Breath Alone Kills No Rebels

“The North responds to the Proclamation sufficiently with breath,” observed Abraham Lincoln, “but breath alone kills no rebels.” He knew that praise from the press and the North for his Emancipation Proclamation would not change things. The only way to freedom from bondage was vanquishing the Southern insurrectionists on the battlefield.

For though announcements may change minds and illustrate new courses, the barometer of impact is execution. Actionchanges the world. Not breath alone.

Today breath fills the air: Grandiose declarations on net zero and decarbonization pour forth from the leaders of hundreds of major polluting countries and companies. They declare solidarity with all those wishing to be free of fossil fuel heavy lifestyles, patterns of consumption that destroy our natural landscape first with extraction and then a second time with the devastation resulting from an overheated, suffocating atmosphere.

These pledges to achieve net zero by 2030 or 2050, are better than rejection or silence.

But breath alone comes with unique risks: a commitment is easily deployed as a shiny object to distract the listener from what matters: the day-to-day fighting that must be done to change how humanity consumes resources.

And we should be deeply worried that many will settle for announcements only. For several reasons. Let facts be submitted to a candid world:

First, talk is cheap. It takes no resources to set a goal and release a statement to the press. Abraham Lincoln may have carefully crafted the Emancipation Proclamation, but few slaves were actually freed because of his announcement.

Second, the private refrain from many CEOs of companies making these proclamations is: “We have no idea how we’re going to achieve these goals.” Nor do they or anyone in their organizations have to know. Somebody else will be left to figure them out. The average tenure of a public company CEO is 5 years yet they are setting goals for 30 years from now without a concrete plan behind them. Personal accountability cannot follow.

Third, we have seen earlier versions of this film. After the oil crises of the 1970’s energy independence was the rallying cry of many. Energy Performance contracts were born to boost energy efficiency retrofits. Solar investment dollars poured forth. The Mojave desert welcomed a new kind of power plant: large scale solar thermal plants built by leaders like Luz Industries, that pumped out energy at 8 cents per kWh. But by the late 1980s, energy security stopped mattering, governments stopped caring, and investment died. Luz vanished. For fifteen years. Then in the early 2000s came the cleantech venture investment boom which lasted until 2008, when another round of retrenchment came and clean energy yet again became a dirty word in financial circles.

Fourth, human nature seeks the easy path rather than changes. Since time immemorial, human beings have opted for the shortcut of what sounds good over what is good. Directors of sustainability at major corporations have shown a preference for completing their carbon accounting reports instead of putting their reputation behind real decarbonization action like solar projects or energy efficiency retrofits. CEOs and other leaders show a much greater willingness to spend money on certifications, even if the greenwashing of those certifications was well known, because others believe in them and it’s good enough to dupe unknowing tenants and investors. The expectation to be judged on the science-based carbon dioxide reductions you make is a foreign concept to leaders. They are likely to quail from the difficult and retreat to whatever low lying green-washed sandbar they can hoodwink the public into believing is real progress.

Fifth, for all the sensational natural destruction wrecking cities and towns across the globe, climate change is an easy problem to ignore. Centuries of population and technology growth have decimated wildernesses, species, and polluted our air and water, putting in peril the planet that sustains us. Yet the destruction wrought by humanity happens at power plants and factories and farms far away, at low visible and financial cost to most people. People are unlikely to take action on problems they do not readily see or feel financially.

The background of these decarbonization declarations is therefore deeply concerning. Lofty decarbonization goals set by leaders who won’t be held accountable, who have no idea of how to achieve them, mixed with a history of climate action elided when the spotlight turns elsewhere, combined with the human instinct to ignore what isn’t in front of them, to do what easily advances selfish interests over the real work of changing the air we all breathe—this recipe bodes ill for humanity.

Action is the only barometer that matters. It’s not how many tons of emissions you are polluting today and how many you claim you’ll be emitting ten years from now. What matters is how many tons of carbon dioxide will you reduce today. And then how many more tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.

For companies and individuals committed to decarbonization, they can do it in ways that are easy and profitable and joyful. Given human nature’s resistance to change and fear of the unknown, ease and joy and simplicity and profitability are essential.

All life on earth is stunningly, frighteningly at our mercy. As Apollo astronaut Mike Collins said: “The overriding sensation I got looking at Earth was: ‘My God that little thing is so fragile out there.’” In the 20th century, human beings cut down half of the trees on Earth. Human beings killed three million whales last century, exterminating 75%, driving nearly to extinction the leviathans the size of school buses that have filled our oceans for millions of years.  In the last century we killed 90% of lions. Human action has led to more 600 species disappearing forever and we threaten to send another one million more to the vultures of lost history soon.

And then there is the vast direct human health and economic toll already upon us. The climate refugees turned away at every national border, the families watching their homes destroyed by fires and floods, the communities watching their ways of life for centuries wash away. And billions more people’s lives will be upended by climate change. These misfortunes are due in part to choices people have made in the past and that people continue to make today about how we live and consume energy. That is an injustice. The people who suffer from climate change didn’t cause it. Generations to come will hold us in judgment for the planet we bequeath them.

We can and must solve the problem of human dependency on carbon-based fuels in our lifetimes. We must bring back harmony between humanity’s consumptive nature and the nature on which all life depends. This cause warrants sacrifice. The hopes of billions of people and billions more not yet born rest on us, and we must act now so that in the future we and our children will live in peace.

The damage wrought by humanity can be undone by humanity. We can turn environmental debasement into rejuvenation. With sustained and dedicated action we can overcome the environmental miseries we have inherited. Four billion people fill only 1% of the Earth’s surface. Continued urbanization and the plateauing of population at 10 billion should let us live in easy harmony with our planet.

The interconnectedness of our fellow human beings with whom we will overcome these challenges are in the air we breathe. In our first breath of air we inhale one billion trillion oxygen molecules. Then over the years the winds blow these molecules all around the world, so that these first-breath oxygen molecules are evenly dispersed throughout the atmosphere. So that every breath every single person takes contains one molecule of oxygen first breathed by every other human being.

An “inescapable network of mutuality” links all of us on this fragile planet. Talk alone will not solve our problems, but all our breaths are shared, our atmosphere a common quilt of past exhalations. From past exhalation we must turn to present execution: Let today and every day be the time of action!

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