"Pre-fire dread"; phase out fossils fast, fairly, and forever

Facts: The rich need to get to work. Feelings: pre-fire dread. Action: Phase out fossil fuels fast, fairly, and forever.

Hi friends, welcome (back) to We Can Fix It, where we do the climate work the world needs by linking facts, feelings, and action. I’m your friendly neighborhood climate scientist, Kim Nicholas.

I know some of you are suffering in extreme heat or tinderbox fire conditions made worse by climate heating right now. Please take good care of your neighbors, and yourselves. It’s painful and scary to see scientific predictions of harm unfolding in the real world. It’s all the more reason to be here for each other, and to do the work. <3


Climate change isn’t fair.

In previous issues of We Can Fix It, we’ve looked at different actors shirking climate responsibility, like businesses greenwashing (or actively promoting disinformation), and governments passing delusional policies.

Today I want to turn an uncomfortable lens on another group that’s not stepping up to take climate responsibility nearly fast enough: rich people like me.

If you earn over $38,000 a year, you are rich by global standards; you’re in the top 10% of the world. This group causes about half of all household climate pollution. The bottom 50% of the population causes 7% of climate pollution. (I told you it wasn’t fair!)

In the United States, the median household lives on about $69,000 a year, with climate pollution around 16 tons per person.

Our carbon budget to limit warming to 1.5°C, and avoid the scariest impacts of climate heating in line with the Paris Agreement, is around 2.5 tons per person per year globally.

Meanwhile, US households with income above $201,000 are in the top 10% of Americans, and emit an average of 50 tons per person per year. Twenty times over the sustainable limit!

To stop climate change, we have to make a fast, fair transition to a zero-carbon society. This will take collective and political action to put policies, infrastructure, tech, and incentives in place so that everyone can meet their needs for comfortable housing, clean water, health care, education, electricity to power washing machines and fridges and smartphones, transit, etc. without causing climate change.

Yes, AND: to stop climate change, we also have to tackle overconsumption by high emitters.

Scientists have been saying this for a long time, and the world is starting to listen. The Financial Times Wealth editor Stefan Wagstyl recently focused on the high emissions from the rich, writing, “What is needed are cuts in consumption, especially the lavish sort that produces both a lot of carbon dioxide and unwanted headlines.”

Here’s what this means for you:

  • If your personal climate pollution is near the average for your country (or below!), there’s not much low-hanging fruit for you to reduce your own emissions. Focus your climate energy on helping cut emissions in your workplace, neighborhood, city, and country. Low-income and marginalized groups aren’t the ones who need to make lifestyle changes.

  • The higher your income, the more likely you are emitting a lot more than your fair share, and the more you need to work on reducing your personal footprint, in addition to working at other levels. The rich need to get to work.

  • You can take a carbon footprint calculator (this one is the most science-based; this one is the prettiest and most actionable) to see how far above the 2.5 ton limit you are.

  • Seth Wynes and I found that, across countries and conditions, the highest-impact actions that cut climate pollution fast are to go flight, car, and meat-free. Any cuts you can make in those three domains will make a big difference.

  • The higher your emissions, the more you need to focus on reducing your hypermobility: flying and driving all over the place, especially long distances. Air and car travel makes up the biggest share of climate pollution for high emitters, as you can see in this graph:

  • Flying is globally rare, and even in countries like the US and UK, most people don’t fly. But a few frequent flyers (1% of the global population) cause half of air travel emissions. Flying dominates the climate pollution of high-income folks (purple bar above).

  • You can reduce WAY more climate pollution from reducing your frequent flights and driving than from any other personal actions. Compare the size of the pudgy purple and pink bars above (planes and cars) with the much smaller ones for manufactured products (turquoise) or clothing (green).

  • So if you’re trying to cut your own emissions, spend your time planning a flight-free holiday (big carbon savings!) instead of obsessing over compostable toothbrushes (tiny carbon savings!).

  • You can’t recycle your way out of flight pollution: You’d have to avoid 10,000 plastic water bottles (one a day for over 27 years) to equal the emissions from just one roundtrip flight from London to New York.

