Measure G is a plan to fail. According to the latest climate science, its goal of an 80 percent greenhouse gas emission (GGE) cut by 2050 will be much too little and far too late. Berkeley City Council and the Energy Commission should act immediately to order a comprehensive reassessment of the targets.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away—the year 2004 of the common era on Earth—climate scientists thought an 80 percent cut in GGEs by 2050 would be sufficient to stave off the worst effects of global warming. Policies crafted based on those targets were, at one point, logical and defensible. But by the time Berkeleyans voted on Measure G in November 2006, climate scientists had already demonstrated those goals to be thoroughly inadequate. In his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, respected British journalist George Monbiot reported far more aggressive targets: a 90 percent global cut would be needed by 2030, including 94 percent in the U.S.
And that was before NASA scientist James Hansen’s latest paper blew the doors off the bus last fall. According to his calculations, we’ve already passed the safe point for greenhouse gas concentrations. Currently, Earth’s atmosphere is choked up with 387 parts per million of greenhouse gases. It was previously assumed we could stabilize at 450 and keep the worst-case scenarios at bay. Hansen’s report shows we not only need to stop rising, but also we need to drop down to 350 parts per million if we want to have even a chance to stop catastrophic sea level rise and all of the other doomsday scenarios we’ve been reading about on the Chronicle’s front page the past two years.
So how will we get back to 350 parts per million? No one knows. The science behind the 350 target is so new that no one has calculated what percentage cut will be needed and by what date, claims Kelly Blynn of 350.org, Bill McKibben’s new advocacy group that’s trying to get the goal of 350 parts per million on the global agenda.
But what seems certain is that the cut must be greater than 100 percent. Yes, you read that correctly. Since we’ve already passed the safe point, not only will we have to comprehensively decarbonize the world’s industrial infrastructure, but we will also have to reforest now-denuded parts of the earth and find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Whereas previously we thought we could get away with just slowing the machine down, now we have to both bring the machine to a halt and send it into reverse—the machine being industrial civilization’s fossil-fuel-burning and ecosystem-destroying infrastructure. The deadline will certainly be no later than 2030, and perhaps much sooner.
Why the deadline? As Monbiot explains in his book, global warming can be understood as a series of dominoes. Once human-caused greenhouse gas emissions pass a certain threshold, the first in a long series of climatic dominoes will tip over. For example, the Siberian permafrost will melt (a process already begun), releasing billions of tons of methane, a gas that is 30 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon. With all the extra methane in the atmosphere, the planet will warm further, causing another ecological system to collapse, releasing yet more greenhouse gases. Once the dominoes start to fall, global warming will proceed regardless of human activity. At our current level of 387 parts per million, the first domino could tip at any time, and it may already be too late.
So the whole point is to reduce GG concentrations to the safe level of 350 before the first domino tips. This is why doing something about global warming without doing enough is the equivalent of doing nothing. If we do something without doing enough—which is precisely what virtually every politician in the United States wants to do, from President Obama down to Mayor Bates—we will still push over the dominoes. Coastal regions will flood, hundreds of millions will become refugees, and vast areas of formerly lush greenery will turn into deserts. Some scientists predict a mass die-off similar to the Permian, when 95 percent of species perished.
If we must strive for seemingly unrealistic goals like a greater than 100 percent cut in GGEs by 2030 or earlier, why even try? And why should Berkeley make such an effort when our state and nation are also setting inadequate goals?
Berkeley is a model to the rest of California, the U.S., and by extension, the world. Later this year, global leaders will convene in Copenhagen to negotiate a new global warming compact, which climate activists agree is the last chance for the world to set meaningful targets before the dominoes fall. If Berkeley commits to the cuts necessary to get to 350 parts per million on a time frame dictated by the science, not by politics, our honorable Congresswoman Barbara Lee will pay attention. Lee has an excellent relationship with President Obama, who has established the same inadequate goal as the City of Berkeley: 80 percent by 2050. If we want the president’s view to change, in the words of Gandhi, we must be the change we want to see in the world.
If the City Council and the Energy Commission refuse to take the necessary action to revise Measure G’s targets, citizens should introduce a new ballot measure with revised targets based on 350.org and the latest climate science. The point of Berkeley’s climate action plan should not be to appear green and win an award. The point should be to stop global warming, which in its current configuration, the plan will never help to accomplish.
A final note. I highly recommend Monbiot’s book Heat and his columns at Monbiot.com under the Climate Change category. I don’t agree with everything he says; he’s far too open to nuclear power. But his words are a useful starting point for discussion. Especially note his comments on the irremediable problem of airplane travel and the way carbon offsets distract from meaningful action.
Matthew Taylor is writing a book about the Memorial Oak Grove tree-sit.