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Hurricane Florence is the Latest Sign of Our Failure + Enduring Hope

Hurricane Florence was a feat of human engineering. It turned into a ferocious killer in a matter of days because we’ve warmed the oceans, providing the storm with excessive moisture to supercharge its strength. It brought historic flooding because we’ve also warmed the atmosphere, transforming the character of the jet stream and re-writing weather patterns that lead to slow, meandering storms that swell our streams and rivers. 

Hurricane Florence follows in the footsteps of Harvey, Sandy, Maria, Matthew, Wilma, Irma, and Katrina, a series of critical, devastating and deadly events, all proving we’ve lost our best chance to stop climate change. At the same time, we should remain hopeful that progress toward reducing fossil fuel climate change is nearing an inflection point and while we must now live with a changing climate, we can limit its savagery.

Since NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that burning fossil fuels was altering the climate, countless individuals around the world have courageously sought decisive action to stop potentially dangerous changes to our weather and way of life. For 30 years, efforts have been made at all levels of society, the economy, and government to charter a path away from climate catastrophe by building a new, low carbon energy system.

Yet, it’s clear we’re past the point where we can stop human-made activities from changing the weather, a fact North Carolinians won’t soon forget. Rather, the goal post has moved as we try to stop locking in increasingly dangerous climate changes for decades and centuries to come. We are also forced to prepare our infrastructure and our communities for the human-charged weather events we have already put into the hopper because of our lack of action.

According to scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, industrial nations must peak their carbon emissions by 2020 and cut emissions by 10 percent each year thereafter until we hit zero to avoid a 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures. Doing so is our best chance at avoiding a severe, long-term climate crisis we would not be able to reverse. Over half of our carbon pollution stays in the atmosphere for centuries (unless we invent an effective way to capture it), meaning we’ve already dumped so much into it that the only way to stop it is dropping to net-zero as quickly as possible. But, global carbon levels have increased every year since 1988 and show no signs of waning, let alone falling at the deep rates we’ll need in a few short years.

Our attempts at changing public policy to reverse this onerous trend have been equally grim. The first attempt at cutting carbon—the Kyoto Protocol—failed because industrial countries, like the United States, chose not to ratify the treaty. The latest global treaty attempt—the Paris Accord—was dashed by the ascent of climate-denying President Trump. Oil, natural gas, and coal still receive $5 trillion (with a T!) in government-sponsored subsidies every year, including more than $3 billion per year from Pennsylvania, far more than those supporting renewable energy.

While carbon emissions have decreased 13% in the United States since 2005 (and 16% in Pennsylvania) because of renewable energy deployment, expanding use of natural gas, and coal plant closures, the long-term picture is still dismal. By choice, the U.S. is locking in decades of gas plants and pipelines that ensure we will continue emitting carbon from power plants, spewing methane from infrastructure, and perpetuating a political economy around fossil fuels aimed at continuing their operation, no matter how dangerous. 

Pennsylvania is a prime example of the problems we face trying to stop the root causes of climate change, as we build out dozens of natural gas power plants and 4,600 miles of gas pipelines, while providing the red carpet treatment to plastics manufacturers to use the Commonwealth’s fracked gas well into the century. Pennsylvania leaders are trying to have it both ways by supporting climate-rotting natural gas at every turn, while occasionally offering weak climate and clean energy policies to goose up voters. 

Thirty years since Hansen’s clarion call, it’s clear that we have failed to stop climate change, but that’s not stopping us from ensuring its stay is short. Thousands of governments and corporations, including 97 entities in Pennsylvania, have joined the We Are Still In movement to pledge continued support for climate action, even if our elected leaders at the highest levels won’t. Global investments in clean energy have now grown to over $330 billion and renewable energy deployment is far outpacing new fossil fuel generation. New clean energy innovations from our laboratories and universities, as well as those already in the market, are making zero-carbon energy cheaper and more accessible to consumers. The seeds of transformational change are sprouting.

And that is why I’m hopeful in the face of overwhelming odds. If Hurricane Florence was manipulated by burning coal and oil for the last century, her future siblings will be born and raised on the backs of fracked natural gas. While I’m confident that we will prepare ourselves for their brutal power, I’m also optimistic we can buck our past and present failures to make the changes in Pennsylvania and elsewhere so that preparation isn’t the only option. It’s up to all of us to prioritize climate action in all of the choices we make, including how we vote.

The pieces are in place for significant and sudden climate success. It’s not a matter of whether, it’s a matter of when, and I’m enduringly hopeful that an era of climate action in Pennsylvania and abroad isn’t so far away.

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