For Varshini Prakash, the climate crisis “is obviously very depressing” and “terrifying with the timeline that we’re working on” to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
However, Prakash isn’t letting that stop her as she works to organize and mobilize youth and others to stop climate change. She is the cofounder of the Sunrise Movement, an organization that advocates for climate action and supports the Green New Deal initiative.
She spoke at a 9 December session at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019 in San Francisco, Calif., on aligning U.S. energy policy with a 1.5°C climate limit above preindustrial levels. The session included climate scientists and activists.
A Role for Scientists in Climate Action
“We need a large, vocal, active base of support, and scientists are a critical part of that constituency,” said Prakash, who first became involved in climate politics as an undergraduate studying environmental science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I have seen so many badass scientists over the last few years stepping up into real leadership, calling on action, refusing to be quiet.”
Her message for the scientific community is that “we have no more time,” Prakash said. “Putting a 20-, 30-, or 40-year career ahead of the future of human civilization: I understand why people do it. At the same time, I want people to really grapple with what it is that we are up against right now and the sheer demise that we could fall into if we don’t take adequate action in the next 5 years. That does not feel arbitrary or sort of off in the distance to me. It feels like right now.”
Prakash added that she understands that people need to make a living, and she isn’t saying to give that up. “I’m just saying, take the necessary risks, take the appropriate risks. And don’t be afraid because you’re worried that someone will be mean to you on Twitter or someone might criticize you publicly.”
Climate scientist Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, said that scientists shouldn’t have to apologize for being advocates “for a fact-based, objective discourse over what is arguably the greatest threat that we face as a civilization.”
Fossil Fuel Interests
Mann also cautioned about the shifting strategies of fossil fuel interests as the science and impacts of climate change become undeniable.
“We’re seeing an evolution from denial to what I would call deflection, division, doomism, and delay” by fossil fuel interests, Mann said.
“We have to recognize the evolving nature of the campaign to block progress on climate change. Just because outright denial of the evidence seems to be waning doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a concerted campaign to ensure the one thing that fossil fuel interests care about: that we don’t act on climate, that we do not decarbonize our economy.”
Other speakers at the session also warned of the tactics of fossil fuel interests and the need to move on from fossil fuels. Prakash, for example, said that a misinformation and denialism campaign “has stalled progress on this issue for 40 years, and not because people are genuinely confused about the science, [but] because there is money to be made off of that confusion.”
Georgia Piggot, a staff scientist for the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), presented findings from the institute’s recent report “Closing the Fossil Fuel Production Gap” that show that countries are on track to produce much more coal, oil, and gas by 2030 than is consistent with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
In line with the SEI report, Kelly Trout, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International, said a report by her group and others about U.S. oil and gas expansion indicates that “over exactly the period in which the world needs to rapidly decarbonize, what we see is [that] the U.S. would be unleashing the world’s largest burst of new carbon from oil and gas.”
A Just Transition
Kassie Siegel, senior counsel and Climate Law Institute director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the United States doesn’t need to continue along this path. Citing a report by the center, Siegel said the next president could declare a national climate emergency and halt fossil fuel lease sales and permits, among other measures.
Siegel and the others also emphasized the need for a “just transition” to protect extraction communities and workers when mines and fossil fuel infrastructure shut down.
Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said miners and other fossil fuel workers need help in the transition and should not be vilified for their hard work. “People are starting to come to terms with the actual effects of climate change,” Grubert said, “and it’s very easy to look around for a villain.”
Mann said that fossil fuel workers should not be conflated with coal barons and other vested interests “who have profited greatly off of essentially the suffering of the people who have worked for their industry.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer