Why ‘Reducing Emissions’ is Killing Us (Literally)

An argument for abolition.

Every second of every day, we emit climate-changing gases into the atmosphere, threatening the stability of our planet’s climate and the vitality of civilization as we know it.  Mountain glaciers are melting away, threatening the water supply of billions.  Rainfall patterns are changing in unpredictable ways, increasing floods in some places and droughts in others, making it harder for farmers to predict which crops to plant.  Islands are falling beneath the waves, while low-lying lands are threatened.  The world’s poor, who have had a virtually immeasurable contribution to the problem, are being forced to bear the brunt of the effects, as they suffer higher rates and ranges of tropical diseases, more powerful storms that threaten to destroy their structurally unsound homes, higher food prices, decreasing access to fresh water, and forced migrations.

The same activity that is the primary cause of all of these horrible things – burning fossil fuels – is also responsible for countless other calamities.  From funding petro-regimes, like Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, etc, to increasing the rates of asthma, cancer, and airborne illnesses in our communities, to lung cancer and mine collapses for coal miners, to massive spills in oil tankers and on deep-ocean rigs that cause untold destruction to our natural world, fossil fuels are just bad.

They kill people.  They destroy nature.  They make us less safe, less healthy, and deny our children the future they deserve.

And what, after knowing all of this, is our response?

“We should reduce our emissions.”

Excuse me?  Reduce our emissions?

Did abolitionists call for us to reduce the number of slaves?  Did the Civil Rights Movement call for reduced segregation?  Did Gandhi rally the people of India around a goal of reducing Britain’s domination of their homeland?  Did suffragettes demand reduced barriers to the ballot?  Did our forbears call for reduced taxation without representation?


What successful social movement has ever been formed around the notion that something is so bad that we must have less of it?

When something is wrong, people in the past had the COURAGE to call a duck a duck, and say that it was wrong, and that it needed to STOP.  They did not call for there to be less of it, they called for its end, for its abolition.  That’s what you do when something is wrong.  You are rightfully pissed off, and you say ENOUGH!  NO MORE!

But not us.  We are afraid people will not take us seriously if we call for the only solution that makes sense:  an end to the combustion of fossil fuels.

People know when you’re being insincere.  And by suggesting that we can make do with fewer emissions, instead of calling for their elimination, we are not being sincere.  We know from the science of 350 that there’s already too much carbon in the atmosphere.  And we know from the gut-wrenching scenes of oil-coated animals on the gulf, and the wailing screams of mothers whose sons never return from the collapsed coal mine, and from the troubling sound of coughing and wheezing young asthmatic children who live in the shadow of coal plants that even if fossil fuels were not causing climate change, we would still have a moral imperative to do away with them.

So why do we wait?  What do we cling to this falsity that everything will be okay, just as long as we ‘reduce’ our emissions.  I think it is because at the end of the day, your average environmentalist is more interested in being liked than being right, in seeming reasonable, than in being reasonable.  It’s easier to tell people they have to just make little changes, to adjust the margins a little, and everything will be okay.  But that’s a flat-out lie, and it sends a very mixed message.  If something is wrong, we must campaign against it, not for less of it.

Yes, some might ignore us initially, others might laugh at us.  But the fact of the matter is, that abolishing fossil fuels is the only logical response to the situation that lies before us.  There are some economic and technical (not to mention political) challenges to be sure, but our consciences know the truth:

We must stop burning fossil fuels.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

~Mahatma Gandhi

8 Responses to “Why ‘Reducing Emissions’ is Killing Us (Literally)”

  1. 1 Quiet-Environmentalist Jul 8th, 2010 at 5:24 am

    We will in the end loose our addiction to the drug of fossil fuels but it is just a question of how quickly. I am still hopeful. China erects a new wind Turbine every two hours (a more positive stat than that other China stat that it erects one coal plant a week). Lets abolition fossil fuels today!

    Great post!

  2. 2 Matt7195 Jul 8th, 2010 at 11:19 am

    End Emissions Now!

    If we agree to the goal we will find a way. It’s time to stop childish arguing and focus on the how. Business as usual is no longer an option, and anyone who suggests it should be treated as uninformed and disregarded.

  3. 3 rmarg Jul 8th, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    A laudible goal, but the our fossil fuel dependency is unique in history. Water purification, refrigeration, hospitals, etc. are built around relative inexpensive high-density energy sources. The global economy is also built around the tremendous mobility also provided by fossil fuels. Despite China building more wind turbines (and nuclear plants) they are increasing their fossil fuel consumption. Fossil fuels constitute about 80% of the energy use globally. Some plan has to be put forward by abolition advocates to argue that the call is not mere fantasy.

  4. 4 free transit Jul 12th, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Here is how. Make urban public transport fare-free. Move to the city. Give the suburbs to the organic farmers. Educate all children. End all childhood disease.

  5. 5 Reality Jul 26th, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Nice idea, but completely disconnected from any notions of reality. You can attack pragmatists for trying to work within the system, but unless your work is to directly bring down the system we ALL live in, your idealistic words are little more than a pipe-dream. If you care, stand up and fight…and not just for “carbon”


  6. 6 Macro Market Maven Jul 26th, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    In all Seriousness calling for the abolition of emissions isn’t very well thought out and the concept of it being forced upon the market by government policy is even more absurd. The reality is that yes our society lives off of these “horrid” fossil fuels. The quantity of food, healthcare, communications, transportation, heating, everything runs off of it why? Fossil Fuels are economically viable, they work because they are a competitive source of energy. The market is driven by a desire to compete over resources and the cheapest way to get that resource always wins out in this case fossil fuels.

    Instead of spending all this effort and man power working to change government legislation it should be spent on developing a cheaper more efficient source of energy through a renewable non-emitting resource. The market will naturally respond and coercion via laws will not be necessary.

    On a side note modern Natural Gas plants actually have minimal emissions.

  7. 7 rmarg Jul 26th, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    So far, when concentrated fuels are available, they are cheaper and easier to use than trying to gather sun and wind over large areas. Most renewables have this same diluteness issue. Our soicety is built upon high energy density sources. We either need to change our societal structure (with its attending impacts on public health as well as economic opportunity) or switch to even higher energy density fuels (or a combination). Even with efficiency and conservation, we are likely stuck with some kind of high energy density energy source.

  8. 8 myna lee johnstone Oct 6th, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Quite true.
    A hybrid is NOT a solution.It is for the priviledged.
    The lifestyle and ideology established by overuse of the personal fossil fueled automobile have destroyed our habitat, our planet and too many of its creatures, including humans.
    Why do we put up with the NOISE, the stress, the toxins, and the congestion as well as the huge social costs including road fixes, emergency response, police surveillance and hospital time and space.?
    Then the design of our homes with 2 car garages, parking and more parking everywhere, box stores, malls, and looking at public transit as low class mode of transportation.
    The automobile made us selfish, mindless, and very discourteous.

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About Craig

Craig Altemose is the founder and Executive Director of Better Future Project, which engages in movement-building to make communities more resilient and to accelerate a rapid and responsible transition away from fossil fuels. Currently, he serves on the Massachusetts Green Economy and Climate Protection Advisory Committee and on the board of the Mass Climate Action Network. Craig founded and led Students for a Just and Stable Future (MA's state network). He has previously served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Co-Chair of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies, worked with Energy Action as an intern and a fellow, and served on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Student Coalition, a group he remains active with. Craig helped plan Power Shift 2007, and was the Lead Organizer of the Massachusetts Power Shift conference in April, 2008. He holds a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School, a Master in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a B.A. in International Relations and Global Affairs from Eckerd College.

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