The Promise and Peril of the 2020s
“Change ain’t looking for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to.” – Al Swearengen, small business owner
Decades have a way of passing much faster than you would think, and it can add perspective to measure them in less abstract terms than blank dates on a calendar. Take car ownership, the average American automobile is owned for between 4-7 years, which means that 2030 is only two steering wheels away for a lot of people. Homes last only slightly longer, roughly half of American home owners will still be where they are now in 2030; so tomorrow morning they will brush their teeth under the same roof as they will for all of the 20s. In baseball, there are already two Major League players who’ve signed contracts that will take them through the 2030 season.
Cars, houses, and home runs aside, 2030 is also the year by which the world’s governments and scientists want us to have our collective act together. In 2018, the United Nations issued the latest update to its main climate report, and the conclusion was unusually straightforward and blunt, especially coming from a bunch of professionally understated diplomat weenies: greenhouse pollution needs to be dropping like a stone by 2030 or civilization is doomed.*
(*Specifically, they said we need, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”; this is the diplo-speak equivalent of running into a fancy dinner party and screaming, “We’re all gonna die!”.)
That’s a Good News/Bad News kind of message, and there’s actually a lot more good than bad. The most important item on the good side is that we still have time for the mega happy ending. Serious climate action would mean that everywhere people live (towns, cities, and out in the country) would become safer, nicer, cleaner, quieter, and more fun.
Still on the good side of the news ledger, we only actually have to do one thing. Granted, it’s a big thing, but there is only one of it: cut carbon pollution, the faster the better. How we go about that is up to us, which means we can start with the lowest of the low hanging fruit, the stuff that’s some combination of popular, easy, and cool.
Finally, there’s the immediate payoff of practical improvements in people’s lives. If – if – we do that neat stuff, then neighborhoods will improve, traffic will ease, bowling averages will go way up, mini-golf scores will go way down, the whole enchilada. And we won’t need abstract metrics and 600 page reports to know if we’re making progress. We’ll see the day-to-day reality of ordinary people’s lives get easier and more relaxing.
To take just one example, Americans send approximately 1.3 million megatons of CO2 into the air each year getting from Point A to various Points B. That’s bad, of course, but the more immediate problem is that everybody hates the current system, and they’re right to do so.
Getting across the country is a cheap dystopia of overbearing but ineffective government security mated to a four-headed airline monopoly that treats us like cattle in the terminal and sardines in the plane. Getting across town is even worse: red lights, rage inducing traffic, and putting your life (and any passenger lives) in the hands of other drivers who are some combination of drunk, drugged, and distracted. Our system is so broken that cars in America kill a Parkland (17) or Columbine (15) school shooting’s worth of children every 36 hours.
In short, we burn fuel like pyromaniacs to take forever to get where we’re going only to arrive stressed and exhausted – if we arrive at all. It isn’t written anywhere that we must keep doing things this stupidly.
Instead, we could upgrade the local road and rail networks so that families don’t need two or more cars per household to be able to get to work, school, shopping, and sports. For all but the longest flights, we can ditch the rape-scan machine and the elbow crunching seats for spacious supertrains that zip you to your destination and don’t require a strip search before you board.
And that’s just one item on the menu. How about new and renovated homes that are cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and overall better all year round? Would you like to try plentiful good jobs with quick, easy commutes? And for dessert, how do you feel about a shorter work week with more free time to spend with friends, neighbors, and family? That’s what serious climate action means: literally more freedom to do what you want instead of what you have to do.
Against all that is one lone piece of bad news, but it is a monster: nature will not force our hand. We will have to choose to do it ourselves, because while the 2020s will have wilder weather and higher tides than we’re used to, they still won’t be bad enough to make us do anything we don’t want to do. This is the same ginormous stumbling block that tripped up significant climate action in the 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s. Without wholesale reform, the only short term penalty for people, countries, and companies that don’t cut emissions will be shame. And shame has a less than impressive track record these days.
Consider the vaunted 2015 Paris Climate Accord. The world’s governments laid out a path to stabilize the climate by 2050, but there was no enforcement mechanism. Three years later a grand total of sixteen (16) countries out of nearly two hundred (197, to be exact) actually kept their word. Everybody else flaked out, including the entire Big Four: America, China, Europe and India. The only accountability for the people who allowed that to happen has been a couple of bad news cycles and an uncomfortable talking to by Greta Thunberg; they didn’t even get the proverbial slap on the wrist.
