Put Out the Fire

Swedish student-activist Greta Thunberg has challenged world leaders to address climate change like the existential crisis that it is, when she said to act like “the house is on fire.” Many agree, but few see a quick way to put out that fire. Here’s a simple two-part plan to save most of the “house” before it’s too late.

#1. Make all public transit in America free. Recent studies show that fare prices affect ridership, yet lower fares have resulted in cutbacks of service. That, in turn, means fewer people find practical public transit options and end up in cars. Investing in public transit in a “Manhattan Project” way – – with a sense of urgency and scale – – can reverse those trends and put more people into fewer vehicles.

Expanded use of mass transit lowers greenhouse gas and other air pollution in another important way. Fewer cars on the road means less traffic congestion, so for those who still do need to use cars or trucks for personal or business needs, they will waste less time in traffic and therefore pollute much less. Investing in more clean fuel buses and electric rail lines – – and making ridership free – – makes more sense than putting the same funding to work by expanding roads and highways. Studies show that new roads simply attract more vehicular trips, while traffic congestion remains the same. Getting people out of their cars cuts both pollution and traffic.

So how do we pay for this? Well, do we really need three quarters of a trillion dollars – – every year – – for the Defense Department budget? Perhaps a less controversial approach would be to use gas tax revenue for mass transit expansion and cost-free ridership, but another source of funding could be to levy a pollution charge on airlines, oil companies, and coal companies, helping them to offset the problem their products are creating.

#2. Pass a federal law that all utilities must source 50% of their energy from clean renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2050. California and several nations have already passed similar laws and are well on their way to achieving those goals. Even oil-rich Texas produces more clean wind energy than most nations. By reducing greenhouse gas pollution from electricity sources, mass transit will run cleaner too, as more buses are switched to all-electric and subways or light rail are already powered by the grid.

These two measures alone won’t solve the climate crisis – – after all, sea level rise and more intense storms, droughts, wildfires and the like are already here to stay. But instead of paying even more in the future for the growing cost of climate disasters, these two measures can be done quickly and will help to achieve the goals that scientists say we must achieve to avoid the worst, uncontrollable consequences of climate change – – peak emissions in the next two or three years, then cut them in half every decade thereafter.

A tall order, to be sure, but the alternatives are much harder to contemplate or to finance.