Column: Collective action, shared sacrifice needed to fight climate change

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 8/14/2021 10:09:59 PM
Modified: 8/14/2021 10:10:11 PM

Recently, my wife and I have been learning about the years leading up to World War II by listening to historical fiction books and watching mini-series set in Europe during that time period. In each of them, different European nations view the United States’ neutrality with a combination of hope and frustration. Hope because they believed the United States’ entry into the conflict would help them defeat the Nazis and restore democracy. Frustration because of our country’s seeming callousness and denial.

European nations asked: Why couldn’t the U.S. appreciate the devastation Hitler was wreaking on their nations? How could it ignore the way Nazis treated those they deemed “undesirable”? Why couldn’t our country see that, if Europe fell to the Nazis, an invasion of the U.S. was inevitable?

In reading a few weeks ago about the 27 European countries that adopted the “Fit for 55” plan to fight climate change, I see an analogous set of questions emerging. While our country debates the inclusion of expanded solar and wind power in an infrastructure upgrade, Europeans are uniting behind a plan to upgrade alternative energy sources to meet a 55% emission reduction target by 2030.

Worse, while European leaders are united in their sense of urgency, the Center for American Progress found that 109 representatives and 30 senators in the U.S. Congress refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change, evidence that is the basis for the EU’s action. And worse yet, while elected officials in both parties provide $14.7 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels at the federal level and $5.8 billion more at the state level, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Oil Change International, European nations are striving to be carbon neutral by 2035.

And here is what must be particularly bewildering to those in the EU: Unlike the runup to World War II, when our country was spared the destruction of the Blitzkrieg, the food shortages, the tanks rumbling through the streets and “undesirables” being kidnapped and killed, our country today is suffering the same consequences from climate change as Europe.

NASA’s Global Climate Change Study provides unequivocal evidence that our climate is changing. Its report notes that global temperature rose by 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit (1.18 degrees Celsius) since the late 1800s, with 2016 through 2020 tied for the warmest years on record. Ice sheets are shrinking, glaciers are retreating and snow cover is decreasing. Sea levels rose by 8 inches in the past century. And, as any viewer of the Weather Channel knows, there are more extreme high temperatures, fewer extreme lows and more intense weather events.

Monday’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought even more evidence that climate change is unprecedented, it is real, man is causing it, it is already affecting every inhabited region on Earth, and every scenario envisioned by the climate scientists will require a unified global effort.

From a scientific perspective, climate change denial is not an option. From a political perspective, the sacrifices required to change the trajectory of the climate are daunting.

The good news — for the planet and, perhaps, our political leaders — is that a collective dawning appears to be taking place. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which began gathering data on American attitudes about climate change in 2008, found in its 2020 survey that four times as many Americans are alarmed about climate change as are dismissive of it. Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz, who gathered the data, concludes that the public now knows that climate change is real, it’s caused by us, and it’s bad. As he sees it, the question is what to do about it.

The EU “Fit for 55” plan offers a blueprint, albeit one that many climate activists find short on ambition and most politicians across the world find unrealistic. The plan recommends:

■ A carbon tax for selected imports that are emissions-heavy.

■ An end to internal combustion engine cars by 2035.

■ A target of producing 40% of energy from renewable sources by 2030.

■ A phase-out of free emission allowances for aviation.

■ Lowering the cap of the Emissions Trading System and including shipping emissions in it.

■ Planting 3 billion trees by 2030.

■ Targeting carbon neutral land use by 2035

Fulfilling this arguably insufficient plan would require major changes in the lives of most Americans. The mask mandates, social distancing and vaccinations required by the COVID-19 pandemic pale in comparison. The EU plan would increase the costs of virtually everything.

In our part of the world here in the Upper Valley — with its plentiful sources of clean water, far from rising oceans, relatively untouched by severe drought or wildfires — we might find it unfair to have to pay more for goods to help those who choose to live in deserts, on shorelines threatened by rising ocean levels, or in the path of hurricanes. We might find it even more unfair to make sacrifices to help people who live in countries thousands of miles away. Sacrifices are likely to seem particularly unfair to those who want to place America first — who seek higher tariffs to protect the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry and who reject international alliances.

Many have likened our reliance on fossil fuels to an addiction, and like any addiction it will be difficult to shake. Fossil fuels warm us, keep our lights on and enable us to commute, by ourselves, from ever-larger homes located farther and farther from our work. Fossil fuels contribute to inexpensive groceries, apparel and electronics. Fossil fuels enable us to travel at our leisure. But once we reach a collective understanding that the true cost of our use of fossil fuels is the destruction of the Earth, we can see that collective sacrifices are needed.

The EU’s “Fit for 55” plan provides a way forward to begin taking action against the perils of climate change. When faced with the certain dangers of COVID-19, science and political leaders who valued the well-being of citizens offered a plan for collective action — and we’ve witnessed what happens when such a reasoned approach is ignored. Now would be a good time to heed the call of science, recognize the need for shared sacrifice, and work together on a plan to help secure the future of our planet.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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