A High Schooler’s Take on the Climate Crisis

From The Deseret News in Utah:

By Cash Mendenhall

On July 17, Salt Lake City met the record for the highest summer temperature in recorded history, and by the time you read this that record may very well be broken.

We’re heading into the depth of a scorching summer with a worrying lack of clarity: Today, 99% of Utah is under either extreme or severe drought levels, with eight of the last 10 years being classified as drought years. We’ve become so desensitized to statistics like these in Utah and the West that heat waves and droughts barely register as policy issues, slipping under the radar of a rapidly metastasizing climate disaster. Eastern Utah has reported a temperature change over the last century triple that of the global temperature increase.

As a high school student, my generation is facing a steep collapse in livability.

The uniquely gorgeous landscape that fosters our state’s draw, both economically and for new Utahns, is under sustained threat from the unmitigated onset of climate change. While most of our policymakers now thankfully believe that climate change is a legitimate threat and needs a solution, they have been largely unable to respond successfully, and changes in government can seem singularly hopeless.

And as hard as it is to stomach, individual action is not enough. While solar panels and electric cars are important in many ways, the impact they have on global warming is minuscule. Climate scientist Michael Mann brings up the long history of industry-based deflection campaigns on carbon emissions, offloading the responsibility for action on the environment to voters instead of politicians.

By suggesting that solving climate change is an individual fight, we avoid pinning the consequences on those who bear a disproportionate amount of the responsibility. Policy solutions at the broadest level are necessary, and federal action is one of the few significant steps we as voters can advocate for.

The breadth of political solutions to the climate crisis can be overwhelming, too, with mixed signals on viability and impact. The recent revival of a climate deal with remarkably broad implications, particularly on the development of green infrastructure, is a breath of fresh air that indicates a hopeful growth in political capital for federal carbon solutions.

To suggest that it is enough, though, is misguided: a true solution must not be solely mitigating but also addressing.

The root cause of the crisis is still unresolved. But of these policy solutions, a carbon fee and dividend would be uniquely effective: by setting a tax on mass carbon emissions at the site of their production and then distributing the revenue from that tax back in a monthly dividend to all Americans.

This check on the rise of both income inequality and climate inequity promotes a national shift towards justice in public policy, with remarkable projected efficacy. A study from REMI projects that a carbon fee and dividend with a fairly moderate initial price would lower CO2 50% below 1990 levels in twenty years.

This solution is neither controversial nor partisan — Sen. Mitt Romney has endorsed a carbon fee and dividend while Reps. John Curtis and Blake Moore as members of the Climate Solutions Caucus are working on solutions.

Utah’s activists and economists see this solution as singularly clear and effective. But without public support, little momentum can be built. To preserve what makes us love our home, implore your representatives from the inbox to the ballot box to endorse a carbon fee and dividend in Congress.

Cash Mendenhall is a junior at West High School and an intern for the Salt Lake City chapter of Citizen’s Climate Lobby.


19 responses to “A High Schooler’s Take on the Climate Crisis

  1. Agreed. A carbon fee and dividend is an excellent of cutting emissions and reducing inequality but economic polices are not enough: They would not easily create new lifestyles, which are low carbon and pleasant.

    This requires an enhanced form of town planning. I wish I could find planners that could present visions of such lifestyles. This requires parallel design of local economies too,

    See The missing link – Town Planning

  2. Wow, encouraging clear vision from the young people! We have surely no position to tell the Chinese to get off of their 7.5 t CO2 emissions per year per capita if we don’t manage to get significantly below that value. Not to speak of India with her ~~ 2 t_co2/(c*y).

  3. Susan Anderson

    Superbly clear, powerful, and correct. Congratulations to Citizen’s Climate Lobby for this clear and direct writer. Here’s something for us elders to ponder (enough with any temptation to condescend or think we know better, or give up because it’s “hard”):
    The kids are not OK – Some valuable lessons learned: Listen first, speak second. Don’t just inform and educate … enable and engage. And apply those lessons at next opportunity.

  4. Well said Cash. Thanks Tamino for republishing his letter here.

    I too find the framing of climate responsibility and actions required as personal, consumer/lifestyle choice problematic; the all too human urge to avoid taking responsibility at the personal level, especially when the circumstances they function within and what it takes to be a successful, functional member of society have not been made or chosen by them.

