Climate fight is a street fight

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Illustration by Jen Oaks

STREET FIGHT

Prolonged warm-weather droughts seem a normal part of California life, but the intensity of drought impacts — shrinking snowpack, intense wildfires, crop failures, and the devastation of wildlife habitat and fisheries — is likely accentuated by global warming.

So it's not enough to simply save water. In this drought, our sense of urgency about global warming should be ramped up. The science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, respected scientists like James Hansen, and even the World Bank (historically no friend to radical ecologists) all stress that droughts will get worse unless greenhouse gas emissions peak in the next decade.

The science is clear. If we are to avoid a disastrous future of ecological upheaval, violence, and forced mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people (many of whom produce the least amount of carbon emissions) then we must dramatically reduce emissions now, and we must do it in a globally fair and equitable way. And to be fair and equitable, we must reduce driving. Here's why.

Globally, transportation is the fastest growing sector of greenhouse emissions, owing in large measure to the expansion of global automobility. Presently 500 million passenger cars are in use (approximately one-third of them in the United States), but by 2030, this figure is expected to reach 1 billion worldwide.

This increase in automobility will contribute substantially to the "trillionth ton" of cumulative carbon emissions, which is an emissions threshold signaling global climate catastrophe. Today we are more than halfway there (556 billion tons). At current rates of consumption, including America's ownership of 800 cars and trucks per 1,000 persons, we hit the trillionth ton in 28 years.

To avoid this, we must keep as much fossil fuel as possible in the ground. Because the United States is disproportionately responsible for at least 27 percent of the cumulative carbon emissions since industrialization, and has a disproportionate number of cars compared to the rest of the world, we in the United States have a particular responsibility to keep carbon in the ground.

If China, which has produced 10 percent of global emissions so far, had the same per capita car ownership rate as the United States, there would be over 500 million more cars, doubling the current worldwide rate. This would be madness. It would be worse than building the Keystone pipeline, which is what Hansen called "game over" for the global climate because it's a spigot into the sticky, tarlike oils in Alberta which, if fully tapped, would be a carbon time bomb.

Ask yourself this: If China (and possibly India) successfully copy American-style driving, how much tar sands would that require? What kind of world would that look like? And if Americans (and especially environmentalists) expect the global middle class in China and India to stand aside while we keep on driving, that is stark, crass, and inequitable.

Many well-meaning environmentalists and progressives think that driving a Prius or buying an electric car will be adequate in mitigating this conundrum. They must reconsider. There is no "green" car when a global middle class replicates American driving patterns.

If the world's fleet of gasoline-powered automobiles magically shifts to electric, hydrogen fuel cells, or biofuels, the change will draw resources away from industrial, residential, and food systems, or it will have to involve an entirely new layer of energy production (more tar sands). Massive quantities of coal and petroleum will be needed to scale-up to wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear, and other arrays of energy, as well as for all the new "clean cars."

Are environmentalists still planning to drive around the Bay Area while waiting for this magic? I sure hope not.

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