So far, the Paris Accord hasn’t been worth the recycled paper it was printed on, but continuing that inaction is a choice, not a destiny. Compared to what comes after, the weather in the 2020s is going to be pleasant and balmy; how we spend those nice days is up to us. But no matter what we do, the future is still on its way, and decades have a way of passing faster than you think they will.
Summer Is Coming
“Weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it’s hotter than a snake’s ass at a wagon round up.” – Adrian Cronauer, goofball truth teller
Looking thirty years into the future can feel abstract or foolish, like a five-year-old confidently declaring that they’re going to be a firefighter when they grow up. But on the climate’s timescale, 2050 is the 3-day-forecast on your weather app, far enough out to change at the margins, but basically accurate. And the forecast is warm.
Carbon stays in the air a long time, and whether or not we cut pollution drastically during the 2020s, the 2030s are going to be the hottest decade ever. But only until the 2040s inevitably break that record. Whether the temps keep going up after that is what we don’t know yet.
What we do know is that the 30s and 40s are going to have big weather, far bigger than anything we’re used to seeing. Drought will come for months and years on end in many places. Others will be drenched by huge thunderstorms and monster hurricanes. And each storm will flood the most precarious coastal cities deeper than the previous one while the tide laps ever higher.
If we’ve prepared ourselves in the 2020s, all of this will be anticipated and dealt with as best as possible. Big storms and inland floods will wreck some areas, ditto scorching heatwaves, gargantuan wild fires, and rainy seasons that are bone dry. But we’ll be ready. Losses will be insured and compensated. People moving away from places with too much water or too little will be welcomed into other communities. The economy will hum along and life will stay good even for people who catch hell from global warming.
If, on the other hand, we spend the 2020s sitting around in denial and hesitation (like we did the 2010s, 2000s, and 1990s) then the same things will happen, but we won’t be ready. Each new catastrophe will find people and governments unprepared and the overall damage and disruption will be much worse.
One unlucky hurricane could force the panicked evacuation of Miami, Tampa, New Orleans, or Houston, resulting in thousands of deaths and permanent devastation and depopulation. If the Colorado River runs low too many years in a row, how will Las Vegas resorts cope with water rationing for golf courses, swimming pools, and fountains? How will Phoenix’s power grid handle weeks of overnight lows in 100s? If the air conditioning can’t run in all those sunbelt retirement communities, tens of thousands of people (or more) could die inside of a week, and then property values across five states will plummet overnight, never to recover.
Staggering economic blows like that would land one after another: recurring spikes in food prices when herds and crops die from heat and hail; annual disaster damage running to the hundreds of billions; huge numbers of internal (i.e. American) refugees throwing off local and regional economies left and right. Sustained chaos would be the order of the day, economically, politically, and socially.
But none of this happens at once. There will be no dark day when civilization suddenly collapses. (Those prepper ninnies you see hoarding canned food on Youtube have their heads way up their asses.) For all but the unluckiest, life will become just a little harder and more stressful day after day: fewer jobs, worse housing, increasingly lousy food that costs more every year. Trauma, abuse, and other interpersonal damage will proliferate as more and more people are pushed to desperation and destitution. Things would get worse all the time, but they don’t have to.
While it is too late to stop the weather from going haywire on us, it is not too late for a Green Deal or similarly scaled reforms to harden and upgrade the systems upon which we all rely. Agriculture can be diversified and de-monopolized. Flood control and fire breaks can be improved where possible and returned to nature where not. Homeowners can be paid full price if their land has become too dangerous to inhabit. Water and energy grids can be rebuilt to become radically more efficient, conservative, and resilient.
The 30s will be here very, very, very soon. Today’s babies and infants will only be in fifth grade by then. And today’s fifth graders will just be old enough to legally drink. Many, many adults will still be on the same mortgage as now, so we aren’t talking far off disaster scenarios, we’re talking practicality. If you’ve got a retirement account, are saving for a kid’s college fund, or are working toward a degree in something, then you’re already preparing for these years.
Whatever we end up doing, 2030 is a date that should loom large in your mind. Because by the time this decade rolls over to the next, we will have a much better idea about that big question everyone asks about global warming: what’s going to happen?
