay is definitely needed for scientists and lawyers and academics. More infrastructure will be needed to reduce gridlock and hold Amazon accountable. If we put people back to work, we’ll return from war, migration, and disease to the kind of earth that the United Nations agreed was safe for us all last century.
Achieving these lofty goals isn’t simply “saving the planet.” It’s a matter of national security and economic growth.