The Climate Emergency and Appalachia

Fossil fuels still rule and the poor and vulnerable largely ignored at COP 26, says biologist with Center for Biological Diversity

Gabriela Sarri-Tobar

WASHINGTON – The world is not merely experiencing climate change, it is experiencing a climate emergency, says Energy Justice Campaigner Gabriela Sarri-Tobar with the Center for Biological Diversity. Disturbingly, adds Sarri-Tobar, the recent COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, ignored the core crisis causing the climate emergency – emissions caused by our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels. She also says that the world’s most poor and vulnerable people were essentially overlooked. COP is an acronym for Conference of Parties.

Sarri-Tobar works to advance a just and equitable transition to 100 percent clean, democratic and distributed energy across the country. Before joining the Energy Justice team at The Center for Biological Diversity, she worked with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network on a campaign that successfully passed clean energy legislation in Maryland. She worked as a legislative intern in Rep. Jamie Raskin’s congressional office and with Our Children’s Trust on the Juliana v. United States case, mobilizing members of Congress to support children’s fundamental rights and a climate recovery plan.

With the COP 26 conference concluded, Sarri-Tobar offers sobering, candid and alarming conclusions regarding its willingness to indulge the fossil fuel industry, and its failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable people.

“COP 26 really was another venue for the powerful utilities, the fossil fuel industry and wealthier nations to meet behind closed doors and decide our future. These are the very groups of society that are most responsible for global emissions and causing the climate emergency.”

Gabriela Sarri-Tobar, Energy Justice Campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity

Climate Change Basics

Sarri-Tobar explains, “Climate change is a long term shift in temperature and weather patterns that can be caused by natural occurrences but can also be caused by human activities. Our dependence upon fossil fuels and over consumption has been the main driver of climate change. Fossil fuels produce heat trapping gasses like carbon dioxide and methane that contribute to more intensified heat waves, droughts, sea levels rise and more disastrous and frequent natural disasters like hurricanes.”

In fact, argues Sarri-Tobar, what we are experiencing has gone beyond “change.” She argues, “Rather than just call this climate change we are really experiencing a climate emergency. And this emergency requires bold and aggressive emissions reduction within the next decade to keep temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius (that is, from rising more than that amount with regard to current world averages) to keep us from tipping into the zone of irreversible climate change.”

COP 26 a ‘Cushioning for the fossil fuel industry’

Sarri-Tobar shares, “COP 26 was the most recent, but one of many annual global conferences, that have happened over the last two decades. Really, this is a platform for decision makers, civil society and stakeholders across the world to come together and assess where the world stands in face of the climate emergency, and to take steps through agreements and policies signed by all the countries attending.” She adds, “It’s purpose was to address the climate emergency by mitigating and eliminating activities causing higher emissions and causing this crisis.”

That, she says, causes her to pause. “There’s a lot to reflect on from this year’s COP. First, COP 26 was a prime display of how exclusive the climate decision and policy making process is. Because of Covid and vaccine shortages, much of the global south was excluded from the conference even though many of these countries are on the front lines of the climate emergency.  It was clear that the needs of the world’s poor and marginalized were not addressed by decision makers.” Claims Sarri-Tobar, “COP 26 really was another venue for the powerful utilities, the fossil fuel industry and wealthier nations to meet behind closed doors and decide our future. These are the very groups of society that are most responsible for global emissions and causing the climate emergency.”

She shares, “There were three major decisions that came out of 26. Much of the negotiations focused on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which is focused on global carbon markets. The biggest red flag here is how the goal of emissions reduction was reframed as Net Zero rather than Complete Zero.” She explains, “Net Zero emissions keeps the door open for fossil fuels because it says you can continue using gas and coal so long as those emissions are offset by some other technology. And this is instead of actually stopping emissions from fossil fuels in the first place. Many countries, especially the U.S., have run with Net Zero as a way to pump out a mythical and experimental technology called Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. CCS hasn’t been proven anywhere around the world and right now in the U.S. much of what is considered CCS is actually enhanced oil recovery. This involves capturing fossil fuel emissions and pumping it back into the ground for the purpose of extracting it again for more oil and gas.

“It’s a vicious cycle and one that keeps us tied to an industry that is fueling the climate emergency and keeping our climate in jeopardy.”