  • For the average household in the US or Europe, gasoline for cars is the biggest climate polluter (pink bar above). Note that a top 10% polluter in Europe drives 2.5 times more than someone in the middle; a top 1% polluter drives 4 times more. Go car-free, or reduce driving as much as you can, and work towards car-free cities and societies.

  • A plant-based diet is the highest-impact climate action for food, and a big win for biodiversity and health. We must reduce meat consumption to limit warming to 2°C or less. Yay plants!

  • BUT: emissions from food consumption are a relatively small part of personal footprints, and they don’t increase that much with income (blue bar above). So if you’re a vegan + a frequent flyer, the climate math is not on your side. Sorry!

Feelings: Pre-Fire Dread

I had the chance to talk with Dr. Britt Wray, Human and Planetary Health Fellow at Stanford University and author of the wonderful Gen Dread newsletter about staying sane in the climate and wider ecological crisis. We talked about my professional transition from nature nerd to waging existential battle, and coping with the feeling of “pre-fire dread”, as the fire journalist Sarah Stierch put it on Twitter last month.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Britt: What do you think can be done within scientific circles to create more open, holistic and inclusive conversations about emotions and environmental decay?

Kim: Young people now are very much aware of the crisis and emergency nature of the situation and that attracts a different kind of person, for different reasons. I got into this stuff because I thought it was fun to hike around in nature and look at plants. I didn’t realize that I was signing up for this existential battle for the future of humanity against this extremely well-organized and powerful set of entrenched interests. But I think people going into the field now do know that more. I think we could learn a lot from them.

Britt: How are you thinking about your own coping for the years ahead, given what you know you're going to have to increasingly witness?

Kim: Yeah, I am worried about that. I recognize that I have great support and I have financial and emotional and physical situations that are very privileged and shield me from a lot of the most dangerous and harmful impacts. At the same time, I think being in this line of work, the glasses through which I see world are so climate coloured, that it can be hard to turn off or hard to avoid.

Last night I was on Twitter and in a conversation among folks that I know back in Sonoma, they were talking about having this feeling of pre-fire dread. And a lot of people were relating to that idea because California is in this intense drought, and they know it's an early warning for fire season. The warnings look very bad from all over Northern California, for fires starting later this summer. It’s really scary to see a map where every place on it is red.

There’s nowhere it is actually safe. I'm not in California right now, but my family and friends are, people and places that I love are. There’s things about it that are really hard when it comes to being farther away, and then there are things that are easier because it's not my daily lived reality.

So to answer your question, I'm definitely aware it's very important to prioritize health and sleep and rest and exercise and time in nature and time with friends and things that are restorative. These are all important to maintain and they also make life more fun and meaningful and worth living. But they are also a lifeline for staying healthy and to be able to do the work.

Britt: Absolutely they are. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me on how to do that!

Subscribe to Gen Dread to keep up with Britt’s insightful work.

Action: Support Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation

Pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention, dear We Can Fix It reader!

Q: How much carbon pollution comes from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas?

A: Over 85% (We Can Fix It, May 2021). Fossils cause around 3/4 of all greenhouse gases; the remaining 1/4 comes from agriculture and land use (We Can Fix It, Jan 2021)

Q: What has to happen to fossil fuels if we want to stop climate breakdown?

A: Fossil fuels have to stay in the ground! (We Can Fix It, May 2021)

Q: What are governments and businesses planning to do with fossil fuels?

A: Keep burning them and making the climate crisis worse. AAAAARRGHHHH! (We Can Fix It, April 2021)

When politicians talk about climate solutions, they love to talk about clean energy, new technology, and the good jobs they’ll create. (Hooray for clean energy and good jobs!)

When businesses talk about climate solutions, they love to talk about how their current-or-very-slightly-tweaked business model is key to a clean, green future. (They’ve got shareholders to appease.)

Everyone loves to talk about investing and innovating and scaling up shiny new things! And climate policy loves to encourage cleaner stuff, like bike lanes and solar panels.

