What will be Chicago’s legacy on climate change?

Humans have been able to eradicate diseases that threatened to wipe us off the planet. Most of us have supercomputers that fit in our pocket and allow us to contact friends and family across the globe in just seconds. We are able to see and document planets, stars, and galaxies that are billions of light years away. We have accomplished extraordinary things in our relatively short time on this planet. As a species, we have been able to conquer and reshape our physical surroundings for hundreds of years, often using fossil fuels to power our tools and machines. That, combined with the seemingly endless natural resources available within US borders has helped us to become the richest country in the history of the world. Why then is the issue of climate change different than any other challenge we’ve faced before as a species?

The distinction this time around is we are creating such an elegant chaos that humanity will not be able to counteract the effects that will be generated by the planet’s warming of even a few more degrees. We’re dealing with centuries of consequences compounding upon themselves and quickening their pace just as we’re fully understanding our own impact in the equation. Climate change is going to touch every single person on this planet. Even in Chicago, which is positioned next to the largest freshwater resources in the world, we are battling for our water security. Invasive aquatic species such as Asian Carp have the potential to devastate our lake ecosystem, microplastics have contaminated 94.4% of all tap water samples tested in the US as recently as September of 2017, and an aging citywide water distribution system has been leaking lead into our water supply. Can you say with certainty that you personally will never have to deal with rising prices for water that is safe enough to drink? If you answered yes, would you be willing to bet you or your children’s lives on it?

With all that said and even assuming a worse case scenario, climate change will not be what destroys our planet. With a >99.9% certainty, Earth will outlast us and a percentage of its species would adapt and thrive in the worsening conditions we could see in 5, 50, 500, or even 5,000 years without massive climate change interventions. Our planet has weathered ice ages, meteorites striking and covering entire continents in shadow & clouds of ash, and other periods of extreme changes before, yet life has found a way. Most scientists agree, the Earth will be swallowed into the sun when it reaches the next stage in a star’s life cycle and turns into a red giant, generally expected to happen within the next 5 to 7.5 billion years. Personally, it would be easier for me to bet on humanity finding a way to colonize other planets beyond our solar system if we had that much time to innovate in the type of technology advancements that would allow us to terraform another life-supporting planet. However, humans may not even make it another 100 years if we continue to ignore the warning signs that over 97% of climate scientists, whose entire job is to analyze any and all information available on the subject, have been raising for decades.

It is becoming harder to grow staple crops in large swaths of historically fertile land because of excessively hot temperatures during growing season. We are sapping our freshwater resources so fast that major cities are on the verge of running out of water entirely. The refugee crisis is worsening with every day, as millions of people are being displaced from their ancestral homes by civil wars and infighting over dwindling resources. Natural disasters caused a total of $306 billion in damages during 2017 alone, the highest total in US history. This is only a handful of examples that don’t even get into the extinction of species and how their losses affect the global food web, increased disease rates due to conditions where mosquito-borne illnesses thrive & smog-filled cities where residents are forced to wear oxygen masks to even go outside, or lost arable land and potential for food production as we see entire islands being swallowed up in the ocean. Not to beat a dead horse, but the point is this - You have to try not to see the writing on the wall and ignore the inescapable reality of climate change and its consequences.

It’s easy to paint a very bleak picture of our future, especially if we don’t act collectively and immediately to mitigate the effects of climate change. In the past year alone, huge strides have been made in the fossil fuel divestment revolution. New York has joined the growing movement recognizing the danger of continuing to operate an economy based on fossil fuel consumption. Andrew Cuomo and the state of New York have announced that they plan on divesting almost $400 billion in state budget and pensions away from fossil fuels and reinvesting in clean energy tech. Illinois began implementing the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which is a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation that positions our state as a leader in the Midwest. The bill requires electric utilities to become more efficient, funds job training in the renewable energy sector, lowers consumers’ utility bills & increases access to financing options, and creates incentives for billions of dollars in green energy investments. Chicago even hosted the 1st annual North American Climate Summit, which had mayors from dozens of North American cities in attendance at the Chicago History Museum. Their objective was to discuss how cities that are committed to the ideas of the Paris Agreement, which President Trump pulled the US out of in June, could continue operating toward those goals. Why then, is Chicago not actually joining the rising tide of the green revolution by committing to 100% fossil fuel divestment with a clear and firm deadline right now?

Mayor Emmanuel and his sustainability department have already publicly committed to running all of the city’s public buildings on 100% renewable energy by 2025. This pledge is an encouraging promise from the city, however public buildings represent only 8% of the Chicago’s total energy usage. Additionally, the amount of our city’s operational budget still tied up in fossil fuels is less than one percent. But that <1% represents upward of $80 million dollars, and another $330 million goes through the city’s largest pension funds. We could be in a lot worse shape, but even more aggressive action is needed in order to send a message to both fossil fuel companies and our own federal government. Over 60 US cities and municipalities have already made the 100% Fossil Free pledge, and Chicago needs to join that group immediately. Mayor Emmanuel himself has been quoted saying, “I want Chicago to be the greenest city in the world, and I am committed to fostering opportunities for Chicagoans to make sustainability a part of their lives and their experience in the city." It’s time for him to follow through on those words and commit to divesting Chicago completely away from fossil fuels. I urge you to make this issue an important factor in your voting choices both in this election cycle, and all those in the future. Chicago’s mayoral elections are coming up in 2019. Let’s hold Rahm (or whomever leads the Second City in one year’s time) accountable to leave a legacy of climate change activism to be proud of for future generations.

Even conservative estimates of fossil fuel reserves remaining on Earth gives us under 100 years left at our current pace of consumption. Since the beginning of 2017, the percentage of financial experts who believe a theoretical carbon bubble will burst within the next 5 years has doubled, leaving personal and governmental investments in those industries severely devalued. Even some of the largest fossil fuel companies have begun joining the movement, although their motives are most likely motivated more so by their shareholder prices and public opinion than their consciences. Knowing what the impending future holds for fossil fuels, doesn’t it make fiscal sense for Chicago to go all in on the type of technologies that our future economy will be based on, rather than ones we will soon have to leave behind? For a city that continuously has to raise property taxes and is losing residents by the thousands in recent years, this seems like a no-brainer.

The case for fossil fuel divestment has made moral sense for quite some time now. It has become increasingly clear to anyone paying close attention that now it makes economic sense, as well.