My Turn: Candidates have homework to do

  • Fortune

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When it comes to taking steps to address climate change, what should candidates for our state Legislature do if elected? That was the question at a May 23 candidates forum at Frontier Regional School hosted by the League of Women Voters and Climate Action Now. The candidates for 1st Franklin District state representative all responded with pledges to expand our use of carbon-free energy sources and, with the odd exception of wood, to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels. But by how much, and when? In the hope that legislative actions will be guided by what science tells us needs to be done, here are three short lessons on climate change and a homework assignment for our candidates.

Lesson 1: If your boat is taking on water, you need to patch the holes.

Like a leaky boat taking on water because we can’t bail it out fast enough, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere is rising every year. This is happening because we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere (through the burning of carbon-based fuels and deforestation) twice as fast as our Earth can reabsorb it (sequestration). If we want CO2 levels in the atmosphere to stop rising, we have to patch the holes, and that means cutting emissions at the smokestack, tailpipe and chimney in half. If we want to lower CO2 levels from today’s already high level, we need even larger reductions. The Paris Climate Accord target of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 comes from an effort to keep the total increase in average planetary temperature to no more than 2 C (3.6 F). This is because rising CO2 levels lead to higher surface temperatures. Some climate scientists studying the paleographic record argue that 2 C of warming would already lead to runaway climate change and that CO2 levels need to be brought down to 350 parts per million before that 2 C of warming occurs. Their arguments are the basis of 350.org.

Lesson 2: He who hesitates is lost.

Just as there is a time lag between when you light the burner on a stove and water in the pan comes to a boil, there is a time lag between when the carbon is put into the atmosphere and when the planet fully warms. The longer we continue to burn in excess of what the carbon cycle can reabsorb, the more the surface will warm. How much warmer? That depends on when we start, and how quickly we reduce. In a 2013 article in Science entitled “The Closing Door of Climate Targets,” researchers estimate that staying below the 2 C climate target requires across the board emission reductions of roughly 3 percent per year every year if we start in 2020, 5 percent per year if we start in 2030, and 10 percent per year if we start in 2035. By their estimates, it is already impossible to keep warming below 1 C. 1.5 C becomes impossible in 2030. Two degrees celcius becomes impossible in 2045. These estimates, of course, have some uncertainty. But their conclusion that “even well-intentioned and effective international efforts to limit climate change must face the hard physical reality that certain temperature targets can no longer be achieved if too much carbon has already been emitted to the atmosphere” does not.

Lesson 3: No farms, no cities

On the face of it, 2 C of warming might seem of little concern. But the last time our planet was that warm, there were no ice sheets at all in the northern hemisphere, the Antarctic ice sheets had only just formed, and sea levels were some 65 feet higher than today. The loss of ice will accelerate warming, and the warming of the permafrost will accelerate further carbon emissions from the soil. We already see this happening. Should that bother us? Absolutely. Humans have been around for some 200,000 years, including a few ice ages. Civilization, however, has only been around for the last 20,000 years. That’s in part because until then, the climate wasn’t stable enough for farming to succeed and for cities to grow. Global warming threatens climate stability. And without a stable climate, we may no longer have a time to reap and a time to sow.


Halving carbon-based emissions to halt the rise in atmospheric CO2 means halving energy use, doubling energy efficiency, switching half of all carbon-based sources to carbon-free, or some equivalent combination of these three. Reducing atmospheric CO2 levels to 350 ppm means switching entirely to carbon-free sources. Starting now.

Currently, however, Massachusetts laws and environmental initiatives are inadequate to accomplish these goals. A renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that mandates a mere 1 percent per year reduction in carbon-based energy sources for electricity and nothing with respect to transportation is but one example. Worse, many laws adopted by our legislators — such as the caps on the amount and restrictions on community ownership of grid-tied solar electricity — actively work against these goals. This must change.

I suggest what we need now are candidates willing to invest in energy conservation, energy efficiency, energy storage, a resilient grid, and in the expansion and diversification of carbon-free energy sources. We need candidates willing to expand energy efficient public transportation so that it becomes a preference rather than an ordeal, willing to bring about a switch to electric vehicles, and willing to tax carbon-based fuels at a level sufficient to fund the conversion and compensate for the financial burden that would put upon the poor and working class. We need candidates willing to make sure the size of the effort is adequate to the task, so that we meet scientifically established target dates for 50 percent, 80 percent and ultimately 100 percent net reductions in carbon emissions across the board, in buildings, manufacturing, food, and transportation.

Candidates: Are you ready?

Nathanael Fortune is a Whately resident and a professor of physics at Smith College.