We Need to Change How We Talk About Climate Action

The Left needs a message on climate action that’s about giving more opportunities for working-class people rather than restricting individual behavior.

The Rosalia Wind Farm near Oaksdale in the Palouse, Washington State. (Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The prospects for climate action are starting to look more promising. Climate activists have injected the issue into the news agenda and spooked investors. Coal has peaked, and there’s talk of a peak in oil demand later this decade, too. Even the future of gas has come into question. Around the globe, countries, cities, and companies are making net-zero commitments.

China has pledged to reduce emissions to net zero by 2060, which would be a hugely important development if realized. There was once a constant stream of bad news on climate, but now there is a mixture of bad news and good news every week.

All the white papers, signals from investors, goals and targets, Instagram posts, and other narrative “content” and “deliverables” have created a version of the future that feels both coherent and realistic. Although climate and energy policy advocates recognize that action has yet to fully materialize on the ground, there is a growing consensus that our future is going to be a low-carbon one.

We may have ruled out the worst-case existential scenarios and will now have to deal with a horrific 3°C of warming instead of 4, 5, or 6 degrees. Perhaps we can even cap it at 2°C. Can we stop to breathe? And does the turn away from worst-case scenarios mean that we can effectively rule out geoengineering as a necessary tool?

It’s complicated. Let’s talk about three challenges we’ll have to navigate during this decade, one possible opportunity, and one near-term obstacle.

Understanding Net Zero

The first challenge is becoming increasingly clear. Net-zero emissions does not constitute a phaseout of fossil fuel production. Rather, net zero implies there will be some amount of residual, “difficult-to-abate” emissions balanced against some degree of negative emissions. The quantity of this remaining amount is going to be the focus of intense debate during the 2020s.

The entire framing of how we think about climate change has been an incredible success for fossil fuel companies. They have drawn our eyes — and regulations — toward emissions rather than production. From this perspective, it’s not pumping the stuff from the ground that’s the problem, it’s combusting it.

We now have a Paris Agreement and net-zero targets that are silent on production. The Green New Deal blueprint codified in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s H.Res. 109 leads with the objective of greenhouse gas emissions reductions and net-zero rather than limits on output.

Instead of phasing out production as a goal, we have “energy transition” instead — a friendly alternative term that skips over grimmer language such as “managed decline” or “exit” of fossil fuels. The idea of energy transition allows for an organic switch to renewables as they become cheaper than fossil fuels. The rise of solar provides support for this: its price has fallen by 89 percent over the past ten years and is now cheaper than coal, which is a key reason why so many coal plants have closed.

However, scientific analysis tells us that fossil fuels have to be actively retired, not just allowed to die a natural death. If we are going to stay under 1.5°C, production needs to decrease by 6 percent per year this decade. Instead of pursuing this goal, the world’s countries are planning an average increase of 2 percent per year, according to a report that looks at the “Production Gap” between existing plans and what we need to do.

On top of that, we have to remove cars with internal combustion engines from the roads and replace gas boilers in buildings. A key challenge for this decade will be incorporating the phase out of fossil fuels and end-user products into the mainstream of climate policy. To do this, we need a language that distinguishes between different versions of net-zero. The critical question is: what emissions truly are hard to eliminate?

A Two Gigaton World

Currently, greenhouse gas emissions total about 50 gigatons (Gt) a year. Output from integrated assessment models, such as those assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate a future with 10 to 20 Gt per year left over, compensated by 10 to 20 Gt of negative emissions.

Removing that many gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere would require a tremendous program of building infrastructure. It would basically mean running the fossil fuel industry in reverse, as well as reforesting vast tracts of land. However, we should not simply accept that models which look for the least costly solutions to this challenge offer an accurate description of what we need to do.

Making different assumptions about what is hard to eliminate can give us a more modest number. The recent open-source Carbon Dioxide Removal Primer assumed that we could fully decarbonize the power sector and industrial emissions through the use of carbon capture and storage at industrial sites. This would leave long-haul transport, which is technically difficult to decarbonize, and emissions from agriculture and fertilizer production. In this analysis, residual emissions would be just 1.5 to 3.1 gigatons — still challenging to remove, still requiring a vast infrastructure and significant afforestation, but much more feasible than 10 or 20 Gt.

