VIEW: The Hopeful Messengers About Climate Change

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While there is plenty of bad news out there about climate change, Bill McKibben — who founded 350.org — published a hopeful analysis in The New Yorker about our ability to transition sooner rather than later from a combustion-reliant economy. Looking at the current state of the energy market, he highlighted the reality that we have turned the corner on energy costs, and that economies of scale give renewables a market advantage. He writes, “The truth is new and counterintuitive: we have the technology necessary to rapidly ditch fossil fuels.”

However, he goes on to detail the concerted effort and shift in mindsets needed for policy-makers, the public, as well as environmentalists in order to speed this transition timeline and avoid the worst of climate devastation. McKibben’s argument largely aligns with Bill Gates’ analysis in his book “How To Avoid A Climate Disaster.” Gates details the technological and policy needs across multiple sectors, and makes the case — like McKibbon — for the central role that electrification must play in getting carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner.

Local environmentalist Kristel Porter, founder of MN Renewable Now, agrees. She says that when she considers the analysis of people like McKibbon, Gates, and others, she has one question: “How are we not going to leave people behind?”

As a woman of mixed Indigenous and African American heritage, Porter’s focus is on policies to ensure we don’t continue long-standing patterns that continue to disadvantage low-income individuals and communities of color. She points to three primary areas where local and state policies are needed immediately: weatherization, electrification, and renewable installation. 

Porter points out that it is the poor and people of color who have the highest energy bills. In North Minneapolis where she lives and does a majority of her work, 80 percent of renters reside in single family homes so they are paying for the energy needs of the entire building, which has most likely not been updated in many decades. The city of Minneapolis has a program for families making under $100,000 to request free audits that also come with access to free and low cost upgrades and weatherization. But, she points out, people who need these the most are usually the last to find out about the program, and by the time they do the annual budget for the program has been exhausted. She estimates that at the current rate of weatherization, it will take us another 290 years to reach all area homes. Porter argues that this program needs to be expanded with more funding that will serve more people each year.

Photo of Kristel Porter by Sarah Whiting

Other programs that Porter would like to see created are those that help residential buildings upgrade to 240 volt panels, so that people can transition out of fossil fuel appliances and have the infrastructure needed to charge EV cars that will be a central way out of our fossil fuel economy. Additionally, funding for low-income people and communities of color are needed to put solar panels on every available roof line. Funding for training programs for installers, auditors, and electricians are emphasized by McKibben, Gates, and Porter. Supporting and expanding training has the added benefit of creating a bipartisan pathway forward by providing non-fossil fuel dependent careers for people across the state. 

Porter suggests that funding for expanding and creating climate-responsible policies could come from a business fee because it would account for the externalized costs of fossil fuels. She argues that the public currently subsidizes the energy costs of doing business in our communities, so a small fee to help offset these costs and transition into a carbon neutral future is a fair rebalancing.

Porter also points to one obvious way to fund weatherization and electrification updates —– increment financing for energy efficient upgrades that enable people to pay for upgrades as part of their utilities bill. Increment financing is a policy championed by another local environmental group, Community Power MN. After years of lobbying and educational work, Community Power MN reports that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is very close to being required to authorize a Minneapolis inclusive financing project.

Listening to the practical messages of those like McKibben, Gates, and Porter about what can be done now is an important step in moving away from climate anxiety to climate action. Not falling victim to climate doom is the only way to withstand the enormity of the challenge.

As Professor Sarah Jaquette Ray (author of “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety” and “The Ecological Other,” points out that it is necessary to step away from climate doom in order to not replicate the systems of oppression that have led us here to begin with. In a 2021  essay in Scientific American she writes: “Oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity. Black, feminist, and Indigenous leaders have painstakingly cultivated resilience over the long arc of the fight for justice. They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination.”

Winona LaDuke wrote for womenspress.com that we must become doulas to the future — a process that is painful but life-generative, a rematriation of Mother Earth.

As we are galvanized to action by the existential threat posed by climate change, let us take the opportunity to think more critically about the various forms of existential threat endured by marginalized people throughout history. As we recommit to meeting the existential threat of today with more inclusive notions of justice, let us not pass by any opportunity for hope in this moment, pregnant with possibility.