    Palming all the responsibility off to the individual has become a way to excuse continuing failures to address matters at institutional level. Even as a legal principle it fails; suppliers of goods and services that cause unintended harms, especially knowingly, are (in most legal juridictions) held to be liable. “Pragmatically” most highest courts refuse to make any clear ruling.

    Somehow the industry that supplies fossil fuels has engineered an enduring defacto amnesty on responsibility, to the extent that for the purposes of international climate agreements only fossil fuel end use is deemed to count. Suppliers and exporters are not deemed responsible.

    The “hypocrisy” meme – where people are expected to go stone age to prove they take it seriously, when government, community and business leaders already know it is real and serious – seems like a successful attempt to turn the legitimate calls to make personal lifestyle choices to help matters into an argument against institutional and economy wide change as the principle response.

    No-one should have to go stone age to have their concerns taken seriously. I want to see a lot of clean energy built and made widely available – economy wide – before I call on everyone, whether they care or not, to stop using fossil fuels.

    • So true. The “business as usual” brigade want us to go back to the stone age – knowing that we won’t, at which point they’ll blame us.

      It is such a simple equation. If I try really hard to reduce my electricity use, I could cut it by 50%, thus halving my emissions from that source. If the power station switches from coal to wind, my electricity-related emissions drop by 90% without me doing anything.

  5. We can incentivize China et al. to cut their CO2 emissions by putting a carbon intensity tariff on their imports.

  6. Michael Sweet

    Since China currently generates a higher percentage of its electricity from renewable sources, perhaps we should pay China a tax for everything we import from them. They also are building new renewables faster than most developed nations like the USA.

    Blaming China is just shifting the blame for a problem we are more responsible for.

  7. MS: Blaming China is just shifting the blame for a problem we are more responsible for.

    BPL: Fuck blame. Sorry to be blunt, but a CO2 molecule doesn’t know what country it’s coming from and doesn’t care. China is putting out more CO2 than we are. That’s a fact. They need to put out less. That’s a fact, too. They are building more coal-fired power plants. That’s a fact, too. They need to stop doing that. A carbon-intensity tariff is about the only way we can affect their decision. Deal with it, and don’t give me any lectures on historical responsibility. Global warming is going to kill our civilization no matter who is responsible, we all have to reduce–all of us, China included. Nobody gets a free pass.

  8. russellseitz

    How gratifying to see the PRC show its true colors by terminating climate policy cooperation with the Biden administration.

    There is scant cause for surprise- China’s thousand year head start on drilling for brine, gas ,and oil was but prologue to Mao’s monumental coal fired effort to expand back yard iron smelting in the retromingent Great Leap Forward .

    In the back streets of Xian you will encounter something that has so far defied export- a regional cuisine shaped by the necessity of finding workarounds for coal briquettes being the only affordable cooking fuel .

  9. Michael Sweet

    The USA emits way more carbon per person than China does. The Chinese are installing way more renewable energy than the US is. You are simply trying to evade your responsibility for more CO2 emissions than the Chinese.

    You are asking people who are polluting way less than your neighborhood to reduce pollution while the USA struggles to pass any energy legislation at all. We all have to reduce, but the USA, as a country that emits very large amounts of CO2, needs to lead the way. Currently the USA is being dragged along kicking and screaming “Go after China” instead of taking action.

  10. russellseitz

    Needham devoted a whole volume of Science and Civilization in China to the evolution of energy sources over the centuries. One unforgettable section deals with Manchurian coal, a resource still unrivaled in scale . Like hydraulic civilizations, geology happens, and – Herbert Hoover checked out the ground trut- , China stlll has coal beds a hundred meters thick.

  11. MS: The USA emits way more carbon per person than China does.

    BPL: Doesn’t matter. They’re building coal plants; we’re not. They have to stop doing that; we don’t.

    MS: You are simply trying to evade your responsibility for more CO2 emissions than the Chinese.

    BPL: Responsibility doesn’t matter. There’s no responsibility variable in Beer’s Law. What matters is the total amount.

    MS: You are asking people who are polluting way less than your neighborhood to reduce pollution while the USA struggles to pass any energy legislation at all.

    BPL: I’m asking everybody to reduce pollution, the USA included, and BTW, we just passed massive climate legislation. Pay attention to the news.

  12. Sad to see tall buildings and lots of cars in China. Both destroy the climate.

    But China emissions per person are much less than the USA.

    With regards private versus public blame. Blame individuals who buy goods or corporations who make goods?

    Both, of course, but an intermediate level is needed to redesign the way we live.