The problem is, we don’t currently have the language, the imagery, or the conceptual tools to distinguish a world with 2 Gt leftover from one with 20 Gt leftover. In the first scenario, fossil fuel companies would no longer exist, or else we would have transformed them into renewable energy or carbon management companies. In the second scenario, we would have existing fossil fuel companies still producing significant amounts of gas and some quantity of oil.

Without the language to advocate for one of these worlds over the other, we are stuck with mathematical jargon and no way to intervene besides saying “end fossil fuels.” That is a slogan we will find increasingly difficult to defend.

The Footprint of Renewables

Creating a fully decarbonized energy system will involve building a lot of new stuff in an already crowded world. A recent Princeton study of pathways to net-zero in the US by 2050 set out a scenario fully based on renewables that would require a million square kilometers for wind farms. That would be equivalent to the combined land areas of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma — or France and Spain put together. It would also demand a space roughly the size of West Virginia dedicated to solar power, not to mention the entire Atlantic coast of the US reserved as an offshore wind farm.

If this vision comes to pass, rural areas will have their landscapes transformed into energy production zones so that people in the cities can power their lives. One may ask in response to this point: aren’t they already living with their landscapes as corn and soy production zones? But that agricultural production is tied up with considerations of individual identity, pride, and local profit. In contrast, energy infrastructure often feels like a form of extraction by outside forces.

As a result, we are already seeing pushback against installations, with ordinances being passed around the US constraining new developments, well before we have reached anything like the required scale. New transmission lines for clean energy, such as the Central Maine Power transmission corridor that would bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts, have also come under fire for not providing benefits to locals. There is also growing concern about the materials needed to build this infrastructure and about the reliability of the grid.

Critics have blamed wind turbines for power outages in Texas and solar for those in California — often incorrectly, as natural gas failures played their part in both of these crises. What will happen when our dependence on renewables for power expands to the point where there are genuine reliability challenges? All of the problems associated with renewables will cause people to take a second look at the lower land footprints of projects that combine new nuclear and natural gas power plants with carbon capture and storage.

So far, climate action has occurred in a time of abundant energy supplies. Most people in the US and other countries in the Global North have not had to contend with energy shortages in recent memory. We need to carefully synchronize the expansion of clean energy with the phase out of existing production so as to avoid supply constraints.

This is well understood among specialists, but policymakers have yet to incorporate it fully into their plans. The fossil fuel industry will seize upon energy shortages to invite us back into their warm embrace — something that will be easier to sell if fossil fuels have a lower carbon content.

Low-Carbon Fossil Fuels

If we make renewable energy abundant and cheap, while enacting some moderate climate policies, that means we will also have the opportunity to produce low-carbon fossil fuels. The idea of low-carbon or carbon-neutral fossil fuels may sound like an oxymoronic fantasy. But the possibility of such fuels is actually a result of climate action.

If renewables are cheap enough — thanks especially to government policies such as tax credits or low-carbon fuel standards — it becomes economical to produce low-carbon fuels. There are many ways of doing this. An oil company could decarbonize its production to some extent by eliminating methane leaks, for example, or using carbon capture and storage at refineries. Combining direct air capture with enhanced oil recovery could produce carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative fuel, if the production process pumps more CO2 into depleted reservoirs than it extracts in the form of carbon emissions.

With carbon capture and storage, zero-emission fuels and zero-emission fossil-fueled electricity also become possible. Allam Cycle power plant technology produces electricity from natural gas in a way that allows for complete carbon capture.

Some early movers are anticipating markets for lower-carbon fossil fuels, such as Occidental Petroleum — known as “Oxy” — which is aiming to introduce a “differentiated product.” Oxy branded its first shipment of oil, delivered in January 2021 to India’s Reliance Industries, as “carbon neutral” by taking account of offsets. This is a step towards getting people ready to buy oil that will be carbon neutral by way of direct air capture.

