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Forget geoengineering. We need to stop burning fossil fuels. Right now | Rebecca Solnit

Forget geoengineering. We need to stop burning fossil fuels. Right now | Rebecca Solnit

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, one of which dropped this week, are formidably researched and profoundly important, but they mostly reinforce what we already know: human-produced greenhouse gases are rapidly and disastrously changing the planet, and unless we rapidly taper off burning fossil fuels, a dire future awaits.

The message is far from hopeless – “Mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits,” said the IPCC chair, Hoesung Lee, in the press release. “This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”

But “act now” means taking dramatic measures to change how we do most things, especially produce energy. The people who should be treating this like the colossal emergency it is keep finding ways to delay and dilute a meaningful response. Fossil fuel is hugely profitable to some of the most powerful individuals and institutions on Earth, and they influence and even control a lot of other people.

To say that is grim, but there’s also a kind of comedy in the ways they keep trying to come up with rationales to not do the one key thing that climate organizers, policy experts, activists and scientists have long told them they must do: stop funding fossil fuels, stop their extraction, stop their burning and speed the transition away from their use.

As perhaps the most powerful person to swim against their tide, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said yesterday, we must move toward “net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed economies and 2040 for the rest of the world” and establish “a global phase-down of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net-zero target”. All the other actions that help the climate – including protecting forests and wild lands, rethinking farming, food, transportation and urban design – matter, but there is no substitute or workaround for exiting the age of fossil fuel.

The IPCC tells us that “[e]very increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards. Deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within about two decades, and also to discernible changes in atmospheric composition within a few years.” Later in the report, the scientists declare, “Projected CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C.” That translates to: what we’re already extracting and using is already too much to keep to the temperature threshold set in Paris.

As climate communicator Ketan Joshi put it on Twitter, “People who make decisions about the pace of climate action and fossil fuel reliance are not behaving like they’re pulling the lever on the next few thousand years of Earth.”

They come up with endlessly creative ways to continue extracting and using fossil fuel. One of their favorites is to make commitments that can be punted off to the future, which is why one recent climate slogan is “delay is the new denial”. Another is to pretend that they are somehow still looking for a good solution and once they find it they will be very happy to use it. A holy grail, a hail Mary pass, a magic bullet, a miracle cure – or just a distracting tennis ball that too many journalists, like golden retrievers, are happy to chase.

That was clear when Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced its nuclear-weapons-related fusion breakthrough last winter, which the Bulletin of the Atomic Physicists noted had “at best, a distant and tangential connection to power production”. But many news stories latched on to it as if we were waiting for some miraculous solution when the solutions already exist and just need to be scaled up. It was as if they were selling us a dream of a lifeboat eventually reaching our shipwreck when viable lifeboats are all around us.

Dr Jonathan Foley, who heads Project Drawdown, joked that “fusion is here now. Look up in the sky.” The sun gives us far more energy than we can ever possibly use, now that solar panels let us convert some of that to electricity.

Among the worst of the excuses for not doing the one thing we must do is carbon capture, which has absolutely not worked at any scale that means anything and shows no sign of so doing on a meaningful scale in the near future. But while it is dangled as a possibility, it creates a justification to keep burning fossil fuel. So does geoengineering, which along with posing many kinds of disruptions is a way to compensate for continued emissions from burning things rather than stop burning them. These centralized hi-tech solutions seem to appeal to technocrats and beneficiaries of large corporations and centralized power, who perhaps don’t like or don’t comprehend the decentralization of power coming from sun and wind.

The decision-makers here often seem like a patient who, when told by a doctor to stop doing something (smoking, say, or maybe mainlining drain cleaner), tries to bargain. All the vitamins and wheatgrass juice on Earth won’t make toxic waste into something nontoxic, and all these excuses and delays and workarounds and nonexistent solutions don’t replace what the IPCC tells us: stop burning fossil fuel.

Move fast. Step it up. Now. Which brings us back to something that climate organizers have told us for a long time and the new report brings home. We know what to do, and we have the solutions we need to do it, so the biggest problems are political. They’re banks, politicians, financiers and the fossil fuel industry itself. We don’t need any magic technology to defeat them, just massive civil society willpower set in motion.

  • Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. Her latest book, edited with Thelma Young Lutunatabua, is Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility

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