Why is the energy transition necessary? A joint statement by scientists, Indigenous people, and people of faith

In Paris in 2015, nations agreed to on a temperature limit as far below 2 C as possible, aiming for 1.5C.  Scientists have said the lower the temperature that can be reached, the better.  Indeed, the Antarctic is at risk of melting unless we return to the global average temperatures of the 1970s.  The worst hurricanes in the Pacific are twice as severe as they used to be, due to more precipitation, slower passage, greater wind speeds and more destruction. Clearly, we must shut off the tap and stop filling, indeed overflowing, the bathtub that is our global atmosphere. 

There is no question that the Earth and its peoples are suffering.  Our true leaders – those who are honest with us and care about our well-being – our elders and scientists and other leaders not funded by corporations are clear:  We must turn around our emissions and dependence on fossil fuels now, especially if developing countries are to have any room in the atmosphere.  Many of our countries have already used their space; the entire carbon budget of the atmosphere is close to exhaustion (as the graph below, based on IPCC data shows).  It is time to turn away from this path.

Carbon budget 2021

The question is:  how do we change our trajectory and get off fossil fuels as fast as possible?  It is possible, but we must halt investments in all fossil fuel infrastructure.  As of 2017, we must start a moratorium and shift to renewables.  Electricity production and transport can make this shift now.  Continuing to produce fossil fuel infrastructure also wastes the mineral resources of the earth and the energy used in manufacturing.  We are stranding the assets of our children, wasting, energy, and polluting the air and water with every additional fossil-fuel using thing we make and buy. And those making money on any part of mining or production of fossil fuels are not volunteering to make this shift.  

Those who care about all life and the common good insist on a rapid shift. We must turn away from the economy of extraction and exploitation. We are all connected and related.   We must turn toward a generative economy respectful of our Mother/Sister Earth and the clean water and clean air all lives depend on.  We must not harm, ruin or use up what actually belongs to future generations.   We must turn toward clean, often locally-produced energy and clean vehicles in transport.  In any case, water, air, land, health and distribution of these and electricity are common goods

We must help each other make the shift we all need toward life and flourishing for all.  The fossil fuel industry needs to be “wound down in an orderly fashion; waiting will just require it to be shut down in an emergency way.  We need to keep nearly all the remaining coal in the ground and cut oil and gas use, bringing our total emissions to just 20% of what it is now.   Every year we wait makes the year on year reductions (pace of change) we need to achieve that much sharper, deeper, and more difficult.  Our utilities, cities, governments, and organizations must get off fossil fuels now. 

Rate of change

For example, purchases of fossil fueled vehicles must end.  We must transition to renewable energy, without delay.

More explanation why we must transition away from fossil fuels and the economy of extraction…

  1. All life matters, and a moral response and effective action are required from all people of conscience. As Pope Francis says:  “The environment is a collective good” that everyone has the duty to protect — a duty that “demands an effective collaboration within the entire international community,” Laudato Si’ (LS), 23-32.
  2. There is a big difference with the effects of 1.5 vs. 2 C of warming, for food production, for flooding, for conflict, ability to stay where one has lived, for life, viability, and livelihoods. The latest research from Nature underscores that we do in the next decade or two will determine whether many coastal cities worldwide are still viable by the end of this century.
  3. The carbon and emission pollution that we are putting in the atmosphere stays there near permanently from the perspective of our generation. Climate change due to increases in CO2 concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop, and 20% of the global-warming pollution we emit will still be there in 20,000 years.  The right to life must be understood in terms of generations

First, all life matters. All life is sacred and has inherent dignity. We do not have the right to take life or destroy creation or common goods, including the necessities of life for others, especially clean air and water, climate, and land that are common resources (Laudato Si 23-32).  No life in the northern hemisphere matters any more than a family in the Philippines still unable to rebuild from hurricane Haiyan, people dying from drought and starvation, or those who see water rising on all sides.   We can have an economic system that allows life and flourishing for all.

The World Health Organization (WHO) tells us dirty air from combustion is killing 570,000 children under the age of 5 every year, more than any other single cause, including malaria and unsafe drinking water. That new report says millions more babies are born prematurely because their mothers have been inhaling pollution, and further millions more will grow up with lifelong respiratory conditions such as asthma or reduced lung capacity or brain impacts.  Air pollution from fossil fuels has been known to be toxic since at least the 1940s, when fossil fuel companies began trying to redirect public concerns (tobacco interests later employed these same public relations experts to cast doubt on health effects).

Air pollution has recently been found to prompt inflammation and disease in numerous organs. Air pollution from fossil fuels affects everyone.  Children, the unborn, elders, and the economically poor are among the most at risk.  Doctors now state that particulate air pollution is like lead pollution, there is no evidence of a safe threshold even at levels far below current standards.  The WHO estimates 7 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution, annually. The set examined by the Global Burden of Diseases counted 5.5 million early deaths from air pollution in 2013 and noted “air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease.” (See Prof. Michael Brauer, Univ. of British Columbia). This counts air pollution deaths from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory infections but not the wider set of diseases known to be connected to air pollution today now.  The savings just from health costs and early death with the old set of diseases would cover the cost of shifting to renewables worldwide, not to mention the suffering involved, new diseases or other costs, or the benefits of more jobs.

