An Optimist's Guide to Solving Climate Change and Saving the World

We asked experts what policies they would put in place to fight climate change and got some unexpected answers.

by Geoff Dembicki; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Aug 1 2018, 7:47pm

Imagine, for a second, that the debate on climate change is over. Donald Trump is no longer president, of course. The political and economic influence of the fossil fuel industry is in freefall, climate change denial is an absurdity from the past that only your grandparents still talk about, and every political and business leader on the planet has made slowing global temperature rise their single most important goal. What would it be like to live in that world?

Probably your mental landscape includes more solar panels and wind turbines, highways full of electric cars, energy-efficient buildings, the replacing of dirty fuels with less damaging alternatives. If that’s the case, you could be ignoring a huge part of the solution. Cleaner technology is essential if we are to have any kind of long-term future. But it’s only one piece of a transition with potential to restructure our planet-ravaging economic system and the toxic politics the system has created. Unbeknownst to most people, even those who follow climate change closely, this transition is already underway.

Over the past few weeks I have had long and unguarded conversations with experts who don’t see themselves as traditional environmental thinkers, yet are on the leading edge of efforts to address the most serious crisis civilization has ever faced. I asked them to describe a world where their solutions are being implemented at the highest levels of our political and economic order. And though their answers were as diverse as their backgrounds, they agreed that the future we must build to stave off environmental collapse may well be more prosperous, equitable, and democratic than the world we currently live in. That’s the good news.

But they warned me that if we mismanage this transition, if we don’t adhere to certain fundamental truths, we risk creating a society every bit as unequal and exploitative as the one we currently live in.



Examples of our shift away from nature-destroying activities are everywhere. There is the California town of Richmond suing Chevron, its biggest employer, for helping to cause climate change. There’s the Lubicon Lake Band installing solar panels in the heart of Canada’s tar sands, and the Los Angeles battery-storage company that’s investing $400 million in Appalachian coal country. Zoom out and view these stories in aggregate and their impact is staggering. Researchers with the London School of Economics calculated one in ten US workers are helping build the green economy. London-based analysts FTSE Russell have estimated the global green economy to be worth $4 trillion, which is comparable to the oil and gas sector.

“We can build something better than we had before by moving off of fossil fuels,” May Boeve, the head of the climate advocacy group 350.org, told me.

Stories about climate change rarely dominate the news cycle. And in the Donald Trump era they’ve been pushed further to the margins. Much news coverage of this year’s G7 summit meeting in Quebec, for example, focussed on the personal feud between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Yet a communiqué released by the summit, which Trump refused to endorse, suggested that future economic progress is inseparable from climate action. “This is something greens have been demanding for years: climate change at the core of global geopolitics,” meteorologist and Grist climate columnist Eric Holthaus wrote in the wake of that summit. “Now it’s here.”

We’re still very far from where we need to be. A paper this June in Nature Energy estimated the world must invest an additional $460 billion per year in climate solutions over 12 years to have any hopes of hitting 1.5 degrees. Any warming beyond that target, which is looking less and less achievable, drastically increases humankind’s exposure to deadly heat waves, flooding, diseases, drought, and famine. Yet that doesn’t mean we’re charging headfirst to civilizational collapse.

“The kind of chaos that most apocalyptic visions describe… like, ‘We’re going to have gunboats in the harbors shooting refugees,’ that kind of stuff rarely recognizes how bad that would be for capitalism,” Geoff Mann, co-author of Climate Leviathan, a new book explaining how geopolitics could evolve in response to climate change, told me. “All the most powerful states are tied very tightly to the health of the global capitalist system and they’re not just going to throw that up and forget about it.”

A view of an oil sands site in Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo by Ian Willms/Getty

Instead, as the impacts of climate change grow more destabilizing, business leaders are likely to push politicians to mount an aggressive response. The pressure Mann describes is already building. Last year, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and 21 other companies placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Post urging Trump to keep the US in the Paris climate agreement, arguing “climate change presents both business risks and business opportunities.” (Trump ignored this plea.) Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum, which hosts an annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, bringing together thousands of CEOs, world leaders, celebrities and economists, warned that “the world needs to move faster on climate change to avoid disaster.”

Mann predicts we could someday see the emergence of a global authority representing the interests of powerful countries and corporations that would help coordinate and enforce drastic climate actions around the world. This world would be much more sustainable than today’s but also has the potential to be massively unequal. Which is why Mann argues that “we have to ensure this transition doesn’t lock in existing injustices or inequalities even more than it already does.”

