Today, armed Trump supporters stormed the sanctity of the nation’s Capitol and rioted, personally egged on by their toxic narcissist sore loser leader. This is just the latest outrage in the country where COVID-19 is labeled a hoax, mask-wearing is seen as a sign of weakness, and, yes, climate change is called a hoax, too.
I’m sitting in the San Francisco Bay Area, in California, so I am far away physically and politically from this uproar, but I am deeply concerned about the future of the United States of America and the world.
The U.S. was a leader not so long ago. We have been a beacon of hope for acceptance, fairness, and democracy. We had elections where the loser called the winner to congratulate them, and then helped in a peaceful transition. We led by example.
Yes, our history is tainted with injustices to native people, minorities, and the poor. Our capitalism claims that anyone can be successful, but over time has reinforced class structures, with the wealthy getting more so, the poor losing protections, and the middle class having stagnant earning power.
Now, the world needs leadership to battle climate change—along with the worst pandemic in a century. This time, thanks in part to the reign of Donald J. Trump, we are unprepared to lead.
In 2018, I spent three days at the Climate Reality Leadership Training with Al Gore and other leaders and learned how to present the story of climate change. The former vice president is famous (and was awarded) for his An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. At the training, he showed us how to do our own version of it. The PowerPoint starts with basic climate science, then segues to some truly frightening photos of fires, floods, and droughts, and then some hopeful images of windmills and solar panels. The sections are “Must we do it?,” Can we do it?,” and “Will we do it?.” The “Will” section shows shots of the Paris Agreement and peaceful demonstrations.
Since late 2018, I have given nine Climate Reality presentations, including one just a month before COVID-19 crippled our ability to meet in groups. My personal focus, as an auto writer, has switched to electric vehicles, and I test and promote them enthusiastically.
The problem I see, though, is that in this social climate, presentations like this and simply reporting on electric cars may not be enough to get the job done in the short amount of time we have to make an impact. Today, a vast number of people are fed disinformation and lies, and last November, were willing to give a second term to an obviously dangerous COVID-19 and climate change denier. Away from the coasts and urban areas, there’s a vast distrust of science—you might even say a loss of reason—in the population. With social media, anyone can find a like-minded believer of any conspiracy theory, and right-wing media has promoted an alternative universe of beliefs and “facts.” It’s hard to know what’s the truth anymore.
But facts are facts, and one of them is that the earth is continuing to warm, and that it will lead to drastic changes, including coastal flooding, more powerful storms, droughts, loss of species, and a general disruption of what has been, for ten millennia, a stable climate. Unfortunately, while a small group toils to fix, update, improve, and change the situation, most people either don’t care or are too absorbed in their own lives to act. I know, because even as a trained Climate Reality Leader, I spend a lot of time doing things that either hurt or don’t improve the climate situation. And I know better!
What’s the answer? How can you teach even basic science, such as the basics of climate change or the essentials of disease transmission, to minds that are closed to being educated and whose emotions are focused on illusory things?
Do climate leaders, some corporate CEOs, and some nonprofit organizations have to be the parents who take care of all of these wayward children? How can we reach out across the wide political divide, and get everyone on the same page? We could have had our “World War II” moment with fighting the COVID-19 virus, but thanks to our disengaged, lying, self-centered chief executive, we are behind most other countries. There is no talk of sacrifice and no feeling of shared responsibility. My mask protects you! Why is that so hard to grasp?
When we are finally back to being physically together, how do we heal the wounds that we’ve suffered from this disruptive chapter in our history? Are Climate Reality presentations relevant anymore?
We need to act quickly, in a way that gets the message across. But what is it?
This post talks about electric cars, the climate crisis, and actions we all can take to help solve it, including driving electric vehicles (EVs).
A Quick EV History
The first mainstream EVs in the U.S appeared a decade ago, as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Today, major companies, including GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, are proudly announcing their upcoming models (while continuing to sell lots of internal combustion vehicles).
EV sales, juiced by Tesla’s success, are increasing every year, but still represent a small percentage of the market. Tesla, of course, sells only EVs. Many countries (and even some states) are passing legislation to support the phasing out of gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.
