Toward a New Global Warming Rhetoric

The meme that most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground, because we have to completely phase out the burning of fossil fuels over the next few decades, does not seem to have entered this country’s consciousness, Environmentalists have tried to down-play what it would mean to accept the meme and take appropriate action, but that rhetorical strategy is not working. We’re stalled at a point where most Americans acknowledge that humans are causing serious global-warming effects, but they don’t know what to do about it or don’t want to know because they don’t want to make a personal sacrifice that will mostly benefit people far-away in distance and time.

It’s time for us as environmentalists to move our rhetoric one step forward: to assume that we’re moving forward on the necessary path and to start working out how to deal with the consequences.

For example, we’re going to remove or idle all of the natural-gas infrastructure world-wide because we have to stop burning natural gas. That means no more natural-gas stoves, water heaters, or furnaces in folks’ homes. Why shouldn’t we start replacing these things now as they wear out? They should be replaced with electric appliances that can eventually be powered by renewable sources.

For the Dakota Access Pipeline, the global-warming consequences are hugely important, but have received little attention. We need to stop building pipelines to carry oil and gas because we need to stop using oil and gas. This important meme has not figured large in the DAP rhetoric, but it’s the strongest argument against the pipeline, and the importance of the DAP story should be used to promote the meme.

The foreign-policy dynamics of the Middle East will be fundamentally altered because the U.S. is much less dependent than it used to be on imported oil. The trend will accelerate as we de-carbonize. It is a truism that we invaded Iraq for oil. But when we seriously move toward a no-oil energy system, we will stop importing oil altogether, and the Middle East may be of marginal strategic importance to this country.

We environmentalists need to move the rhetoric forward by assuming that what needs to get done will get done. There is no question in my mind that we will eventually de-carbonize. The important question is when. As long as we continue emitting greenhouse gases, concentrations in the atmosphere, and global temperatures, will increase. The AR5 IPCC Synthesis Report tells us that we will be stuck “for many centuries after a complete cessation” of GHG emissions with the temperature increase at the time of cessation. We owe a duty to all the humans and other animals who will inhabit the Earth during those many centuries to stop emitting sooner to reduce the temperature increase they will have to live with.