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What Would Greta Thunberg's Dream World Look Like?

Haley Zaremba

A sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden has gotten a lot of attention (some supportive, much vitriolic) this week as she took on policymakers at the 2019 UN climate action summit in New York, imploring them to take action against the growing threat of catastrophic climate change. Greta Thunberg’s high-profile activism has come a long way in a short time, from weekly solo school strikes in her native Sweden to a historic worldwide climate demonstration this September that drew between 4 and 6 million people.

Thunberg has received a fair amount of backlash for her words and actions at the UN climate action summit, where she delivered a powerfully emotional speech accusing world leaders of deliberately ignoring the damning scientific reports that support the conclusion that sweeping action must be taken immediately to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. 

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg shouted, “How dare you!”

Many have dismissed Thunberg as a child who is not equipped with the education or experience to make such statements to some of the most powerful leaders in the world, condemning the system that our global economy is based on. But Thunberg herself is not saying that she has the answers-she is calling on adults in power to do what she cannot and change the course of global warming. 

So, Greta Thunberg’s ideal world, in which the powers that be would immediately drop everything, listen, read up on the latest science, and take action to create sweeping change in the way we run our world--what would that world look like? It’s not an unanswerable question. In fact, the premiere international committee dedicated to gathering the latest climate science and publishing highly-researched and internationally recognized reports based on the latest findings has gone a long way toward answering these questions, although it was Thunberg’s impassioned speeches and strikes that have gotten a good deal of the world to pay attention, whether out of support or derision.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a comprehensive report at the end of last year that summed up the current state of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, where we are headed if countries stick to their emissions caps as pledged in the Paris agreement (which the United States, notably, has withdrawn from under the Trump administration), and how much more needs to be done in order to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

The results were damning. Even if the countries involved in the Paris agreement do stick to their pledges to cut carbon emissions--a BIG if--we would likely still cross over the 1.5-degree threshold, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the environment and all those of us who live within it. ” Transition challenges as well as identified trade-offs can be reduced if global emissions peak before 2030 and marked emissions reductions compared to today are already achieved by 2030,” the report says.

Two of the key strategies identified by the IPCC to fight these frightening trends are “policies reflecting a high price on emissions are necessary in models to achieve cost-effective 1.5°C pathways” and “a marked shift in investment patterns.” In layman’s terms, what we need is a carbon tax and divestment from the fossil fuels industry. This is where a lot of hardliners will stop reading and dismiss this line of argument as a Thunbergian liberal fairy tale. But it’s not as far-fetched as you would think.

Fossil fuels and the energy sector as a whole are far and away the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and around the world. While the agriculture sector is also a major polluter, especially of methane, a gas many times more dangerous to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide overwhelmingly released by the energy sector is a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas, as it remains in the atmosphere for 100 years. 

What’s more non-renewable resources like oil, coal, and natural gas are just that--finite? Climate change aside, it’s only a matter of time before we need to find viable energy alternatives anyway. Why not now?

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Already, renewable energies have dropped so much in price that for the first time in industrialized history it has become an economically viable option to scale up solar, wind, and geothermal to new levels. Already, wind and solar are cheaper than coal in two-thirds of the world. Furthermore, since we are talking about Greta Thunberg’s dream world here, if global political and industry leaders actually took the initiative to divest from fossil fuels and impose carbon taxes, renewable energies would become the MOST economically viable choice.

Incredible advances have also been made in the energy storage industry, which would be able to address solar and wind’s biggest shortcoming--the fact that they are variable, dependent on weather and wind patterns. By diverting investment into the energy storage industry (as China has already done), however, it would be possible to keep an even flow of energy to the grid day and night, in calm or stormy skies. 

For all of the problems with nuclear energy and the management of nuclear waste, it is also an ultra-powerful source of energy that is 100% emissions-free. By divesting from fossil fuels, more funds could also be allocated into improving nuclear plant safety and spent fuel management. Much higher investment in alternative energies could also give legs to currently far-fetched clean energy silver bullets like commercial nuclear fusion and Stanford’s “anti-solar panel.”

Yes, the world runs on fossil fuels. No, this can’t be changed overnight. Yes, a lot of people in power would lose a lot of money from global divestment in oil. But global governance could take steps to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies with some urgency, it’s hard to argue that this would yield net negative results.

A warmer world is a world where food and water become scarce, where catastrophic natural disasters become more and more commonplace, where biodiversity is annihilated, and where the third world war is not a matter of if or even when, but how soon. Greta Thunberg may not have the answers, but she’s not wrong when she says that something needs to change--now. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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