EV Benefits and Challenges
Electric cars have a lot to offer. They are smooth and quiet. Electric motors deliver all of their torque the moment they are working, so acceleration is amazing, and the low center of gravity from the battery pack helps them handle well.
Electric drivetrains contain a lot fewer parts, so there is much less to go wrong, and routine service is minimal (forget oil changes, tune-ups, radiator flushes, and even brake pad replacement thanks to regenerative braking).
EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but are not 100 percent clean, of course, because like all cars, their production uses energy from various sources. Some companies, including GM, are working to use renewable energy in their vehicle production. Some of the materials for today’s EV batteries must be mined, sometimes in dangerous and unsustainable ways. This issue must be addressed and solved.
There can be some inconveniences. EVs take longer to charge, and there are fewer places to charge them today than there are gas stations. Although the charging networks are expanding, this uncertainty can create “range anxiety,” although most people hardly ever drive more than about 40 miles a day, and modern EVs feature more than 200 miles of range. The ideal place to charge your EV is at home, but some people live in apartments. Some workplaces provide charging, as well. The charging network is being built out and should not be much of an issue at some point in the future.
Right now, there are fewer category and style choices in EVs than there are in the overall market. However, that will change over the next few years, as more companies roll out a range of attractive and powerful models. There are a number of affordable choices today, such as the Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and the second-generation Nissan LEAF. On the luxury side, you can get an electric Porsche (Taycan), Jaguar (i-Pace) and Audi (eTron) now. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have exciting EV models on their way. There are many more.
The second-hand EV market is filled with bargains, if you’re willing to drive a car with a shorter range. Three-year-old vehicles can change hands at a fraction of their initial price. I picked up my pristine three-year-old Fiat 500e, with 25,000 miles on it, for less than a third of its original 2017 retail price. However, its range is only 90 miles, which means I can’t use it for long trips. These older EVs make great commuter shuttles and second cars.
Some brands now sell or plan to offer plug-in hybrids, which have an electric motor and a gasoline engine too. Unlike regular hybrids, plug-in hybrids can serve as pure electric vehicles for a limited range, say 20-50 miles, depending on battery size. Plug-in hybrids are not as clean and quiet as EVs, but will be helpful transition vehicles as we move to an all-EV world someday. When the fast charging network is built out and minimum vehicle range starts at 250-300 miles, plug-in hybrids will no longer be needed.
Today, electric cars usually cost more than equivalent gasoline vehicles. This is mainly because of the high price of their batteries. However, EVs cost significantly less to operate, so there is a break-even point at which they become less expensive to run than petrol-fed models. So, you have to consider total cost of ownership when you examine the numbers. And sale/lease prices are likely to drop over the next few years as battery costs are reduced, until they reach purchase price parity with gasoline vehicles in mid-decade. At that point, with lower maintenance costs, EVs will be the better deal.
But the most important reason you should drive an electric vehicle is to help fight climate change.
Our planet is heating up. There may be some disagreement or confusion in the general population about what’s causing it and what we can or should do about it—and there are some climate deniers, too. But among trained scientists, it there is virtual unanimity about the cause—us—and the urgency of acting quickly. The United Nations’ IPCC Report clearly states how we must all work to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid the worst crises. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was held to commit all countries on a path toward achieving that goal.
Climate change is actually not news, because experts have known about it for decades and have spoken out. But we haven’t listened or done much about it. Now, scientists say that we have about 10 years to get it handled or it could spiral out of control.
How did this happen? With a population rapidly approaching 8 billion, human activities are now substantial enough to change the planet. Every day, we spew about 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into our atmosphere. It comes from various sources, but the major one is the burning of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is only a very thin shell around the earth. As more CO2 accumulates, the atmosphere traps more heat, causing global warming. The science is unambiguous on this.
So, what does it matter how warm the planet is? The problem with the earth heating up is that it disrupts the stable conditions we’ve lived with for the last 10,000 years or so. Global average temperatures have climbed significantly over the last 40 years. Scientists are concerned that we could eventually have some areas of the earth that are uninhabitable, and the people who have to leave there will create refugee crises.
One visible issue with global warming is the melting of glaciers, especially in the polar regions, where temperatures have risen alarmingly. The water from this melt will raise sea levels worldwide, flooding coastal cities.
