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Yes, we have a climate ‘crisis.’ Maybe that’s a good thing.

by Rich Harris
| March 24, 2024 12:00 AM

Bashing China is fashionable these days. But one cool thing is that the Chinese word for “crisis” uses 2 symbols that mean “danger” and “inflection point” (or “pivot”). 

That frames global climate change well: Ignoring it poses great danger to our kids and grandkids, but pivoting to nonpolluting energy is an opportunity to leave them enriched and grateful. 

The energy transition is sometimes misunderstood as entailing deprivation, requiring that we sacrifice comfort, or do without things we enjoy. But the pivot to clean energy doesn’t just help us avoid bad stuff. It gets us on a path that allows our descendants increased prosperity and freedom.

According to Dr. Richard Alley, distinguished professor of geosciences at Penn State University, transitioning away from fossil fuels “… is not just about buying insurance against disasters. It’s also about how do we end up. Do we end up healthy, wealthy, and wise; or do we end up poor and in trouble? There is a fantastic good news story here that we don’t always hear. We are the first generation in the history of humanity that can say, ‘We know how to build an energy system that will power everyone essentially forever.’ We burned through the trees until there were no trees left. We burned through the whales so we could light the evening with whale oil lamps until the oceans were depleted of whales. We now know, for the first time, how to build a system that will work. We know that embarking on this path makes us better off.”

Yes, the transition is a big challenge, and we have much work ahead. But it might surprise you to learn that for the first 10 months of 2023, carbon-neutral power sources generated 40% of U.S. electricity. Or that, over the lifetime of operation, newly installed solar and onshore wind is now considerably cheaper than the least expensive fossil-fuel based option. Or, that sales of electric vehicles in the U.S. topped 1 million in 2023, are increasing at about 40% yearly, and that electric school buses in Havre performed flawlessly this winter. 

A friend recently purchased an electric Ford 150 pickup and drove it from western Washington to Florida and back (through Montana’s recent cold-snap). He told me he had no problems recharging and that the truck accelerated on the highway better than his old gas-powered one.

In addition to hydro, solar and wind, we’re seeing increasing enthusiasm for enhanced geothermal energy. When thinking about geothermal power, we typically imagine Iceland or Yellowstone, but it turns out that new technology may eventually allow us to tap into heat within rock formations well below our feet almost everywhere. To boot, this newly emerging industry can employ folks who’ll need jobs as the oil and gas industry declines.

Nonpolluting energy will also be healthier for us. The medical journal Lancet estimated that over 32,000 people in the U.S. had their lives cut short due to breathing fine particulates from fossil fuel combustion, a human toll we can avoid once we’ve transitioned to clean energy. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin recently estimated that eliminating fossil fuel emissions will save the U.S. $608 billion in healthcare costs annually. The warmer atmosphere we’ve created has also provided ideal conditions for increases in malaria, dengue, and other diseases we associate with tropical climes. Once we get the world’s thermostat set back to where it ought to be, these diseases will stop their northward trek. 

In polarized Washington D.C., there are now some hopeful signs. Bipartisan efforts to incentivize production of goods with a lower carbon footprint have gained traction, as have bills to improve inter-connectivity of the grid, both necessary precursors to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act also provides a market-based, government-light mechanism for moving us toward renewables. Despite these hopeful signs, Congress must do much more to solve the climate crisis, now not later.  Doing so without getting sidetracked will lead to a brighter future for our kids and grandkids.

Rich Harris volunteers with Citizens’ Climate Lobby. He lives in Charlo.