Shell similarly received a first European shipment of “carbon neutral LNG [liquified natural gas]” from Gazprom in 2021, with its lifecycle emissions offset by nature-based carbon credits. The Saudi oil company Aramco, which has lower carbon-intensity oil, has also embraced a strategy based on the 4Rs: reduce, remove, reuse, recycle. Instead of eliminating production, so the argument goes, let’s just recycle the carbon.

Corporations in the aviation sector also understand that industrially produced zero-carbon fuels may look better than biofuels. Direct air capture to neutralize the impact of fossil fuels may be even more flexible than biofuels or synthetic fuels produced with captured carbon dioxide. United Airlines is investing in Oxy Low Carbon Venture’s direct air capture technology. In the words of United CEO Scott Kirby: “It’s literally impossible to get the math to add up unless you get to a world where you’re doing direct air capture and sequestration.”

The availability of decarbonized fossil fuels changes the politics around the idea of “ending fossil fuels.” Most people don’t care where their energy comes from — they just want it to be available. If we discover problems with renewables, while fossil fuels become greener, we could easily imagine a “reasonable” consensus emerging that fossil fuels will be part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future.

A consensus like that would carry some obvious dangers. We could end up in a situation where efforts to decarbonize fossil fuel production fall short in reality of what was promised, leaving corporate power entrenched while disadvantaged communities continue to suffer from air pollution and other health impacts. At the same time, production in the developing world may not be decarbonized to a similar extent, and may also continue to prop up corrupt regimes.

Dividing Capital

A purist approach that insists on keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground will probably not be enough to head off these dangers, as the demand for energy will be growing around the world over the course of this decade. We have to confront the question of what to do with the fossil fuel industry. It needs a planned phaseout, not an unplanned combustion.

The most logical option for how to do this involves bringing it under public ownership or control, by means of a majority buyout or regulation. Then we should carefully phase out production while expanding the carbon removal branches of these new companies until we can build an economy based on renewables and green hydrogen. While this may sound ambitious from our current standpoint, it’s the only obvious solution. But how do we build the political capacity needed to put this into effect?

At some point, we might expect those sectors of capital that want or need to preserve a livable climate — not least agriculture, insurance, and others bearing the weight of climate risk — to act in order to rein in fossil capital. The largest company by market capitalization in the world today is Aramco. However, the others in the top ten are Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Alibaba, and Tencent. They have a lot to lose in the event of climate breakdown, and potentially something to gain from ecosystem management, quite apart from the public goodwill they will need to continue their operations.

Acting on climate isn’t just a matter of retaining talent or greenwashing; it’s a business opportunity for tech. Net-zero will require a vast informational infrastructure to track the flows of carbon that need to be offset, from industrial sites to forests. When companies like Microsoft commit to going carbon-negative and clearing the balance of their emissions, going back as far as the company’s foundation, there is an element of self-interest involved. There will have to be platforms to verify and exchange carbon, to help agriculture become a lower-carbon sector, to manage ecosystem restoration, to run the grid, and more.

Tech is one sector with the power and the capital necessary to help build alternatives to fossil fuels. There is an opportunity for us to engage with tech workers who are interested in using their skills to confront climate change.

At the same time, for the sake of our democracy, we also need to break up platforms like Facebook and regulate them in the public interest as infrastructure. Tackling the tech monopolies may seem like a separate issue. In practice, however, it could end up being one of the most important actions we can take to address the climate crisis.

We can’t get the necessary levels of support for clean energy infrastructure and fossil fuel phaseout if we are still locked into an attention economy where algorithmically measured doses of hatred and mendacity form part of the business model. There is a pressing need for spaces where we can engage in nuanced conversations about the very real trade-offs that this energy transition will entail. We have to make use of the power of the tech industry and reform it at the same time.

Lockdown Backlash

The experience of the last year has reinforced the mindset of those who already suspected that out-of-touch elites with PhDs were bent on controlling the way they live. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has lauded his state as “an oasis of freedom in a nation that’s suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns.” South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has claimed that “COVID didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy.”

This has implications for climate action. The Republicans are clearly putting in place a narrative for the midterm elections: Democratic politicians ruined your livelihoods out of fear, they kept your businesses and schools closed through heavy-handed interventions that brought no real benefit, and now it’s time to vote them out. With an uneven, K-shaped recovery, this message may find support.