Traffic is typically the biggest source of urban air pollution, even in places where other sources are large factors. Due to the health impacts, doctor-researchers are now saying “we need to focus on strategies that lower exposure everywhere and all the time.” Small particulate pollution is associated with smaller total cerebral brain volume even in low pollution areas and among otherwise relatively healthy adults.  They see changes in brain structure, including covert brain infarcts (a type of silent stroke) that are otherwise indicators of age-related brain atrophy.  Such exposure and changes are linked to poorer cognitive function, dementia and other neurological problems, associated with small vessel disease.  Air pollution has also been decisively shown to impair cognitive performance and cause mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, in addition to being associated with increased suicide risk and rises in breast cancer, autism, appendicitis cases, and more.  Those living or walking near exhaust sources (often lower income) suffer more, but air pollution is sufficiently toxic that even in rural areas where levels are low (e.g., one third of allowed levels in the US), physical effects and early deaths are discernible, per unit (µg/m3) of pollution.

A moral response and effective action are required from all people of conscience. As Pope Francis says:  “The environment is a collective good” that everyone has the duty to protect — a duty that “demands an effective collaboration within the entire international community,” also see Laudato Si’ (LS), 23-32.  He also raises the question of “An ecological debt is owed by the global north to the global south, due to disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time resulting in the economic imbalances and inequities that we see today.”(LS, 52-53).

Inequality is getting worse. By 2017, the world’s 8 richest men held more wealth than half of humanity.  The wealth of this small oligarchy has risen over 45% since 2010 while the wealth of the 3.6 billion on the other end of the spectrum has declined by 38% — over a trillion dollars in that period.  Yeb Saño, former climate negotiator for the Philippines spoke of “stark realization that winning our fight to save the environment is something we cannot do without tackling root causes, without confronting the malaise of inequality.”

There is a big difference with the effects of 1.5 vs. 2 C. Below is a simple explanation from 2015. The next graph is a late 2015/early 2016 update; however, interacting effects are not accounted for as much as we may need, for accurate projections.   Those on the front lines can tell us more.

The latest research from Nature underscores that we do in the next decade or two will determine whether many coastal cities worldwide are still viable by the end of this century.  Whenever anyone says, climate change is already happening or going to happen, we must remind them that we can still choose responsibility to future generations.  Deep cuts in fossil fuel pollution will enable vastly lower sea levels and hundreds of millions fewer people displaced every year in the last half of this century.  In 2014 the IPCC said that 2 m of sea level rise could occur this century and NASA scientists and others have said that over 3 m of SLR by 2100 is possible.  If we think 2C is an okay target, that will ultimately submerge many cities, including New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Calcutta, Jakarta and Shanghai. At 2C, 20% of the world’s population will eventually have to migrate away from coasts swamped by rising oceans given that temperature is enough to melt polar ice and produce 25 m of sea level rise over the next 2,000 years or so, remaining there for more than 10,000 years – twice as long as human history. If today’s burning of coal, oil and gas is not curbed, the sea will rise by 50m, completely changing the map of the world.  Even at 2 C rather than 1.5 C, heatwaves are 40% longer and heavy rainfall is 40% higher, freshwater declines by almost twice as much, maize production is down by twice as much and wheat by 40%.  We go from losing 90% of coral reefs to nearly all (98%).  We have no right.

Further permanent damage to species and the oceans is occurring at the same time.  Increasing carbon in the atmosphere from burning/combustion has already made the ocean 30% more acidic (scale is like the Richter scale), which impedes shell formation and also affects phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food web.  Meanwhile, biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century due to the change we are causing with our systems that pursue profit and individual righteousness over the common good, protection of common resources and communal well-being.  “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their existence…We have no such right” (LS, 33).

The carbon and emission pollution that we are putting in the atmosphere stays there near permanently from the perspective of our generation. Climate change due to increases in CO2 concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop, and 20% of the global-warming pollution we emit will still be there in 20,000 years.Carbon stays in the atmosphere

As people of faith and Indigenous Peoples, we insist that the right to life must be understood in terms of generations.  We owe a right to life to current and future children and generations.  It is immoral to leave our trash and problems to future generations or expect them to solve climate change we have caused.  It is our responsibility and the time is now.  “We have defaulted on our promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

We cannot wait.  We cannot put off children and the economically poor or those suffering already from increased storms, droughts, hunger, and displacement.  “We cannot wait any longer to resolve the structural causes of poverty in order to cure our society of an illness that can only lead to new crises.”  Realizing our interconnectedness and the value of each person, and caring for those in need is the touchstone of what we believe.

