The “100 by ’50 Act” Cannot Become Our “North Star”
On Tuesday, Senators Jeff Merkley and Bernie Sanders are scheduled to introduce the “100 by ’50 Act,” billed as “the most ambitious piece of climate legislation Congress has ever seen.” 350.org’s Jason Kowalski has expressed hopes that the symbolic bill, which aims to build a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, will become the “North Star” of the climate movement. Yet the April 17th draft of the bill is incremental, non-comprehensive, and fails to meet the challenge of this historic moment. It’s time to go back to the drawing board. We need a true climate emergency bill grounded in climate truth.
#1: This bill will not solve the climate crisis.
In a blog post for 350.org, Senator Jeff Merkley acknowledged as much: “This legislation isn’t designed to solve the crisis on its own, but to put forward a clear way to end the primary driver of global warming: our addiction to fossil fuels.”
If the bill stands little chance of passage and is meant as a rallying cry for the climate movement, why not go big and try to actually solve the climate crisis?
Ending the climate crisis would require:
- Building a zero greenhouse gas emissions economy in ten years or less
- Tackling all sources of greenhouse gas emissions – including the food system
- Safely removing all the excess carbon from the atmosphere to get back to pre-industrial greenhouse gas concentrations
Ending the even broader ecological crisis will require additional efforts, such as preserving half the Earth, combating overfishing to restore the oceans, slowing population growth, and phasing out planned obsolescence. Shifting to a renewable energy economy is an excellent first step — but will absolutely not save us from climate oblivion.
#2: There is no carbon budget left – the earth is already too hot.
For humanity to have a good chance of holding warming permanently below 1.5°C (which itself is far too high for safety), there is no carbon budget left to burn.   Last year, bloggers for 350.org acknowledged that there is no carbon budget left for staying below the 1.5°C target. That means we need to stop emitting greenhouse right now. And according to climate scientist Michael Mann, even if we did that, the current carbon dioxide concentrations of approximately ~405 ppm are already high enough to produce a catastrophic 2°C of warming, which would devastate African farmers’ ability to grow food and would cause a large-scale release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost.
Furthermore, the earth is already too hot for safety and morality. Late last December, parts of the Arctic were 30°F to 50°F warmer than average. We now need to cool the Earth and restore a safe climate with 0°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Over 20 million people face starvation as an unprecedented four countries face famine at once, with CBS News identifying climate change as the culprit behind this assault on the world’s poorest people. “We stand at a critical point in history,” says U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien. “Already at the beginning of the year, we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”
We are out of time. This truth necessitates a halt to new greenhouse gas emissions, an emergency phase-out of existing emissions, and a massive greenhouse gas drawdown effort. And such a crash program means a mobilization on the scale of our effort in World War II, as Senator Sanders courageously pointed out in his televised Brooklyn debate with Secretary Clinton in April of 2016.
#3: We can’t wait 13 years to start regulating utilities and carmakers.
Starting in 2030, the “100 by ’50 Act” establishes cap-and-trade schemes incentivizing utilities and carmakers to slowly shift toward renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles. The regime would mandate a complete shift to renewable electricity generation and zero-emissions vehicle production by 2050.
But if we have no carbon budget left and the technologies we need to deploy en masse are already commercially available, why wait 13 years to begin regulating utilities and carmakers? Why set a target of 50% renewable electricity by 2030, when Al Gore told the world back in 2008 we could switch entirely to 100% renewable electricity in 10 years (and must now do it even faster)?
#4: We can’t and don’t need to wait 33 years to end fossil fuels.
The “100 by ’50 Act” would not end America’s reliance on fossil fuels until 2050. Fortunately, recent research by Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology, suggests that with progressive governments in place backed by powerful social movements, the transition off of fossil fuels could occur much more rapidly than previous energy transitions.
Other authorities on rapid energy transitions suggest we can move much more quickly than the “100 by ’50 Act” attempts. In a 2009 study published in Scientific American, Professors Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi argued it was technically and economically feasible to transition the entire world to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, citing the conversion of the automobile industry during WWII as a model for such a shift. Five years later, former Greenpeace International CEO Paul Gilding argued that the entire world could abolish fossil fuels “within a decade” once humanity shifts onto the equivalent of a war footing. Ahead of the Paris climate conference in 2015, a substantial number of environmental leaders and experts called on the U.S. to adopt a zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 target.
#5: This is not a true WWII-scale mobilization bill.
Bill McKibben describes the “100 by ’50 Act” as launching a “World War II–scale mobilization for clean energy.” Yet according to economist Hugh Rockoff, America’s leading expert on WWII mobilization economics, an effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 would constitute Iraq- or Vietnam-levels of mobilization, not World War II-levels. This bill is consistent with the outdated “80% reductions by 2050” approach.