Someone could ask, “so what do a couple of degrees matter?” Think of it like when a person is sick and has a fever. Even a couple of degrees of difference upsets the body’s processes, and if a fever is too high, death occurs.
Climate disruption also means that global air flows, such as the jet stream, slow down and get a little out of whack, for example, allowing cold air to move from the Arctic into places that are normally not frozen, like the middle of the U.S. Conversely, the Arctic gets 100-degree temperatures, speeding the melting of polar ice.
The oceans are absorbing a lot of the excess heat, and the warmer air above them holds more moisture. This leads to bigger, stronger storms. A lack of rain in the western U.S. causes draughts, so there are more dead trees, which along with rising temperatures, increases wildfires, as we’ve seen in the last few years. 2020 has already been disastrous, and the fire season isn’t over yet.
Disruption is insidious. What if the worms are ready before the birds arrive to eat them? What if the conditions for laying eggs are ideal before or after the turtles arrive? What if warmer temperatures send deadly virus-carrying mosquitos from equatorial areas to temperate regions where the population centers are? And because nature is an ecosystem, a disruption in one area affects many others. It’s all been predicted and is now beginning to happen. Scary.
The complex interactions of nature can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but the experts who spend their lives studying the natural world and climate science are telling us that we must change our ways now to prevent the planet from accelerating its warming and becoming irreversible. The earth has a great capacity for regeneration, but we are overwhelming its ability to heal itself.
Green Transportation Is an Important Part of the Answer
Transportation contributes the largest portion of CO2 to our atmosphere—38 percent in California, where I’m located. There are many other causes, including the production of fossil fuels and burning it to generate electricity. Buildings and agriculture make a significant contribution, too. We need new homes and commercial buildings to be much greener, without burning fossil fuels, and to retrofit the old ones for much greater efficiency. All of this creates many good jobs in a green economy.
To generate clean electricity to power the electric fleets of the future, we need to stop burning coal now and move off of natural gas, too. We need to replace it with solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies. This is doable today, but change is very hard. An encouraging fact is that EVs gets cleaner and cleaner as the energy to power them does. Feeding your EV from solar panels on your roof is the ideal option, if possible.
Fossil Fuel Industry Resistance/Auto Industry Sloth
There are powerful forces at work that want to preserve the status quo. Wealthy oil industry executives are hanging onto their business model—it’s been very successful for more than a century. You can hardly blame them, from a business standpoint. But, if a habit is killing you, you need to stop doing it. Smoking is a killer too—and the answer is to put down the cigarettes.
Another issue with the fossil fuel industry is that the people who run it aren’t suffering from the impacts of climate change nearly as much as the poor people who live near oil wells and refineries or in neighborhoods blighted by freeway traffic. This is why moving to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is a social justice issue, too. Read this report from the American Lung Association about the benefits of clean air.
The auto companies are beginning to get on the EV bandwagon, but other than Tesla, it is not where their profits come from, so they have been moving slowly. However, based on what they are saying, the expectation is that EVs will play a major role in their future products. The questions are “how much?” and “when?” GM, for example, talks about “putting everyone in an EV,” but isn’t specific about a timeline. I believe that if consumers demand electric cars, manufacturers will be more than happy to provide them. So, they are getting prepared now but are still making their profits from the SUVs and trucks that have been sustaining them for years. We can make them move faster by demanding EVs!
Let’s All Take Action
Everyone is part of the problem—environmentalists included. I have an electric car and solar panels to feed it, but my house still uses natural gas for heat, hot water, and cooking. It’s very difficult –and expensive–to change our ways, which is why providing a method for preserving your lifestyle in a more responsible way is an easy sale. We can’t expect everyone to simply stop driving, can we? EVs can replace gasoline vehicles, but it’s even better if we don’t drive as much, or start riding a bicycle, or walk, or take electrified public transportation. That becomes an urban planning priority, and a lot of work is being done now in this area.
A Recent Peek at a Cleaner Future
This Spring, when COVID-19 shut down the world for a while, the clear blue skies of yesteryear reappeared quickly. In India, people saw the Himalayas from home for the first time in decades. You could see the difference from space! But, as we’ve resumed more of our travel, the benefits, sadly, have faded away again.