The time to do so is dwindling. People with the least responsibility for climate change, like the Filipino typhoon survivors I met last year for VICE, are already suffering more than the wealthy people who caused it. Yet everyone I spoke to for this story thinks a planetary transition guided by the desires and experience of communities on the frontlines of climate change is still possible. Here’s what it could look like:

Mass Affordable Housing

Humans need a place to live and a means of transporting themselves. Yet the way our society provides these necessities is terrible for climate change. Many people live in inefficiently designed buildings and get around in gas-powered cars. These two things—buildings and transportation—represent more than one-third of US carbon emissions. For years we’ve treated this as mainly a technological problem to be solved by designers, architects and businesspeople. In Vancouver, Canada, where I live, a developer named Westbank is building a 43-story housing tower that is certified as LEED Gold, one of the highest standards for sustainability. It has dozens of electric vehicle charging stations. Studio apartments start at $1 million.

What if we treated the climate impact of buildings and transportation as a social challenge instead of an engineering challenge? California offers an interesting case study. Over the past decade or so the state has passed some of the world’s most ambitious climate legislation. Yet more and more people are getting around in private cars. Several years ago Vien Truong, an organizer from West Oakland, met with people living in lower-income communities to learn what they need to become more sustainable. Near the top of their list was affordable housing. California’s rapidly increasing housing costs have pushed lower-income people to the edges of cities, far from public transportation. “This is why you always want to talk to community members first,” she told me.

In 2012, Truong helped pass a law that redirects one-quarter of the revenue raised by cap and trade in California (a program that makes polluters pay for emitting carbon) to communities left out of the state’s economic boom. To date, that adds up to more than $800 million. Affordable housing near transit is a funding priority. “It wasn’t just an environmental policy,” said Truong, who is now head of Dream Corps, a social justice organization started by former Barack Obama advisor Van Jones. “It was a way of designing policy that supports healthy, whole, and safe communities.” She has since spoken to policymakers around the world about the experience. “Absolutely I do think it’s a model we can replicate,” Truong argued.

An apartment building covered in solar cells in Berlin. Photo by Andreas Rentz

More Education for Girls

Many people’s image of progress on climate change involves a room full of world leaders in expensive suits signing a densely-worded treaty. But progress can also look like a classroom of children. When environmental researcher and author Paul Hawken set out to rank the 100 most effective solutions to climate change, he put expanding access to education for girls living in lower-income countries at number six. Women with more education have fewer children, which reduces stress on the planet’s resources. They also tend to earn more money and contribute to stronger communities. Hawken estimated this could help cause a 60-gigaton drop in global emissions. That’s roughly equivalent to removing 340 million cars from the road.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation in Northern Alberta, as well as a Climate Change Fellow at the David Suzuki Foundation, has seen firsthand the transformative impact of education. Her hometown of Little Buffalo is at the center of Canada’s tar sands. In 2013, a pipeline broke and spilled 28,000 barrels of oil near the community. Horrified, she decided to lead an effort to install 80 solar panels in Little Buffalo. “It was the first time ever that solar panels were seen in our community,” she told me. When she spoke about the project with local indigenous elementary school students, “You could just see within their questioning that they were really excited,” Laboucon-Massimo recalled. “They had really started thinking about, ‘Oh these solar panels help us not burn fossil fuels.’” The children will now grow up knowing a future without oil, gas, and coal is possible.

No More Climate Denial

Much of the technology for a low-carbon shift already exists. States and cities that have embraced it are thriving economically. Yet making that shift a core priority of the US federal government is right now politically impossible. Last year, some conservative thinkers argued in the New York Times that the GOP should support a policy of taxing carbon emissions and then returning the revenues to people as tax refunds. This was not embraced by the Republican Party as a whole, however—Breitbart advised them to “shove their carbon tax.” Most Republican leaders still deny humans are at fault for climate change. In the past year, the number of GOP supporters who acknowledge humans are causing it shrunk from 40 to 35 percent, according to a Gallup poll that found up to 90 percent of Democrats accept the science.

Years of academic research into polarization on climate have yielded a relatively straightforward insight: Ordinary people reject climate science and the solutions associated with it because right-wing thought leaders such as Rush Limbaugh urge them to do so. “It’s not like Joe Schmo in suburban St. Louis has a ton of intrinsic, deeply felt, idiosyncratic opinions about the effect of CO2 in the atmosphere,” David Roberts, the lead climate columnist at Vox, who has written extensively on political polarization, told me. “He opposes the climate change hoax bullshit because that’s what the people he respects on talk radio tell him is what conservatives believe.”

