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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Where Is the Urgency?
distributed 6/12/15 - ©2015

My friend and colleague, Maria, has often voiced her frustration to me. "Where is the urgency?", she asks, about action on climate change.

Maria Talero, Ph.D., is a climate change educator in Denver. She frequently encounters people who know the facts about climate, who understand the issues, who know that action is needed -- but don't translate that knowledge into passion and immediacy. They are "aware" and "concerned" but not engaged.

I thought of Maria's question this week when I heard generally good reports about new international climate change commitments, and far more remarkable news about action by one US state.

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Last weekend, the Group of Seven (G7) industrial nations met in Bavaria for their annual summit. Their conversations affirmed that global warming must be held to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. (As Bill McKibben reminds us, that number is "the only thing that anybody has agreed to" in decades of climate negotiations.)

The G7 leaders' closing statement broke new ground when it acknowledged the need for "decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century." The leaders promised to cut their nations' greenhouse-gas emissions by the "upper end" of a range between 40-70% of 2010 levels by 2050.

On one hand, this is remarkable news. As the Economist opened their report, "In just a few years, the aim of a carbon-free energy system has gone from the realms of green fantasy to become official policy in the world's richest countries."

With this announcement, not only is the science about global climate chaos beyond any question, but so are the implications for economics and policy. The trajectory of "business as usual" from the industrial age can no longer be seen as a viable option. The head of Greenpeace in the UK said that the G7 announcement signaled that "the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end."

But ... there are problems. The philosophical recognition of decarbonization and the pledge of emission reductions are wonderful, but the promised level of cuts by 2050 and 2100 are not enough to hold warming under 2 degrees. Even if other nations commit to parallel cuts, warming will be much more than 2 degrees.

Canadian analyst Kyle Bakx put the timeframe in perspective: "If you thought it was hard to keep up your New Year's resolution, try keeping an 85-year pledge." Then Bakx considers some of the challenges for Canada (a G7 country) in meeting those pledges, without any strategies defined for getting there, and recognizing the country's deep commitment to extracting and exporting tar sands.

David Keith -- an engineering professor who was one of Time magazine's "heroes of the environment" in 2009 -- was even more blunt when quoted by Bakx. "It is politically cheap to pledge a non-binding commitment that falls way behind someone's time in office. What we really need is specifics in the next few years or decades."

As Maria often asks with frustration, "Where is the urgency?" What can happen right now?

The Economist article does point toward some near-term implications of those long-term pledges.

Though a 50-year time horizon is meaningless politically, it is relevant in the world of energy planning, where power stations can have life cycles of more than 50 years and where traditional (unfracked) oilfields can keep producing longer than that. A move towards decarbonisation short of stopping fossil-fuel use might also shift investment patterns between different fuels, away from the most carbon-intensive (coal) towards the least (gas).

So the news from Bavaria is mixed. The G7's recognition that the fossil fuel era must end is immensely important. The long timeline and vague strategies are far from adequate. Perhaps most importantly, this June announcement adds to other international agreements (especially the US and China) that are building momentum before next winter's UN climate negotiations in Paris.

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Hawaii is doing what the G7 nations have not. Legislation signed this week establishes a 30 year schedule for phasing out all fossil fuels in electrical generation. By 2045, 100% of their electricity must come from renewable sources.

Hawaii's renewable energy portfolio applies only to electricity, so the state has not pledged to decarbonize and eliminate all emissions. The commitment to remove fossil fuels from power generation, though, is a major step -- and one that no other state has made.

Thirty years is still a long time. Maybe Hawaii can meet their 100% target ahead of schedule. (Colorado's major utilities are ahead of schedule for meeting a 30% renewable standard by 2020.) Setting an absolute target and a firm timeline demands a level of commitment and action that is more encouraging than vague pledges.

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Where is the urgency? Maria is not the only one to ask.

In the Gospel of Mark -- the shortest of the four gospels -- the Greek word euthys ("immediately, right away, at once, as soon as"), is used an astounding 42 times. For Jesus and his followers, there is urgency and excitement about the in-breaking Realm of God.

The proclamation of good news inspires immediacy. The presence of good news makes it important and possible to be engaged right now.

Urgency is hard when all the news is bad. Committing to change is difficult when the commitments look like deprivation. But when action leads us toward a better future, then joy and urgency bubble up.

A livable planet is definitely a better future than a world forced into climate chaos. A clean energy future is definitely better than energy that poisons our air and water (unless your financial well-being is tied to those dirty fuels). A world that cooperates on containing global warming is definitely better than one where narrowly self-interested nations and industries lead us into devastation.

We need bold and urgent action to stave off catastrophic climate change. This week's G7 agreement nails down the reason for that action. Now, let's claim the good news of ecological and social health on a viable planet. Let us be drawn into urgency, not only by crisis, but also by hope and possibility.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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