If the climate is on its way back to being stable, things should look pretty good from 2030. But if we squander the 2020s as we have the last three decades, then the outlook from 2030 will be very grim indeed.
The Green New Deal and You
“What else are you selling?” – Charlene Shiherlis, out of options
“All kinds of shit, but I don’t have to sell this and you know it cause this kind of shit here sells itself.” – Sgt. Drucker, bringer of possibilities
So we’ve got ten years to batten down the hatches and prepare ourselves for the harshest couple of decades human beings have ever experienced. What’s the hold up?
At the risk of putting too fine a point on such an expansive topic, the problem is rich people unwilling to become less rich. (Still rich, mind you, just not as rich.) The details of their objections are deliberately complicated, but shucked of pretense and bullshit, they always come down to money.
Set aside the thugs in the fossil industry for a moment and consider companies whose business models are compatible with a renewable energy economy, just not in their current forms. A Green Deal America that’s become a perfectly balanced ecotopia would still need cars, hamburgers, and fizzy drinks, so there’s no reason that companies like Ford, McDonald’s, and Pepsi couldn’t thrive in a sustainable economy.
At the moment, however, those companies are all seriously wasteful polluters. Low cost tweaks and minor adjustments aren’t going to change that. What’s needed are extreme corporate makeovers that will inevitably result in smaller firms with lower stock prices. And demoting the sacred idea of ‘shareholder value’ below carbon neutrality is antithetical to the last half century of American business. Nor is it hard to see why.
Whole generations of investors, executives, and consultants have made trillions of dollars in a cheap energy economy that placed no price on carbon pollution. It would be the height of foolishness for the rest of us to think that they’ll meekly accept reforms that will put their golden goose on a diet.
To begin, the auto companies, their many suppliers, and the associated car dealerships could profitably build, market, and maintain an all electric fleet. But electric cars have fewer parts, require less maintenance, and last longer than gasoline cars, which means significantly less revenue for every sector of the industry.
With a gun to their collective head, Coke and Pepsi could certainly figure out how to sell their wares without making, hauling, and dumping tens of billions of single use glass, plastic, and aluminum containers every year. But that’s going to mean a top to bottom overhaul of everything they do, and that ain’t gonna be cheap.
The same goes for fast food. Beef is notoriously polluting to produce, and cars idling in a drive-thru use nearly as much gas as those on the highway. Energy wise, Whoppers and Big Macs are about as inefficient a way for people to eat as it is possible to imagine. And it’s going to cost the burger chains that dot the land a lot of money to reckon with that. In the meantime, though, they would like you to think that they are trying.
Buried on McDonald’s website is a “Beef Sustainability Report”. It has lots of pretty pictures of pastures and cows and it cites many pilot programs, but it hasn’t been updated since 2016 and contains neither a plan to get to zero emissions nor any projections for when that might happen. Pepsi’s 2018 Sustainability Report promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2030, which is itself not nearly enough; except that they don’t mean 20% of the total, they mean 20% compared to 2015, which is laughably not enough.
Ford has a whopping 52 page sustainability report that is a kind of Rosetta Stone for corporate climate denial. It cites tiny amounts of progress relative to very generous baselines. It spends pages touting charitable contributions ($67.6 million in 2018) without mentioning how miserly they are (that’s 0.02% of their $3.6 billion in profits that year). And it brags (in large type) about meeting Paris Accord standards by being “100%” for renewable energy, which (in small type) they call “aspirational” by 2035. It is misdirection and flimflam from start to finish, greenwashing in its purest form.
What none of these companies have are public plans for how they might exist in a carbon neutral economy, or even the half of one we’re supposed to have by 2030. McDonald’s has no roadmap to sustainable beef, just a lot of handwaving about improvements. Pepsi, aping InBev, already claims their production is 100% renewable, and nevermind that they’re only counting a tiny fraction of their actual energy use – and got there through essentially meaningless credit swaps. As near as the internet can tell, Ford has never so much as publicly announced a deadline for producing an all electric fleet, not even as one of their aspirational goals.
These are tune-ups posing as rebuilds, delay that amounts to denial. Twenty years ago they would have been welcome steps at the cutting edge. Today they’re ugly relics that can’t square with an increasingly urgent reality.