A 2016 panel discussion of the denialist film 'Climate Hustle.' Sarah Palin is second from left. Photo by Kris Connor/Getty

If Republicans such as Trump and Mitch McConnell suddenly started believing in climate change, many conservative Americans might also shift their opinion. But how could you flip right-wing elites? One pathway there could be for a Democratic administration to deliberately shrink the market share of fossil fuel companies. “I would ban gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035,” Roberts said. “People would freak out, but the minute it became law there would be this outburst of innovation.” New industries would align behind the low-carbon transition and begin to lobby Washington. And fossil fuel companies who have helped to push Republicans to deny the scientific consensus on climate change would lose influence. Once that happened, climate denial could conceivably start to fade from national politics.

This might accelerate state-level action. In places like Texas, much of the work to make farming more drought-resistant, shift to clean energy, and otherwise adapt to a warmer planet is being done by people skeptical of the science, Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian and a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, told me. Yet it’s not occurring near fast enough to keep climate change from throttling the region. If deniers now governing states like Texas, Louisiana, and Florida accepted scientific reality, “it would completely change the tone of the conversation,” Hayhoe argued. “You’re adding a recognition of urgency… If you don’t acknowledge humans are changing the climate, then you don’t acknowledge that it’s going to get worse.”

Stronger Democracy

There is no scenario for addressing climate change that does not involve a rapid global build-out of clean energy. This piece of our world’s low-carbon shift is worth big money. Over $330 billion was invested in technologies such as wind and solar last year. Renewables directly employ nearly 10 million people. Tech corporations like Amazon are making clean energy commitments. The market for electric cars shows signs of exploding. The scenario Mann described earlier in this piece, where clean energy elites lead an aggressive capitalist response to climate change, seems more likely every year. Yet alongside it is the potential for a mass revitalization of local democracy.

When several dozen academics, diplomats, and energy experts gathered last year in Berlin to imagine what the world would be like if most of its energy came from renewables instead of fossil fuels, they came to the conclusion that this future may “become increasingly regionalized and localized.”

“Citizens who provide for their own energy and have increased access to education, health and wealth independently of government programs may feel emboldened to ask for more political participation or in some extreme cases, even promote secessionist tendencies,” they wrote. Decentralized renewable energy could someday provide electricity to millions of people who are currently lacking it. “You’re talking about a whole generation who know their experience of turning on the lights as not being connected to a coal grid very far away that’s making somebody rich,” Boeve from 350.org said. “But that’s actually in their own community, that they help control.”

The experience of being able to generate your own power is already influencing politics within the US. When fossil fuel utilities in Florida backed a measure that would increase fees on users of rooftop solar, Debbie Dooley, a Trump-supporting Tea Party activist and renewable energy advocate, helped bring together Christians, libertarians, business groups, and environmentalists in opposition to the fee increase—and they won. Dooley told me rooftop solar appeals to people across the political spectrum because it increases freedom. “I just see a day where everybody powers their own home,” she said. “Individual liberty is what it comes down to.”

Solar panels on a house in Maryland. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley/for the Washington Post via Getty

The Path Forward

Trump is so bad for climate change that just about anyone who takes the crisis seriously looks great by comparison. These days that person is likely to be a tech billionaire. “Climate change is the biggest threat that humanity faces this century, except for AI,” Elon Musk told Rolling Stone. We need people like Musk to throw their financial and technological weight into solutions. Yet there have been reports of poor safety conditions, low wages, and anti-union intimidation at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. “Everything feels like the future but us,” one worker explained to the Guardian.

“It’s tempting to imagine that men like Elon Musk can save the planet for us, that we just need to unleash the power of their innovation and wait for the magic,” Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis wrote last year in The Nation. “But as the workers in Fremont well know, the quest for profit very often comes at the expense of people—even when the product is green.”

When the future isn’t perceived as fair, when it means large sections of society struggling to get by in a warmer world while a techno-elite calls all the shots, that provides authoritarian leaders with the chance to exploit people’s anger. We saw it with Trump in coal country. And we will keep seeing it, the experts I spoke with for this story said, so long as the desires of vulnerable communities are ignored.

“We need to have a climate justice league that’s made up of both policymakers and scientists but also everyday folks who are dealing with some of these challenges,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former senior advisor at the US Environmental Protection Agency who now helps lead a social justice group known as the Hip Hop Caucus, told me. “We’ve got to be smarter moving forward,” he said. “We have lots of work to do.”

Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change . Follow him on Twitter .

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