We are locking in emissions, every time we produce a new fossil-fuel powered vehicle or plant.  In 2011, the International Energy Agency and economist Fatih Birol published analysis of the life cycle of our investments and how they “lock in” additional years of fossil fuel emissions each year we produce petrol/gas and diesel-powered vehicles (assumed 20 yr life), power plants (40 year assumed life), and more.  The IEA said if we continue to build fossil fuel cars and plants as we have, by 2017 we would have built enough to bring us over 2 C if operated for their full intended life cycle.  This made the imperative even clearer to make a rapid shift.

In summary… What is the problem? Why act quickly?

  • Fossil-fuel + biofuel air pollution cause 5-7 million premature air pollution deaths/year worldwide. This costs $20-25 trillion/year already, not to mention the human loss and suffering.
  • Global warming due to world emissions will cost ~$25-30 trillion/year by 2050.
  • Increasing fossil energy use increases energy pricesà economic, social, political instability.
  • Drastic problems require immediate solutions.

UNEP says we have just three years to limit turn emissions onto a sharp, long-term decline, which is also why former UNFCCC Chair Christiana Figueres and others are pursuing Mission 2020.  In their report on the emissions gap, head of UNEP Erik Solheim & Chief Scientist Jacqueline McGlade wrote:

We must take urgent action. If we don’t, we will mourn the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. We will regret the economic fallout. Most of all, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy; the growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver…This is our wake-up call…

As Christiana Figueres has said: “Right now, 60 million people are displaced worldwide, the highest ever seen in recorded history.” And “we will be seeing 100-300 million displaced in their own area or outside and that will be difficult if not impossible to manage” if we don’t turn around now, with climate change and our use of fossil fuels.  “We’ll be condemning the 1 billion still in extreme poverty to perpetual, extreme poverty. The impacts of climate change will grow exponentially both in intensity and in frequency, and that requires investing very scarce resources into rebuilding very basic, scarce infrastructure that then won’t get to devote that to health, education, and well-being.”  We must get off fossil fuels: “Not only would we avert the worst impacts of climate, we would be able to give energy access to 1.3 billion around the world mostly in extreme poverty, improve health worldwide especially in cities, increase food security and create many new jobs. This is a moral responsibility that we all share. That moral responsibility, how are we going to ensure that it is achieved before it is too late for the most vulnerable? We need to align our moral compass…we need to be clear that fossil fuels kill.”  In contrast, we know that renewable energy brings life, health and employment opportunities, though change is never easy or automatic.  We shouldn’t make it more difficult than it has to be by caving to special interests devoted to private profit.

The necessary shift is completely possible. The cost of wind and solar is now comparable to fossil fuels on a utility scale, and wind and solar is much cheaper when health and other costs are included.  Moreover, solar and wind potential are plentiful.  Some states can produce half or more of their electricity from solar and existing rooftops alone.  The majority can produce about a third of the energy they need this way, and with batteries or other economical storage, offer grid stability at the same time.   Electric cars use only one third the energy with zero emissions and a third the maintenance cost.  As Jochen Wermuth has noted, by providing electricity (and stabilization) to the grid, a €20 000 electric car can earn €1 000 a year. Due to the ever lower cost of renewables and cheap leverage, as little equity as 600 billion euros, leveraged and recycled over 25 years, could suffice to stop climate change and lift 1 billion people out of poverty.

Timeline to transition to 100% renewables


What can we do to reduce emissions and global warming?  From the graph below, we can see our priorities (in order) are:

  1. Get our electricity production off fossil fuels (shift to renewables)
  2. Shift transport and as much energy use as possible to clean electricity
  3. Everything else

Our top priority is to shift electricity off of fossil fuels and to renewables because this can be done now.  Automobile production can also be shifted off of fossil fuels now.  If we attend to our other systems of domination, extraction, and inequality associated with our current fossil fuel economy at the same time, we can make and have the shifts we need for the dignity of life and well-being.  Dr. Jacobson’s work and analysis of the natural resources and transition pathways for 139 countries (completed ahead of the COP-21 in 2015) found that each country can convert to wind, water, and solar energy by 2050, with considerable cost savings and many benefits, not least avoided climate change.

  • Reduces 2050 139-country business as usual power demand by ~42.5% while avoiding 4-7 million air pollution deaths per year (~$23 trillion/year) and $27Trillion in annual climate costs +
  • Each person saves ~$85/year fuel costs and $5,700 annually in health + climate costs by 2050
  • Wind, water, and solar energy with storage + demand response management gives 100% reliability of energy provision at a cost of ~9.5-12 ¢/kWh
  • Creates ~24 million more jobs than are lost
  • Requires only 0.22% of land for footprint; 0.92% for spacing
  • Makes countries energy independent, reducing international conflict
  • Creates distributed power, reducing terrorism/catastrophic risk
  • Reduces energy poverty of up to 4 billion people worldwide


For transportation, the biggest solutions have to do with switching to EVs and also shared vehicles, while improving urban environments for people of all ages to walk and bike.

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