Sarri-Tobar continues, “Another huge development was the Coal Pledge, signed by more than 40 countries to commit to ending all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally. Missing from the list of the signers is the U.S. Instead, the U.S. signed onto a different agreement to end public financing for unabated fossil field projects abroad by 2022. And, for the first time ever, fossil fuels were used in a COP decision. The language ‘Calls upon parties to accelerate the phasing out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.’ But there are loopholes in this language. First there is nothing about phasing out oil and gas, and while it’s great that coal is called out, the inclusion of the word unabated means that untested technology, like carbon storage and capture, are still in play. So if coal plants are retrofitted with CCS, then those plants remain in the picture. Also the freeze on inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels suggests that there are efficient fossil fuel subsidies. So there is plentiful cushioning for the fossil fuel industry.”

Energy Justice

So, argues Sarri-Tobar, individuals and communities must respond. She offers, “Our energy system is broken. While the climate crisis drives our planet to the point of no return, electric utilities continue to burn toxic fossil fuels and block the urgently needed transition to renewable energy. But it’s not enough for our energy future to be technologically clean and renewable. It must also be just to protect wildlife and human communities that have faced the brunt of dirty pollution and centralized monopoly power.”

So, she champions energy justice. She says, “Energy justice is about achieving equity in our energy system while remediating social, economic and health burdens experienced by those disproportionately harmed by our fossil fuel profit-driven and racist energy system.” She continues, “This means transitioning off of fossil fuel and accelerating the transition to 100 percent renewable, community-owned and distributed energy. Importantly, the transition must ensure renewable energy investment is prioritized in low wealth communities and communities of color. In Appalachia, where coal has a massive legacy and there is significant economic injustice, energy justice also means ensuring a trust transition for coal workers to good paying and high quality renewable energy jobs.”

Recognizing Climate Change

The first step is to recognize the signs of the climate emergency from your own experiences and observations, says Sarri-Tobar. “Regardless of where you live you can notice the shifts, big or small, of a changing climate. Maybe this year you saw more rainy days than the year before. Or most of the rain you get in a season came all at once and now intense flooding is more common when that used to never be the case. Or your average summer heat wave has intensified and lasts an entire week or maybe two versus a couple of days. You may also notice changes in the animals and plants, especially as temperatures begin to change.You can notice that some plant species have started migrating further and further up the mountains in search of colder temperatures. Or because the seasons are shifting, spring comes earlier than it used to and warmer temperatures lead to more invasive species that outcompete needed species for growing space, nutrients and light, therefore, completely altering the ecosystem at which point you may see plants and animal species that you grew up with slowly disappearing. The climate emergency is here and things will only get that much worse and noticeable if we continue to delay action.”

Even something as remote as melting ice caps impacts Appalachia. “Melting polar ice has a domino effect in accelerating the climate crisis and climate disasters. As cold polar ice melts, it affects ocean currents which are responsible for our wind patterns and weather systems. So once ocean currents get disturbed, so are the wind currents, weather systems, and temperatures that create all the different biomes and ecosystems we see around the world. What does this look like in Appalachia? Well, Appalachia will see more fluctuations in weather. That could mean more rain and stronger storms. Long-term warming and the dismantling of our weather patterns increases atmospheric moisture available for storms, which leads to heavier rainfall. And the ground isn’t necessarily able to absorb all that extra rain as it becomes oversaturated. And as a result, you see more floods and mudslides. There will also be more droughts and heat waves. Long term warming is linked to more evaporation in drier parts of the world, leading to drought and the breakdown of agricultural systems.”

Fracking pipeline development negatively impacts the environment, explains Sarri-Tobar. “Pipelines disrupt natural habitat/wild places, not just in their construction but also because of the spills and leaks that can occur that would damage and destroy habitat, like contaminating nearby waterways. For instance, in Appalachia right now there is an ongoing fight over the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The project has already harmed the environment and clean water. Both West Virginia and Virginia have assessed the MVP more than $2 million in penalties for more than 350 environmental violations, and yet the project still has more bodies of water to cross. Pipelines cause irreparable land and water destruction and are a major threat to wildlife that depend on the resources that would come in contact with the pipeline and its harmful pollution.”

She continues, “Every ecosystem has a balance that when disturbed, such as by the loss of a few plants or animals, throws everything off kilter. Animals and plants depend upon each other in a complex web of relationships, so the loss of one species affects others within the ecosystem. And, these relationships are what keep ecosystems thriving and make them more resilient to climate change. So the loss of species has a domino effect that disintegrates the very fabric holding an ecosystem together and from keeping other species from going extinct.”

Courtesy NASA

What can I do?

