As a longtime resident of Georgia, where the levers of power are controlled by those who deny climate change, I admire California Governor Jerry Brown’s defiance of the United States’ reckless withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Under Brown’s leadership, California is trying to do its part to achieve the goal of preventing the increase above the pre-industrial average global temperature from going past 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Until recently, this was the agreed upon tipping point, above which there would be catastrophic overheating of the climate.

A glowing earth in our handsOn October 8, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning that the previously estimated threshold is too high and that humanity must succeed in keeping global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid a chaotic scenario including the eradication of ecosystems on 13% of the earth’s land area and the death or suffering of hundreds of millions of people. According to the IPCC, we have only twelve years to make the “rapid and far-reaching” changes needed to accomplish this difficult task, and that on our current path we are headed to a disastrous 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century. If global warming continues at its current rate, we could exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius sometime between 2030 and the mid-2050s.

This is unquestionably a planetary emergency requiring drastic action. Unfortunately Brown’s climate efforts, largely based on market-oriented remedies, fall far short of what’s needed to avert the disasters of overheating described by the IPCC. We should be careful not to blindly follow his example.

In September, California Governor Jerry Brown convened the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. As a representative of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, I joined hundreds of activists from the Climate Justice Alliance at the event.

We were not inside the exclusive confines of the conference center where business, government, and civic leaders from around the world discussed California’s plan to play a large role in the global response to the climate crisis. Instead, we were out in the street, calling for the Governor of the fifth largest economy in the world to reject flawed market-oriented solutions, and instead address the critical concerns of the multitudes living in communities that are endangered by the continued emissions from dirty energy.

At the same time Brown promotes clean energy, he has failed to restrict oil and gas production in California. Oil Change International reports that during his tenure, California has issued more than 20,000 permits for new oil wells. This has happened despite pleas from disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of fossil-fuel pollution, calling for a “planned phase-out” of oil and gas production, and a “just transition for workers, communities, and economies” harmed by the industry. Brown’s market-focused policy also ignores well understood warnings from climate scientists that it will be impossible to prevent a climate catastrophe without keeping most of the earth’s known fossil-fuel reserves in the ground.

Yet, when Brown signed California’s groundbreaking climate legislation which aims to achieve 50% renewable energy use by 2025 and 60% by 2030, he claimed that the state is on a path to meeting a goal of 100% “carbon neutrality” by 2045 – meaning net zero emissions of the greenhouse gases that are overheating the climate.

The sleight of hand that makes it possible to allegedly achieve these goals without putting the fossil fuel industry out of business involves assigning a monetary value to the capacity of natural ecosystems to store carbon, thereby enabling questionable carbon-trading schemes that would allow polluters to continue discharging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by buying “carbon offsets.”

At the San Francisco protests I listened to compelling speeches and tragic stories of indigenous people from around the world who are being banished from their homelands as a result of fraudulent carbon-trading schemes. They have lived for countless generations on these lands without destroying the forests, wetlands and waterways that sustain them. Unfortunately, their potent message that treating nature as a reservoir for dumping carbon pollution is a death sentence for humanity, has been drowned out by a rush to milk profits from the climate crisis.

Listening to these unjustly displaced people as well as people from impoverished American neighborhoods seeking relief from pollution and oppressive economic conditions, has convinced me that most market-oriented strategies presented by political and business leaders are designed primarily to protect fossil-fuel profits. These strategies bolster the existing fossil-fuel-enabled power-structure, rather than advancing the urgently needed transition to more resilient, sustainable, and equitable clean-energy economies which would safeguard humanity from impending climate catastrophe.

Georgia has no oil and gas wells yet (proposals for offshore drilling and fracking are on the table), and our political leaders do not even pretend to be engaged in seeking solutions to the climate crisis. Even so, I think we have much to learn from the struggles of people who live in vulnerable areas of the world that are the frontlines of this crisis.

Many of us have been slow to understand that we also live on the frontlines, and are at the mercy of corporate profits and related political power. Consider the following:

  • Coastal Georgia faces inundation from climate induced sea-level rise, yet our political leadership supports a proposal to open our coast to oil and gas development and the pollution that comes with it.
  • Our forests are threatened by the unfolding development of the biomass industry which exports wood pellets to be burned for electricity in Europe – another false climate “solution” that actually increases greenhouse gas emissions while contributing to asthma and other pollution-induced health problems.
  • Savannah hosts an LNG (liquefied natural gas) export terminal having the potential to cause a catastrophic accident incinerating populated areas, and that will help expand the environmentally destructive U.S. fracking industry by increasing sales of domestic natural gas production in the global marketplace.
  • Georgians are paying an exorbitant price for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, as Georgia Power hinders progress on expanding much less expensive solar and wind power because they are less profitable for the company.
  • Thanks to Georgia’s corporate-friendly energy policies, utility-scale solar that preserves Georgia Power’s profit-making is developing much faster than rooftop solar which benefits average households. Only 5% of Georgia’s solar capacity is on rooftops compared to 40% of U.S. solar capacity distributed on rooftops and community solar.

The consistent thread throughout this list is the priority given to corporate profits rather than serving the public’s need for a healthy, life-sustaining environment.

In California I met outspoken grassroots leaders from other parts of the U.S. and the globe, who recognize that decision-makers in power are not going to promote the kinds of policies that will go far enough to advance effective climate solutions without a strong push from a powerful grassroots movement. Such a movement which includes the voices of marginalized and economically disadvantaged groups will demand the kinds of sweeping changes required to save all of us.

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Karen Grainey

Karen is the assistant director of Center for a Sustainable Coast. She lives and works in Savannah.