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By Sherry Listgarten

What does it mean to be a "realist" about climate?

Uploaded: Feb 14, 2021

I recently tuned into a city discussion about reducing local emissions. Senior Resource Planner Jonathan Abendschein was giving a progress update on his team’s effort to develop “the most adoptable plan that we can” to reduce emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2030. We have not made much progress since setting this “80x30” goal in 2016, but the importance of reducing our emissions has only become more evident. Staff was asked to draft a concrete proposal for the public to respond to.

Abendschein acknowledged that it is not an easy goal to hit, but pointed out that we have more options now than we did earlier. He did not present specifics -- the plan is still under development -- but he outlined some insights, gave an update on the process, and took questions from the Commissioners in attendance. (1)

Some of those Commissioners asked about charging infrastructure and utility staffing, offered suggestions to look at regional incentives or streamline permitting, expressed concerns about new gas appliances being installed, and commented on the benefits of local electric home tours and the need for effective communication. These Commissioners seemed to be concerned about climate change, supportive of the effort to formulate and quantify a plan, and eager to help.

But others were more pessimistic. Two Commissioners prefaced their remarks by saying that of course they want to “be on the right side” of the discussion, and then questioned whether the effort was realistic and worthwhile. “We need to maintain some practicality on some of these things,” said one, anticipating that the plan would involve “fantasy” targets and “extreme” costs. They suggested that the public would reject whatever the city came up with, that costs would be too high, and that it was better left to the state or to the residents themselves to formulate a plan, with one adding that “Frankly, the amount of emissions we save in Palo Alto is not going to make any difference in climate change, whatsoever. I think we all recognize that.”

It’s good to have diversity of thought on a commission like this. There are certainly community members who would have similar concerns, particularly in absence of an actual plan. Probing questions can be helpful. But these comments struck me less as constructive criticism and more as a venting of fears and frustrations.

The discussion made me wonder: What does it mean to be a “realist” about climate change? It is easy to say something is too expensive, or will take too long, or will be unacceptable to participants, or will be too complex. Certainly all of those objections and more could have been raised about GM’s move to halt production of gas vehicles by 2035. And yet that is happening. Certainly all of those objections could have been raised about efforts to divest from fossil fuels, to price carbon, to revise building codes, to clean up power, to enable international agreements, to move families from threatened coastlines. And yet those too are happening.

In the context of pervasive, persistent global warming, it is much more realistic to look forward than to look backward. Our homes are threatened by sea-level rise, our skies by smoke, our lands by fire and drought. We can no longer count on something as simple as outdoor activity in late summer and fall.

A climate realist acknowledges and calls attention to that evolving reality and rallies people around plans to address it. A climate realist doesn’t take comfort in compromises with the past. Instead they push for change commensurate with the scale of the challenge we are facing.

It is not enough to sit around waiting for the federal or state government to solve the problem, as one Commissioner repeatedly urged. Each city, each county, and each state has its own local context and its own best plan. Palo Alto is better positioned than most other cities to hit an aggressive 80x30 reduction. No one says it will be easy. But as one Commissioner put it, “If a community like ours can’t do this, then who can?”

I find it hard to believe that a leader of our community would claim that “What we do is too small to make a difference.” Does it make no difference when we each wear a mask? How is large-scale change made, if not from an accumulation of smaller changes? It absolutely makes a difference when each city, when our city, reduces its emissions, and even more so when it’s an early mover. #Norway

Climate realism is the opposite of more of the same, however “realistic” or “pragmatic” that may feel. Climate realism is forward-looking, creative, optimistic, data-driven leadership. I am profoundly disappointed that our leaders in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s did not move away from fossil fuels more proactively. Our job has gotten much harder as a result of their inaction. The buck has to stop, and stop with us. I’d like to see all of our city leaders demonstrating this kind of realism.

Notes and References
1. You can view a video of the discussion here.

Current Climate Data (January 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

From the New York Times, Feb 11:

On Sunday, a glacier in the Indian Himalayas burst apart, releasing a torrential flood that destroyed one hydroelectric dam project and damaged another, killed at least 32 people and left nearly 200 people missing and likely dead. Half a world away, this event might seem easy to disregard as yet another distant catastrophe — tragic yet unrelated to our daily lives.

In the Western world, we should not be so sanguine. The disaster was a direct result of extreme climate change in the world’s highest mountains. The rapid warming there offers a warning of the potential consequences for the United States and the rest of the world as greenhouse gases continue to heat the planet.

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