There are things we all can do, notes Sarri-Tobar. “Lowering your energy usage is key. If we use less, we reduce our reliance on utilities that are pumping out fossil fuels. That’s why energy efficiency is so important. You can start by weatherizing your home, opting for more efficient electric appliances.”

She suggests also, “Walk instead of driving. It’s really all about reducing your reliance on fossil fuels. Consume locally and seasonally, and limit meat consumption. Avoid waste by reusing and repurposing, and especially cut down on the use of plastic. There are individual decisions and changes you can make to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, like rooftop solar and making your home more efficient.” She cautions, though, that it is a process that can sometimes be frustrating. “These steps are really on a spectrum – it’s not easy to make the transition, but keep in mind it is a transition.”

She also recommends: 

  1. Living in balance with the natural world;
  2. Raising awareness of the climate emergency and helping people understand what they can do to lower their carbon footprint;
  3. Organize your community and come together, in partnership with other frontline communities, to urge those who are most responsible for fueling the climate emergency – i.e. utilities and the fossil fuel industry – to take immediate steps to cut emissions and build a more resilient and equitable energy system;
  4. Invest in renewables and divest from fossil fuels;
  5. Push for legislation and local, state policies that would mandate a transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Real and immediate consequences

Regions like Appalachia are already seeing and feeling the effects of the climate emergency and face immediate challenges, argues Sarri-Tobar. “Fossil fuels produce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants that are causing and accelerating climate change. This pollution is also leading to substantial public health issues, environmental injustice, and contributing to high energy burdens.”

She continues, “This winter, gas prices are going to go up substantially because of supply chain issues, leading to higher-than-normal electricity bills. Those hardest hit will be households already experiencing high energy burden – low-wealth and communities of color. Unfortunately, most utilities and states don’t have sufficient protections in place to help customers facing utility debt and as a result, we expect to see a tsunami of disconnections this winter, putting thousands and potentially millions of lives at risk as families are forced to live without life-saving utility services.” 

She continued, “Even more, these high gas prices will be common-place due to gas price volatility and the impact of climate disasters and other shifts on our fragile energy system. This is really a sign that we must quickly move off fossil fuels and expand renewable energy options, especially residential solar, to lower electricity bills, build a more resilient energy system, and lower emissions and the harmful health effects associated with fossil fuel dependence.”

The tough but necessary choice

Sarri-Tobar is direct about the choice before us. “So, the take-home message is that we need to immediately transition off fossil fuels, but we also must ensure that transition is just and equitable in both where we are going and how we get to 100 percent renewable energy. And workers in West Virginia and across the country play a crucial role in accelerating this transition. A just transition means ensuring high-quality, good paying union jobs in renewable energy, offering training and mentorship programs for workers transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy jobs, whether they be in manufacturing or installation.”

The choice is not only practical, it’s ethically necessary, argues Sarri-Tobar. “Climate change is already and will continue to lead to energy shortages, damaged infrastructure, heat-related mortality and illness, scarcity of food and water, among many other impacts. But these impacts are not equally felt. Black, Brown, Indigenous, low-wealth, and other frontline communities are hit hardest and first by the climate crisis even though they have the least impact in causing the climate emergency and have the least emissions. These communities also lack the resources to actually deal with these disasters.”

She adds, “There’s an abundance of research that really pinpoints how low-wealth communities and communities of color are disproportionately harmed by climate change. Energy benefits and energy burdens are not equally distributed, with Black and Brown neighborhoods paying significantly more for energy despite having far lower overall emissions.”

Conclusion

Sarri-Tobar warns, “The climate emergency is here, and things will only get that much worse and more noticeable with lives at stake if we continue to delay action. So, mitigation – or stopping the problem head on – is key. But adaptation is just as important because frontline communities are already experiencing our changing climate head on. It’s important that we start figuring out how we rebuild from disasters, but build back with resiliency in mind to protect our homes and communities from intensifying climate shifts.”

Still, she wants consumers to keep a proper perspective. “A lot of the change we need to see isn’t necessarily from consumers opting for renewables but getting utilities to break their addiction to fossil fuels, and to make renewable energy affordable for all people. Corporations and industries are responsible for the greatest level of emissions, so action needs to come from there, and as consumers we have the power to initiate that change.”

© Michael M. Barrick, 2021. Home page photo by veeterzy and traffic photo by Randy Lisciarelli on Unsplash. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of Grassroots Appalachia.

Note: In the first version, COP was incorrectly identified as an acronym for Conference of Participants.

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