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Recent Environmental Wins Spur Hope

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Are we on the cusp of long-awaited major breakthroughs on climate?

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Nov 26, 2015

No Keystone XL

After years of frustrating struggle, a newly-invigorated environmental movement is gaining some serious momentum in its efforts to protect the climate. Everyday more concerned citizens join the fight for a livable future, contesting fossil fuel companies’ continued climate-warming extraction. Leaders at long last seem to be waking up to the fact that there’s no more time to delay and are acting in ways that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. Some of the movement’s recent wins should inspire us all with hope that we may be able to do just enough, just in time, to preserve the planet for future generations.

Hopeful Sign #1: Keystone XL Rejected

Many considered the Keystone pipeline a “done deal” when plans were unveiled seven years ago. Groups recognizing the disastrous climate impact of the pipeline, which would move exceptionally dirty bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands, got to work opposing it. After years of sustained protests, opponents of the pipeline celebrated earlier this month when the president finally vetoed the Keystone pipeline project.

Why it matters: We’ve seen few signs from this administration that “climate leadership” could trump corporate interests. President Obama’s historic decision to stand up for the climate against Big Oil leaves room for hope that more such enlightened moves could follow, changing course from the dangerous trajectory we’ve been on far too long. In explaining his decision, Obama demonstrated his recognition that we cannot safely continue to extract and burn all remaining fossil fuels:

“Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

Will such views spread in time to keep enough carbon out of the atmosphere?

Hopeful Sign #2: Shell Abandons Arctic Drilling

Shell No
After President Obama allowed oil exploration in the Arctic, it seemed that the United States would remain firmly committed to business as usual, warming planet or no. More extraction, more spills, more carbon, more environmental degradation. Public outcry was enormous – and effective. After investing billions in exploration, Shell decided that further efforts to extract fossil fuels in the Arctic were not worth pursuing.

Why it matters: Public opposition was a key factor in Shell’s decision to leave the Arctic. Shell admitted the widespread outcry against their efforts surprised the company and cited a “challenging regulatory environment” as a reason for their decision. That ‘challenging environment’ arose because a vocal public demanded that government regulate fossil fuel companies more carefully. This fall the Department of the Interior suspended the sale of Arctic drilling leases for two years and made conditions more difficult for current leaseholders. Efforts are already underway to push the government to ban Arctic drilling permanently.

Hopeful Sign #3: Clean Power Plan

Long overdue, the Clean Power Plan requires polluting coal plants to reduce their emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Incredible as it may seem, coal plants have till now been allowed to emit unlimited amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Why it matters: Power plants are the U.S.’s biggest source of carbon pollution – more than all the cars, trucks and planes in use in the U.S. – so the new regulations will make a major dent in the nation’s contribution to climate change. Further, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy explains, with the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. is “showing the world that climate action is an incredible economic opportunity. By 2030, the net public health and climate-related benefits from the Clean Power Plan are estimated to be worth $45 billion per year.”

The Senate has just passed a resolution opposing the Clean Power Plan, but Obama quickly responded that he will veto any such efforts to undermine “critical U.S. efforts to reduce dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.”

Hopeful Sign #4: New Voices Enter the Climate Dialogue

This year we’ve seen some new and important additions to the voices calling for climate action. Most powerfully, Pope Francis, spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics worldwide, issued a ground-breaking encylical this spring, urging “every person living on this planet” to work for climate justice and the protection of our common home.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also issued a statement on the effects of climate change on children’s health. New polls from the Pew Research Center suggest that the climate deniers are losing ground with the population at large, as more people recognize the need to act on climate issues.

Why it matters: The Pope is having what a Yale Project on Climate Communication study terms the “Francis effect,” persuading increasing numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics alike that they should be concerned about, and working to slow, climate change. Molly Rauch, Public Health Policy Director for Moms Clean Air Force, points to the Pope’s encyclical and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement on climate change as inspiring evidence that “more and more people are recognizing the scope of this problem. I find hope when I see that the urgency of climate action is moving beyond the environmental community. People are realizing that we are not only working to save the Earth; we are working to saving ourselves. Everyone has a stake in that.”

Hopeful Sign #5: Dramatic Increase in Solar Production

Solar panels
Solar prices have plummeted in recent years, and as a result solar power has added to our energy mix at an astonishing rate. The International Energy Agency released its World Energy Outlook 2015 earlier this month, concluding “that an energy transition is underway: renewables contributed almost half of the world’s new power generation capacity in 2014 and have already become the second-largest source of electricity (after coal).” Prices for renewable sources of energy are now competitive with or even cheaper than fossil fuels. In the words of a recent Bloomberg report, “It has never made less sense to build fossil fuel power plants.” Activists in the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign recently celebrated the planned retirement of more than 200 coal-burning power plants.

Why it matters: When clean renewables cost less than fossil fuels, the market can begin to work in the climate’s favor. New research suggests that renewables could add millions of jobs to the US economy, while increasing household disposable income – those who would argue that a shift to a clean economy cost jobs are losing a leg to stand on.

Reasons for Further Hope

Proposed ‘Keep It In The Ground’ Act: A bill aiming to keep lucrative fossil fuels in the ground would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Today, the proposed Keep It In The Ground Act would ban drilling for oil and natural gas on federal lands and waters.

Whether or not the bill passes – or stalls out indefinitely against opposition that somehow believes profits make a difference on an unlivable planet – the statement this bill makes about the danger posed by extracting all our fossil fuel reserves is extraordinary. Some enlightened leaders are slowly coming to appreciate how allowing such business as usual will cost us far more in the long run.

COP21: 170 nations convene in Paris this December to hash out an agreement on climate pollution and mitigation. Participating nations, including top emitters like the United States, seem more ready to commit to carbon-reduction measures than at previous COPs. President Obama’s comments on Keystone suggest that he has come to appreciate the long-term view that US leadership on climate will ultimately benefit the U.S.: New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity reports that the climate policies of other nations have already lessened the impacts of climate change, saving the U.S. roughly $200 billion. Researchers estimate that further emissions reductions could save an additional $2 trillion in the next fifteen years and $10 trillion over the next few decades.

By all accounts, the pledges 150 nations have already submitted show major steps forward in committing to emissions reductions. But most observers believe that these pledges will fall short of what’s needed to keep global temperatures below the 2 degree target deemed necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change. More drastic measures will have to be taken.

However, more leaders and everyday folk at last seem to recognize that continued inaction is no longer an option. And renewables have never been so economically appealing, even when we don’t take into account the huge savings down the line in averted disasters. Meanwhile, numerous cities have already made their own climate commitments, most far more ambitious than those expected by nations. Prospects for real progress on climate change have never looked better.

In years past, international agreements led to significant progress on several other critical environmental problems. Let’s hope similar wisdom prevails in Paris this December and beyond.

Keep the wins coming!

Peoples Climate March
Concern and pressure from everyday people have been critical to these recent success stories. We need more pressure, more letters, more signatures, and more bodies at demonstrations to push for policies to promote a more livable future. Here are some ways to engage with those making decisions about climate in the next few weeks:

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