Post-election green: Is climate realism taking root?

Whoever wins the presidential election and other key political contests across the country tomorrow — two things are certain.

Climate change and efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing it will both continue — and the fact that both more radical and mainstream organizations are launching programs to tackle the problem on the eve of the election underlines the nonpartisan nature of the issue.

On the more radical end is Bill McKibben and his grassroots organization 350.org, who are launching a nationwide campaign and speaking tour called Do the Math.

The campaign is founded on an article McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone in July called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” in which he focused on some key numbers underlying global climate change.

– There is broad scientific consensus that the world’s temperature should not be allowed to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  But as McKibben notes:

“So far we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists A growing number of climate experts now say the limit should be 1 degree Celsiuus.

– To keep global warming to the 2-degree Celsius limit, the top amount of carbon we can pump into our atmosphere by midcentury is 565 gigatons.  With 1 billion tons per gigaton, that means 565,000,000 tons.

The problem here is that, after the recession brought a brief dip in 2009, global carbon emissions are rising. Last year, worldwide carbon emissions rose 3.2 percent to 31.6 gigatons, according to figures from the International Energy Agency.

Looking at the findings, Fatih Birol, chief economist for the IEA, said, “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close. When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of six degrees.”

And Birol is talking Celsius here; the equivalent is 11 Fahrenheit.

– McKibben’s last figure is the killer — 2,795 gigatons. That’s the amount of carbon contained in proven coal, oil and gas reserves worldwide — the fossil fuels we’re planning to burn — which is just short of five times the 565 gigatons that we need to keep to a 2-degree rise.

To upend these figures, McKibben wants to enlist college students to pressure their schools to divest fossil fuel stocks from their investment portfolios — similar to the highly effective divestment campaign in the 1980s aimed at companies doing business in then-apartheid South Africa. The Do the Math tour will take him to 20 colleges across the country between Nov. 7 and Dec. 3.

He will be at the Ackerman Ballroom at UCLA at 7 p.m. Nov. 11.

On the other end of the spectrum is the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit organization with funding from private, government and other nonprofit sources. Its post election play is a new program called Scaling Up Utility Programs for Multifamily Homes. 

Multifamily homes — apartments, including low-income units — have not benefited from recent efforts to retrofit single family homes, because of the upfront costs to property owners. But a joint studyACEEE did with CNT Energy, found that raising energy efficiency in the multifamily sector 30 percent for natural gas and 15 percent for electricity could yield $3.4 billion in savings.

Through the Scaling Up program, ACEEE hopes to partner with utilities, property owners, local governments and others to develop best practices and guide materials for developing energy efficiency programs for multifamily buildings.

ACEEE does not talk about how much carbon such efforts would take out of the atmosphere, but reducing natural gas use 30 percent in the multifamily housing sector would certainly have an impact and keep more of those 2,795 gigatons of carbon in the ground.

McKibbon argues that energy-efficiency programs, however much they may save individual families or companies, are not enough for the major break in business as usual that is needed to begin to slow and eventually stop and reverse climate change.

Maybe, but that kind of logic too often leads to the rationalization that any effort, outside of something huge and dramatic, will not be effective or valuable, so why bother. In this case, all-of-the-above is definitely the way to go.

Smaller or incremental actions also contribute to the mindset and cultural changes that are undoubtedly occurring. Maybe not fast enough for some, but people and institutions are moving toward the recognition that climate change is serious and requires a range of responses at all levels of our society.

The question is whether Superstorm Sandy, and McKibbens’ unsettling arithmetic will spawn a new sense of climate realism and urgency in the U.S. government as it has at the grassroots.

The man in the White House, and our other federal leaders, may help accelerate or slow the momentum, but they won’t stop it.