What these and similar companies refuse to face is a milder version of the paradox that dooms the fossil industry. Exxon is going to go out of business one way or another; we can put them out of business through climate stabilizing reforms, or we can let them keep selling their proved reserves until civilization collapses. Either way, Exxon is done. Ford, McDonald’s, Pepsi, and similarly inefficient companies don’t have to die, but surviving is going to mean a level of reform that their current stockholders and management see as tantamount to death.
That petty reluctance is at the very heart of why we’ve pissed away the last thirty years. The extremely wealthy people who own and control certain extremely prosperous companies are simply unwilling to take one for the team. Sacrifice is fine for others, but their own little kingdoms must be protected at all costs.
As these people inevitably oppose a Green New Deal with every trick in the lead/asbestos/tobacco playbook, it should always be remembered that their arguments have a simple but profound weakness: stock ownership is literally unpopular. Millionaires, a small fraction of the American population, own 93% of all the stock in the United States. And most of that is owned by the even smaller number of households worth north of ten million dollars.
Despite what its daily media coverage would lead you to think, the stock market is basically a casino for the very rich that a few normal people dabble in, and dinging the value of its dirtiest companies isn’t going to cost most Americans a dime. So allowing big companies to artificially prop up their stock prices by pretending global warming isn’t happening is grotesquely idiotic.
Far more important than rickety share prices are the tens of millions of people who work in cars, fast food, soft drinks, and other carbon coated industries. If their employers have to shrink, what happens to them? The phantom promise of job training or some other bandaid isn’t fooling anyone anymore. They need new jobs with fatter paychecks, plain and simple.
That’s where the good news comes back in: there will be plenty to go around. Solar and wind jobs already handily outnumber coal jobs, farming will need a lot of fresh faces, and a slew of new and existing industries are going to need to go on hiring sprees. Just some of the people that should be all in on a Green New Deal are anyone who works in or around construction (5.5 million), engineers of all kinds (1.6 million), scientists (0.6 million), and – naturally – truck drivers (3.4 million), who will have a lot of routes to run as the economy gets put to work preparing for the unpleasant times ahead.
That’s going to mean new members and new locals for the Teamsters, the United Steelworkers, the Laborers International Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Sheet Metal Workers International, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, and a whole host of other alphabet soup unions including the IBEW, the IUOE, the UA, and the IUPAT. Larger umbrella unions like SEIU and AFSCME should also see healthy expansion under a Green New Deal.
Besides creating millions of good jobs, serious climate action will also straight up save lives. As car miles go down, fatalities for kids and adults will decrease as well; automobile accidents might even stop being the leading cause of childhood death. As gas motors become less and less common, people with asthma (25.2 million) and COPD (15.7 million) will breathe easier and live longer. Cancer rates will also go down as coal and gas pollution are reduced.
And then there’s the less critical stuff that will improve hundreds of millions of lives: ditching unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy (looking at you, Intuit), quieter streets as gas motors are replaced with electric ones, and all the extra life that comes with easier commutes, less hours, and more free time. These aren’t fantasies or science fiction, these are simple and hugely popular reforms that can be enacted by nothing more than a few votes.
For voting is the lifeblood of a Green New Deal. In order for reforms of this scope to get off the ground and survive long enough to make a difference, they are going to have to benefit a lot of existing voters, encourage new voters, and make it easy for all of them to get to the polls every two years. The original New Deal sustained itself by weaving together a grand Democratic alliance of city slickers and country folk, people with blue collars, white collars, and skin tones of every shade. The Green New Deal must do the same because it will have to endure a neverending series of attacks that will be as dishonest as they are well financed.
The Republican playbook for the climate era is long established. In public they will rail against the rights of women, immigrants, and minorities; in private they will give as much government money to the rich as possible. On television and in print they will bray about the evils of unions and socialism, but behind closed doors they will enshrine a corrupt monopolistic aristocracy where rich (and overwhelmingly) white people give all the orders.
Forty years ago this was a winning electoral strategy. Today it is tired and weak and must be propped up by disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and dark money. But the people bankrolling the campaigns see no alternative. They believe that they are fighting for their very lives and consider electoral cheating justified.
