What can we do about climate change? Which policies will work? Which technologies? What can individuals do, and what sort of collective action should they support? The appeal of “solutions journalism” addressing climate change is undeniable, but there is a large hole in much of it: understanding the root causes of the problem.
Catastrophic climate change is a symptom of an intertwined web of problems. Untangling that web and the various forces that created it is not just a worthy exercise, it’s absolutely critical to developing solutions that actually work. The focus on technological and policy solutions to climate has put the cart before the horse, and in doing so, created a solutions framework that is hopelessly inadequate. Americans in particular have a tendency to skip right over accountability and straight to solutions, but failing to understand how a problem came about in the first place tends to deliver…not solutions, but new problems. And on climate, examples of that abound.
People talk about “the energy transition” as an aspirational, future phase, for example, which ignores the fact that we’ve just spent the past 20 years living through an energy transition, one that required major investments in infrastructure, a new distribution system, all of that. The conversion of U.S. energy sources from coal to natural gas was a massive transition, on par with the transition currently being proposed from fossil fuels to renewables. But we don’t often talk about it that way, which means we miss key lessons from that transition: simply swapping in one energy source for another, focusing on only one greenhouse gas, and allowing the fossil fuel industry to drive and manage that transition were all enormous missteps. In the past five years, study after study has come out revealing under-explored impacts of natural gas, from the global warming potential of methane to the more immediate impacts of the stuff on air pollution (both indoor and outdoor), but the fossil fuel industry—having invested heavily in the shift to gas—is fighting against any move away from it.
It’s important to remember that environmental groups were big proponents of natural gas in the past, too. The Sierra Club famously touted natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewables, a campaign funded in part by $25 million from early fracking pioneer Chesapeake Energy. Moving away from coal was an improvement, and natural gas did help grow the country’s renewable energy sources, but the cost of those advancements was poorly understood and even more poorly communicated. And those lessons still haven’t been learned. Many climate advocates still focus their attention solely on energy sources, policy proposals are still focused largely on carbon dioxide alone (what would a carbon tax do to address skyrocketing methane emissions?), and it’s still common to hear politicians and environmental advocates suggest that the fossil industry should be a part of the transition away from its core product.
Natural gas is not the only example of a climate solution being proposed without any understanding of how the problem was created in the first place. Let’s talk about biomass, shall we? Like natural gas, biomass was initially embraced by large environmental groups—the idea of using waste to generate energy has always held enormous appeal, particularly for the generation that fell in love with recycling as an environmental solution. In less than a decade, environmentalists realized that in most instances biomass was a boondoggle, but the horse was out of the proverbial barn. Several European countries today include biomass as part of their progress toward “net zero” emissions targets, using accounting methods that somehow leave out the emissions associated with shipping wood pellets from the U.S. to Europe. Meanwhile, a new study out from Harvard this month found that biomass has now surpassed coal as the primary residential contributor to air pollution.
Awareness is slowly increasing about the as-yet-unaccounted-for environmental impact of the impending electric vehicle boom, too. What might happen when lithium becomes the new petroleum? Or batteries the new fracking water? Which species and communities are we willing to decimate for a “greener” energy source?
What these solutions leave out are power structures, and who is afforded the luxury of choice within them. So instead of thinking about how we can equitably get people from Point A to Point B, the focus is on how we maintain the status quo while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of figuring out how exactly a problem as solvable as climate change became an existential threat in the first place, we continue to come up with new “solutions” in the exact same framework.
On climate, accountability isn’t about pointing fingers or assigning blame, it’s a necessary first step to solving the problem. And it’s one we skip over at our peril.