    See The missing link – Town Planning

    • I’d plead to go away from blaming. It doesn’t work – for nobody. Please refrain from it.
      The base is, i m h o, to place the deep conviction into our minds and hearts, and if possible of the people we know and have some influence on, that we have to get down to 0 (in words “zero”) emissions in about 25 years lest we run into real trouble. And that it is not binary, there is no “if we don’t meet this target, all further effort is useless”, but that every 10th of a degrees counts, every small individual emission decision counts as well as the big decisions, like the recent climate package that went through the US senate. This conviction has to be the gauge for every individual and collective decision and plan on the different levels of hierarchy in our societies. And town-planning belongs most certainly in this realm.
      Yes there is some seriousness necessary here and people tend to avoid this kind of seriousness, except in war times, see e.g. https://www.rapidtransition.org/stories/when-everything-changed-the-us-uk-economies-in-world-war-ii/ . It’s like “yeah we have to do that but somehow I don’t belong to this ‘we'”. But o t o h it is not such a big deal to get this done. Renewables have become dirt cheap, storage is well on the way to become dirt cheap. Ok, we’ll have to cut down on flying long distance for a decade or more, because it cannot reasonably be decarbonized, until the new tech is ready. But compared to the productivity growth of the past 50 or so years, the sacrifices for climate are minor.

  13. “If the power station switches from coal to wind, my electricity-related emissions drop by 90% without me doing anything.”

    To get all power stations to do that switch cannot be done quickly. Each switch would contribute to reducing the carbon intensity of our emissions. BUT …

    The greenhouse gas intensity of production worldwide hasn’t been falling fast enough to allow much (or any) growth in GDP & still be within remaining carbon budgets to keep Global Mean Surface Temperatures below 1.5C.

    The graph on intensity in the latest Global Carbon Budget shows it coming down in a more-or-less linear fashion – Zero appears to be in 2065. That’s 23 years from the beginning of 2022.

    Emissions in 2021 were 33.0 GtCO2.

    This means if we have no economic growth and intensity keeps falling at this rate, CO2 emitted will be 33.0*23/2 GtCO2 =380 GtCO2.

    According to IPCC AR6 figures (updated for 2022 by the Global Carbon Project) the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C with a 50% chance is 420 GTCO2. However, if this estimate is similarly updated for a 66% chance, the remaining carbon budget is 334 GtCO2.

    So 380GtCO2 is over budget for a 66% chance of keeping GMST within a 1.5°C rise, within budget for a 50% chance. That’s assuming zero economic growth worldwide.

    But GDP is on a steep upward trend, so are CO2 emissions. To be safe degrowth is needed now.

    Degrowth – a fall in GDP – should concentrate on those with emissions higher than the world average.

    Per person:

    China’s emissions are 64% above average.
    USA’s emissions are 216% above average

    • The GDP is of no interest, it may rise or fall, just let’s not look at it. Emissions are of interest and the million dollar question is: on a given level of decisionmaking (individual, community, city, state, federal, UN) – which is the best path to be taken, the best set of measures to get down emissions to zero in 25 years or so?
      The first and foremost measure on all levels is clarity that we have a slow paced, but very deep global crisis, and that getting down emissions fast is the thing to do. Without this clarity, discussion about de- or other kinds of growth is a waste of time. (B t w I happen to have written a short piece on the relation of growth and climate: https://remarksandobservations.wordpress.com/2021/08/09/economic-growth-without-resource-depletion-is-possible/ )
      Well we can’t wait until each and every citizen has got it, we would all be toast in the meantime.
      My view is, that we the rich need an emission cap system, at least as a kind of limit: “Stay below the cap – or else you’ll see hefty emission costs.” Interestingly, the EU cap system has been caused by US intervention, who wanted a market based system, but then sneaked out, when it came. (That’s the rumour.)
      Then arises the question, we have the cap – now how to stay below it? With a spectrum of other measures, like decarbonization investment incentives, information and training for the whole energy industry, redirecting fossil fuel companies from drilling for oil and gas to drilling for deep geothermal, and of course paying back a large enough part of the allowance related revenues to save the poor from the worst effect of a high carbon price.
      And yes, using less by using smaller things (dematerialization) is part of the spectrum, like here:
      https://remarksandobservations.wordpress.com/2022/06/15/less-smaller-lighter-dematerialization-of-products/ and of course just using less as well. Degrowth may be an outcome of high emission prices. But it should and i m h v cannot not be the input.