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Holding Our Breath for Climate Policy

By Penelope Spurr

Art by Vanessa Perez-Robles

Two days before I arrived at Dartmouth I was packing some final belongings and decided to go on a run. I was feeling nervous about moving in, especially since I had decided to schlep all my things to Hanover alone. I needed to clear my head, so I went to a local track and ran around and around, trying to glean some bit of solace. I had only finished a couple of laps when a layer of clouds rolled in overhead. It was four in the afternoon, and this was still summertime; the clouds were unusually dark. The sky became hazy and strikingly orange. The air began to feel thick in my lungs. I kept running, but soon my nose and throat began to burn. It was the smoke. I needed to go home. As I retraced my route the sky only darkened more, and the hot, blustery air swept up masses of leaves. When I had access to Google, I learned that a “high wind event” had blown smoke from two major Oregon fires into my town.

As I flew out to Dartmouth, moved in, and elected my classes, the fires spread. Shortly after I had settled in, my dad called. He asked if there was anything at home I wanted him to pack — anything of sentimental value — in case our family were to evacuate. I thought for a few seconds, then asked for him to grab an old stuffed animal and a book. Some days later I called them again to check in, feeling guilty from my dorm room on a sunny, clear-skied campus. My family had been staying entirely indoors because the smoke had become so thick. It had become, according to Apple’s weather app, “hazardous.” Physically, the fire had crept within 30 miles of our house. This would have felt jarringly close had our town not been protected by the buffer of the Willamette River, which bisects Portland. The fire was on the east side of the river; we lived on the west. But the situation was worse in other towns that didn’t have buffers like ours. One of my friends, who had been preparing to move into her dorm at the University of Oregon, told me over FaceTime that her classmate’s house had burned down. Then she showed me her room, usually full of beloved tchotchkes, now almost unrecognizably empty. Everything had been crammed into a couple of bulging IKEA bags piled on her floor. Uncertainty weighed on the conversation. Climate change had never felt so haunting. What concerned me even more was the knowledge that some families experience this fear every summer. For them, it’s routine.

Around the same time, I learned that Metronome, LLC had altered their 15-digit clock in Union Square to not display the time until midnight, but rather to display the time left until climate change will be irreversible.[1] The clock became controversial. Why did it have to face pedestrians, people asked, who ought to be considered the victims of climate change? Was the clock remotely productive? As I read support and criticism to the installation, my mind wandered back to my run around the track and trouble breathing. Natural disaster was sweeping my state, incinerating towns and livelihoods. When I returned to the description of the clock I’d been reading, I found myself wondering: what does it mean to have seven years, 103 days, 15 hours, 40 minutes, and 7 seconds left? What do we have to do before that clock reaches 00:00:00:00? And who is “we”?

To answer these questions, I wanted to define the stakes. According to the NASA Earth Observatory, the earth is warming at a rate “roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.” Industry is largely to blame for this increase, having elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels “from 280 parts per million to 414 parts per million in the last 150 years”.[2] At the same time, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if we intend to stay below the 1.5°C threshold, the atmosphere can’t absorb any more than 420 gigatons of carbon dioxide. And since roughly 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide are emitted globally every year (that’s 1332 tons per second) the budget of 420 is expected to be spent within the next decade. The 1.5°C threshold is absolutely critical: crossing it would risk damage to “health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth." Reaching 1.5°C, for example, would result in a global mean sea level rise by roughly half of a meter, which may sound trivial but would expose tens of millions of people to associated risks.[3]

Unsurprisingly, corporations contribute most to climate change. According to a 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, we can trace 71% of carbon emissions since 1988 to just 100 fossil fuel producers. These include both public investor-owned companies (like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP) and state-owned entities (like Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and National Iranian Oil). The report also discloses that investors in fossil fuel companies “own a great legacy of almost a third of all industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions...and carry influence over one fifth of the world’s industrial GHG emissions today.”[4] Corporations don’t deserve all of the blame — as consumers who continue to demand fossil fuels, we aren’t absolved from guilt — but it would be unfair to assume that the economic leverage these corporations exercise doesn’t tether citizens to consumption.

Also, regions of the United States produce and consume energy unevenly. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, and West Virginia emitted over 50 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2010. Those states are major producers of fossil fuels, and they require large amounts of fossil fuels for extraction and processing. New York and the District of Columbia, on the other hand, emitted less than five million tons. Some regions rely heavily on fossil fuels (the Midwest and South), while others rely heavily on renewable energy (the Pacific Northwest and New England). Some states import energy; others export energy.[5] Inconsistency applies to reverberations of climate change, too: communities of color and communities that are low-income repeatedly suffer the worst consequences, like toxic waste, natural disaster, and food scarcity. According to the NAACP, race is the primary indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in the United States.[6]

This is the problem. It is vast, but it is not unsolvable. Resolution will require both flexibility in defining paths to GHG reduction and unambiguity in drafting policy. It might call for investment in wind, solar, and geothermal energy. It might call for investment in “firm resources” like biomass, nuclear, and large-scale hydroelectric power. It might call for what Senator of Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren termed “economic patriotism” -- emphasis on American employment -- in creating energy transmission grids.[7] It might call for market-based mechanisms like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade structures. It might -- it will -- require persistent public activism. It will require debate and controversy, as it already has. And it will require a clear understanding of repercussion: that if action is not taken, millions of citizens will face affliction.

Joe Biden is president-elect. Some of his supporters believed in his policies passionately; others simply voted on his behalf to prevent President Trump from re-election. In the next few months, we will witness sweeping prioritization of the Democratic agenda. With this in mind, I recall the day before my flight to Hanover when I saw smoky clouds overhead, the call with my friend who had packed all her belongings to prepare for evacuation, and the weather app’s categorization of my hometown’s air quality as “hazardous.” I know that the Democratic Party will prioritize climate change; whether this priority becomes bold and meaningful policy I am not sure. Flimsy resolutions are worthless. Biden and Harris must champion not just reform, but reconstruction. We cannot afford otherwise.


[1] Moynihan, Colin. “A New York Clock That Told Time Now Tells the Time Remaining.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Sept 2020.

[2] “How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past?” NASA Earth Observatory. EOS Project Science Office at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 03 Jun 2010.

[3] Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.) Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. (Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization, 2018), 32 pp.

[4] “New report shows just 100 companies are source of over 70% of emissions.” Carbon Disclosure Project. Carbon Disclosure Project Worldwide, 10 July 2017.

[5] “From Sea to Shining Sea, Who’s Using the Most Fossil Fuels?” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 20 May 2013.

[6] “Environmental and Climate Justice.” NAACP. NAACP, 2020.

[7] Team Warren. “A Plan for Economic Patriotism.” Medium. Medium, 04 Jun 2019.

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