Opinion

Opinion | Bill McKibben

Citizens must hold government accountable on climate

ILULISSAT, GREENLAND - JULY 17: Icebergs float in the water on July 17, 2013 in Ilulissat, Greenland. As Greenlanders adapt to the changing climate and go on with their lives, researchers from the National Science Foundation and other organizations are studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and its long-term ramifications for the rest of the world. In recent years, sea level rise in places such as Miami Beach has led to increased street flooding and prompted leaders such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to propose a $19.5 billion plan to boost the citys capacity to withstand future extreme weather events by, among other things, devising mechanisms to withstand flooding. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Melting icebergs in Ilulissat, Greenland.

A few things that happened this week: one set of researchers announced that February was the planet’s fourth-warmest month on record, which is especially bad news since the El Niño that produced last year’s record-breaking heat is over and we’re supposed to be cooling a little. Another group of scientists published data showing that, for the third year in a row, Arctic ice has set a new record winter low. Still other statisticians showed that, to date, this has been by far the worst wildfire season on record in the United States — two million acres burned against an average of 200,000. In Peru, last fall’s record drought has given way to record flooding, with dozens dead and 100,000 homes damaged. In Namibia, the worst flooding in history . . . I could go on.

Someone should do something. But that someone clearly isn’t going to be the federal government. Instead, President Trump’s appointees spent the week dismantling 40 years’ worth of environmental laws and regulations. In the past few days, we’ve learned that they plan to ditch Obama-era laws that would increase gas mileage for cars and shut down old coal-fired power plants. A new analysis shows that if such plans are carried out, it will be impossible for the United States to meet the targets it pledged to hit in the Paris climate accords — we’d break our promise by a billion tons of carbon. One way of dealing with those unpleasant truths is to stop paying attention. A spokesman for the White House said last week that the federal government was no longer going to “waste money” on climate research. Money to maintain even existing climate satellites is disappearing. NASA has been told to stop worrying about our home planet and focus on Mars.

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So who’s going to stand up? The answer, for the moment, is states and cities. On Wednesday, the governors of the West Coast states and the mayors of most of its big cities put out a stirring joint message: “We speak as a region of over 50 million people with a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion. There is no question that to act on climate is to act in our best economic interests. Through expanded climate policies, we have grown jobs and expanded our economies while cleaning our air.” They would, the officials promised, keep at it. They added that they hoped other local and regional leaders would “join us in leading and re-affirming our commitment to cut carbon emissions and reverse the damaging impacts to our communities of unfettered pollution.”

This is not just a national effort — California Governor Jerry Brown has been helping spearhead the Under2 coalition, joining together “subnational units” from around the planet working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. (Massachusetts is a signatory.) And state officials are doing their best to keep the fossil fuel industry honest, even as Washington effectively ends any real oversight. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, for instance, has bravely joined her New York counterpart, Eric Schneiderman, to investigate Exxon’s outsize role in fostering the climate denial now in power in Washington. States and cities may be able to keep some of the clean energy momentum rolling. But they can’t do it by themselves, at least, not for long. Reuters recently reported on the growing number of national governments trying to rein in mayors and governors who push “too fast” on climate pollution — from Norway to Australia, conservative governments are now trying to rein in progressive big-city mayors.

Which means that the rest of us need to add our weight to the political balance. Upset by EPA chief Scott Pruitt and his assertion that carbon dioxide isn’t driving global warming? Scared by Trump’s insistence that climate change is a Chinese hoax? Inspired by the plucky local officials determined to try and keep the fight alive? Then show up in Washington on April 29, for the next great mobilization of the cresting resistance. More than 100,000 people have already RSVP’d for the People’s Climate March — it’s our chance to say we won’t stand silently by as the planet melts.

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, and founder of the climate campaign 350.org, which is helping coordinate the April 29 mobilization.
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