Although the bill would create a climate bonds program and establish a National Climate Change Council — a central planning-and-coordination agency reminiscent of the War Production Board of WWII — similarities with America’s home front mobilization of the ‘40s stop there.
For instance, in 1945, America devoted over 41% of the economy to defense spending. This bill would devote at most $150 billion — or just under 1% of the $18.5 trillion U.S. economy — to climate protection annually.
Following Pearl Harbor, the federal government moved immediately to transform the economy through emergency regulations and a gold rush of generous subsidies. All private automobile production was banned in a matter of weeks and American industry was converted extraordinarily rapidly into the “Arsenal of Democracy.” This bill, on the other hand, takes 33 years to mandate that all new vehicles produced in America are zero emissions.
#6: This bill is a strategic debacle.
The resounding defeat of the Democratic Party and the rollback of the Obama administration’s tepid climate regulations presents us with a critical opportunity to level with the American people about what it will really take to restore a safe climate. Bernie Sanders is wildly popular and trusted messenger who has shown a willingness to speak out in favor of dramatic action to end the climate crisis, arguing at the Brooklyn CNN debate one year ago:
We have a crisis of historical consequence here, and incrementalism, and those little steps are not enough. Not right now, not on climate change…In 1941, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we moved within three years — within three years — to rebuild our economy to defeat Nazism and Japanese imperialism. That is exactly the kind of approach we need right now.
So why are McKibben, 350.org, Environment America, and others advising him to sponsor this weak bill that will not solve the climate crisis and has no chance of passage? What is the strategic logic here? What is the endgame?
Encouraging Sanders to introduce this weak climate bill and hailing it as “action actually commensurate with the problem” marginalizes those calling for realistic emergency action. And it tragically positions this mish-mash of half-measures and market-based mechanisms as the “far left” climate position in Congress.
This is our chance to level with the American people about the real climate emergency mobilization we need to save ourselves. See The Climate Mobilization’s Victory Plan for a sense of what that would look like.
Fortunately, new progressive populist groups are beginning to get out in front of the established climate movement in calling for a more rational response to the climate emergency. Brand New Congress, for one, is off to a good start, running 400 candidates for Congress on a unified WWII-scale mobilization platform that demands a 100% renewable energy economy by 2029. In response to early coverage of the “100 by ’50 Act,” their sister organization, Justice Democrats, wrote: “33 years? Pfft...we'll do it in 10.” We hope Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats aim even higher and begin campaigning for the restoration of a safe climate.
#7: We must say goodbye to gradualism and introduce a bill that will actually end the climate crisis.
In his speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded Americans of the “fierce urgency of Now,” saying, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
As we prepare to assemble again in Washington for the People’s Climate March next weekend, the “100 by ’50 Act” demonstrates that climate movement leaders remain addicted to the tranquilizing drug of carbon gradualism. As Margaret Klein Salamon has argued in “The Transformative Power of Climate Truth,” gradualism represents not only immoral climate policy, but failed movement strategy. We must unleash the power of climate truth — and we must do it now.
We need a true WWII-scale mobilization bill that will restore a safe climate at emergency speed and provide real protection for the most vulnerable people and species in the world. If we ever build enough power to pass a comprehensive climate bill, we had better be prepared to do what is necessary to overcome the climate emergency. If we can’t even muster the will to introduce a symbolic climate bill that, if passed, would actually fix the problem, we are in bigger trouble than we even understood.
 “Democrats Are Preparing A Bill To Completely Wean The U.S. Off Fossil Fuels By 2050,” by Alexander Kaufman, Huffington Post.
 “The Most Ambitious Climate Legislation Congress Has Ever Seen,” by Jeff Merkley, 350.org.
 “Climate Reality Check: After Paris, Counting the Cost”, by David Spratt, Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.
 “Earth Will Cross the Climate Danger Threshold by 2036,” by Michael Mann, Scientific American.
 “Climate change-driven famine poses global security threat,” by Pamela Falk, CBS News.
 “20 million people in 4 countries on the brink of famine,” by Tony Dokoupil, CBS News.
 “Al Gore calls for all US energy to be made renewable within 10 years,” by Tom Leonard, The Telegraph.
 “Fossil fuels could be phased out worldwide in a decade, says new study,” by James Hakner, Phys.org.
 “An Open Letter to President Obama: The Moment of Truth for Your Climate Legacy,” ObamasClimateLegacy.com.
 “The U.S. Economy in WWII as a Model for Coping with Climate Change,” by Hugh Rockoff, National Bureau of Economic Research, pg. 5.