Nor will the dirty polluting rich give up and go home after an election. They will fight at every level from the smallest zoning commission to the most powerful corporate board rooms. They will lie and scream and generally act like whiny ass titty babies, and the tens of millions of ordinary people who believe their bullshit will repeat it at town halls and dinner tables across the land. But even shining cities on hills have always had to tolerate their portion of assholes, and the math is clear: there are far more of us than there are of them.
Getting a Green New Deal won’t be easy, but it will be as simple as one-two-three:
1. Vote the bastards out.
2. Tax the rich.
3. Keep the bastards out by letting everyone work less, eat better, and play more.
Thanks for reading! This concludes the first nine chapters of a planned twenty-six chapter book. The two parts you just read cover the background (Part I) and common misconceptions (Part II). The rest of the book explores what climate action (or continued inaction) would mean across the United States (Part III) and the rest of the world (Part IV). It then finishes with a look at the different futures we might be in for (Part V).
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far or found it useful, please consider sharing it with your friends and family. Here’s the address:
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If you’re feeling pumped about the future and a Green New Deal, well, guess what, it’s an election year! Power in these United States (still) comes from ballots, and if you’ve got a few dollars to spare, consider helping out a legislative race in your state:
The Green New Deal will need more and better Democrats, so if you’re really feeling spicy and have ever thought about running for office, now is your chance. The nice people at the link below will get you started:
The fights for the Green New Deal won’t just be in Washington D.C., they will occur in city halls, county commissions, school boards, and state legislatures. Whether you’re an official or just a resident, being there is the best action anyone can take. Good luck, and may the Force be with us.
Endnotes for Chapter 9:
[1 – https://www.kbb.com/car-news/all-the-latest/average-length-of-us-vehicle-ownership-hit-an-all_time-high/2000007854/]
[2 – https://www.nahb.org/en/research/housing-economics/special-studies/archives/how-long-buyers-remain-in-their-homes-2009.aspx]
[3 – https://www.mlb.com/news/longest-contracts-in-baseball-history]
[4 – https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/
[5 – https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P100WUHR.pdf]
[6 – https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMsr1804754, Table 1 there lists “Motor vehicle crash” as killing 4,074 children in 2016, the top cause. Divide 4,074 dead kids by 365.25 days per year and you get 11 dead kids per day. Round up to a day and a half for 15 or 17.]
[7 – http://cepr.net/documents/publications/climate-change-workshare-2013-02.pdf
[8 – https://www.euractiv.com/section/climate-environment/news/only-16-countries-meet-their-commitment-to-paris-agreement-new-study-finds/]
[9 – http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality/gabriel-zucman-emmanuel-saez-taxing-superrich]
[10 – https://corporate.mcdonalds.com/content/dam/gwscorp/nfl/scale-for-good/McDonald%27s-Beef-Sustainability-Report.pdf]
[11 – https://www.pepsico.com/docs/album/sustainability-report/2018-csr/pepsico_2018_csr.pdf]
[12 – https://corporate.ford.com/microsites/sustainability-report-2018-19/assets/files/sr18.pdf]
[13 – https://www.pepsico.com/news/press-release/pepsico-to-achieve-100-renewable-electricity-in-the-us01152020]
[14 – https://www.nber.org/papers/w24085.pdf, p 54]
[15 – https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/solar-and-wind-vs-coal-jobs
[16 – Construction job number compiled by adding the following BLS occupation categories: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/brickmasons-blockmasons-and-stonemasons.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/structural-iron-and-steel-workers.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/tile-and-marble-setters.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/plumbers-pipefitters-and-steamfitters.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/electricians.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/painters-construction-and-maintenance.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/construction-and-building-inspectors.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/construction-laborers-and-helpers.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/construction-managers.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/architects.htm]
[17 – https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43061.pdf, p 16]
[18 – Scientist total compiled as “Computer and Information Research Scientists” plus “Life Scientists” and “Physical Scientists” from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43061.pdf, p 17-19]
[19 – Truck driver number compiled by adding the following BLS occupation categories: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/delivery-truck-drivers-and-driver-sales-workers.htm, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/heavy-and-tractor-trailer-truck-drivers.htm]
[20 – https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/most_recent_national_asthma_data.htm 25.2 million]
[21 – https://www.cdc.gov/copd/basics-about.html 15.7 million]
[22 – https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/coal-and-air-pollution]
[23 – https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-natural-gas]