But you know what wonks and CEOs don’t like to talk about? The urgent need to stop doing dirty, polluting, unsustainable things, like finding and digging up and burning more fossil fuels.

Prof. Rebecca Willis of Lancaster University calls this “the feelgood fallacy”: while promoting good stuff, climate policy to date often fails to tackle the essential need to get to the root of the problem, and reduce fossil fuel extraction, production, and use.

To stop climate change, we can’t just cobble clean energy on top of the dirty stuff. We have to shut down the dirty stuff and its pollution (close coal mines, dismantle pipelines, stop manufacturing internal combustion engines), and entirely replace them with clean stuff (mostly electricity made with wind, water, and solar).

So this month’s action is to support policies that phase out fossil fuels fast, fairly, and forever. That’s the goal of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which draws inspiration from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty 50 years ago. Here’s a 2 minute intro:

The treaty wants governments to do three things by 2023:

  1. Stop adding to the problem: End new fossil exploration and expansion. (This is non-proliferation: “the practice of curbing excessive, rapid spread”).

  2. Get rid of the existing threat (global disarmament). Phase out existing fossil stockpiles and production, in line with 1.5°C.

  3. Accelerate an equitable, peaceful transition. Increase access to renewable energy, and develop just transition plans for workers.

Here are a few ways you can take action:

  • Sign your name to call for national governments to take the steps above. Over 12,000 scientists have endorsed a #FossilTreaty (including me!).

  • Get your city government to pass a motion to support a #FossilFuelTreaty. The campaign has a how-to guide, from background research, to finding and meeting with a local champion for the motion, building community pressure, and following up. Read their pitch to cities (available in English, Spanish, French) and adapt their draft motion to your jurisdiction. Cities including Vancouver (Canada), Barcelona (Spain), Los Angeles (USA), Lewes (UK), and Darebin (Australia) have already endorsed a fossil treaty.

  • Endorse the treaty as an organization, like your local chapter of your favorite climate movement org, or a corporation.

  • Check out their action guide for more inspiration, including graphics, posts, and videos for social media, a guide for writing a local letter to the editor, and 17 more action ideas!

  • Notice and point out when media, politicians, and businesses are committing the “feelgood fallacy,” and only talking about clean alternatives without addressing the need to end both production and consumption of fossil fuels.

Parting Thoughts and Tidbits

Kim on the Interwebs:

I joined Dr. James Dyke for a book seminar on Under the Sky We Make at the University of Exeter. We discussed my great-grandmother’s climate legacy, my climate wake-up moments, the role of academics in the climate and ecological emergencies, and more. Watch here, and reply to this email to let me know if you’d like to host a book discussion for your group!

Recently Enjoyed:

Read: Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change, by Rebecca Willis. Do you ever worry democracies can’t handle the climate crisis? Me too. (And so does Ezra Klein.) This concise handbook reassured me that stopping climate heating requires more democracy, not less- and offers a roadmap for what that can look like in practice, based on the author’s 20+ years of research and policy experience.

Listen: My Golden Girl Lucy Kalanithi has a new podcast, Gravity, and you must listen to it immediately!! It’s intimate, raw, funny conversations with brilliant, thoughtful people talking about how they get through the hardest things. Her interview with Ady Barkan on resistance & acceptance (in his case, living with a debilitating disease) has SO much climate wisdom.

Move: I’m doing a summer Bingo of fun activities with some friends. Each day you can tick off one healthy and playful activity. I’m excited to take the kvällsdopp (evening dip, after 8pm) and morgon dopp (morning dip, before 10am) in the Baltic, and try to work up to 20 perfect pushups and a yoga handstand.

REST! I hope you’re in a place (geographically, mentally, financially, …) where you can give yourself some time to rest and restore this summer. We need it. This year I’m exercising my Swedish right to four consecutive weeks of holiday over July, starting TODAY! Thanks for your patience if you don’t hear from me during this time.

Please note there will be no newsletter at the end of July. I plan to be back with a renewed spirit in August. Take care everyone!