People who find these arguments convincing fear a repeat with climate change. Guests on Tucker Carlson have spoken about “climate lockdowns coming from COVID lockdowns.” There will be suspicion of any measures to confront climate change that are noticeable, personally burdensome, or viewed as restrictions on individual choice. Such measures are likely to elicit a noisy outcry — much more so than before.

There are now networks of people who have forged social ties, a sense of community, and a sense of mission in resisting COVID lockdowns. They could well transfer these political assets to the fantasy of resisting climate lockdowns. We’re looking at a fundamentally different kind of politics than we had just a year ago.

There are also lessons to be drawn from the experience of the pandemic and the failings of our response that are directly applicable to climate activism. First of all, we should recognize that states of emergency and the discourses that accompany them facilitate terrible human rights abuses such as excessive use of force. Around the world, states have used emergency restrictions to consolidate autocratic powers. Having witnessed this, we should be very wary of referring to the climate crisis as an emergency.

It is more sensible to present climate change as a decade-spanning challenge that will need careful and consensual planning of the kind that rarely manifests itself in an emergency. Instead of calling for restrictions on people’s behavior, which will be grist to the mill for predictable right-wing reaction, we should focus on the kind of action that’s really going to be effective, like funding a nationally networked electric grid, or regulating emissions from the highest-polluting industries.

We also need to do a much better job of assessing the knock-on effects of emergency interventions. This will apply to climate mitigation and adaptation policies in the near future, such as ramping up the production of solar panels or installing seawalls. It will also apply to carbon removal as well as solar geoengineering.

If we stumble in our approach to energy transition over the course of this decade, there is a greater chance that advocates of solar geoengineering projects will place them on the agenda in the 2030s. They may see such projects as a way around the politics of decarbonization and gloss over the potential consequences.

This is one reason why we should now fund careful, public research that attempts to look at follow-on consequences in a comprehensive way. The approach proposed by a recent National Academies of Sciences report, which builds in off-ramps from the research and looks at ecological consequences, would be a good start.

Freedom of Choice

We need to move climate politics into an anticipatory mode, looking at the technologies and struggles ahead. Our focus in the coming period should be on infrastructure and innovation in climate- and energy-related technologies, from batteries and hydrogen to advanced manufacturing and carbon sequestration.

This may sound like a rather centrist approach, but the Left can articulate its own version, combining such investment with a focus on public ownership and control, stressing the benefits to workers and local communities, and identifying industrial polluters. The Biden infrastructure plan could be a step towards this. Critics on the Left have accused the plan of not being ambitious enough, while those on the Right have depicted it as a trojan horse for the Green New Deal. It may yet fail when it comes before Congress.

If that happens, it will show that we must do a better job of explaining what this new infrastructure is about and why it’s so important. We need a new strategy for expressing the content of the Green New Deal, avoiding talk of climate emergency or restrictions on people’s behavior, and focusing instead on providing choices for consumers and workers alike.

Investment in the right areas could make multiple choices available to people: between different clean energy providers, for example, or between a train ride or a bike lane on the way to work. Do you want an electric car that goes from zero-to-sixty in two seconds and is more affordable than an old-style car? Do you want a new heat pump in your house, rather than being stuck with the same old expensive gas boiler? Do you want sustainable aviation fuels so you can choose to fly somewhere in your retirement? Do you want to be able to retire, for that matter, or will your current home be under water by then?

The only thing that can provide those choices is public investment now in innovation and infrastructure. The corporations are not going to create them for us. Do you want to be able to choose who you work for and under what conditions? Then we need to break up these companies and create public alternatives that pay their workers well. It is, at its core, about all our freedoms.

The Left has to do a better job of putting these technological and policy choices in a way that is desirable and comprehensible for everyone, including those who inhabit the rural landscapes that are going to bear all this new infrastructure. We need to steer clear of short-term flare-ups in the media, and away from rhetoric about emergencies.

Progressives must avoid being seen as the advocates of heavy-handed restrictions if we want action on climate change. The counter-argument should be: fossil fuel companies are stifling innovation and closing down your options for a good future. The market’s not going to deliver better choices on its own. If you want an open future, with new technologies and new possibilities, join us.