Many Actions We Can Take
There are many things we can do to keep the earth habitable for humans beyond switching to electric vehicles, but getting rid of your gas-burning car is an easy one. Changing to a more plant-based diet is hugely beneficial, too, since the meat industry causes big environmental impacts. Insulating your home and replacing your natural gas furnace with a heat pump is a great way to make an impact, too. Project Drawdown is a great resource for learning more about the many ways you can help.
It’s hard for human beings to think big picture or long range. I consider myself a climate change activist (not an expert), but there are plenty of times I’d rather go have a beer and listen to music than send emails to my congressperson about climate action or improve my house or attend a city council meeting. We all need to do what we can, and urge our local, state, and national governments to do the right thing.
Al Gore, who’s studied climate change since he was in college and has tirelessly advocated for climate action, founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 to train others to share the facts about climate change that he presented in his award-winning An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. You can be part of this, too. Go to The Climate Reality Project website for more information about free online trainings. I attended mine in person in Los Angeles in August 2018 and it was a revelation.
Switching to an EV helps, but maybe you don’t need a car at all! In cities, there are many options, including public transportation and shared vehicles (when there’s not a pandemic). Many people are discovering the utility of electric scooters, bicycles, and mopeds—from shared fleets or owning their own. If you’ve ever visited Amsterdam, you know that bicycles, which generate no pollution whatsoever, can be a fine way to travel, especially if cities are designed to make them safe and convenient.
In suburban and rural communities, it’s definitely more of a challenge, but with a growing range of EV offerings, you should be able to switch over easily in the next few years. Electric pickup trucks are almost here!
The Bottom Line
Climate change is heavily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a real problem and we have to move away from it quickly. There are many things we can and must do, but one action we can take today to lower our consumption of fossil fuels is to drive an EV instead of a gasoline car. Bonus points for riding a bike instead.
A week ago, Tim Rumage, a planetary ethicist and naturalist and co-founder of This Spaceship Earth, spoke to an attentive online audience from Climate Reality Bay Area Chapter about Climate Change and how we are all complicit in it. He made a point of stressing that it’s not just our actions, but our thinking that has gotten us into trouble.
“We don’t think about the effects of what we do,” Rumage started with. He used an example of how during our current pandemic, the air has gotten significantly cleaner, not from the actions (or lack of actions) of any one person or country’s part, but by all of us. “The damage is cumulative–all of us,” he stated.
“We need to think in terms of how the planet functions, not just me, city, country,” he said. The name of his organization, This Spaceship Earth, comes from the fact that the Earth, as far as we know, is the only place where human life exists, and we are an island, with limited resources. We are all responsible for taking care of it, making us all “crew” and not “passengers.”
Rumage talked about how in earlier times, people thought of the Earth as a vast, unlimited place and if you ran out, you just moved on. We need to make the mental adjustments–political and psychological–from thinking of the world as unlimited to instead to envisioning it as a closed sphere.
Rumage says we confuse “exchangeable” with “interchangeble.” The products we make are not equivalent to the natural versions, from our food to our fuels to everything else. We are also out of balance, using up more resources than can be replenished. Earth Overshoot Day, which falls on August 22nd this year, “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year,” according to the Earth Overshoot Day website.
That’s certainly not a good long-term strategy for survival.
Continuing with the theme of our thinking being the problem, Rumage said that we suffer from siloed thinking–not looking at the big picture. “We have a mental disconnect with our life support system,” he said. “We are a part of the environment and not apart from it.”
It’s well worth visiting the website to learn more about Tim Rumage and his team, and to find out how you can develop “crew consciousness” on This Spaceship Earth. And you’re welcome to join the Bay Area Climate Reality Chapter. It’s based on Al Gore’s environmental message and training–but you don’t need to be trained yet to be a member, and it doesn’t cost anything. If you want to take the first worldwide Climate Reality Leadership Online Training, it’s coming up starting on July 18th.
An old 1960’s slogan was, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Today, you need to be a crew member, not a passenger.
If we believe the growing scientific consensus, we must reduce our CO2 emissions by at least half in the next decade to hold global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Warming above that is considered to be catastrophic. Since the largest (but by no means only) source of these emissions is transportation, moving to an all-electric vehicle fleet, powered by sustainably generated electricity, is urgent and necessary.
That message is about as welcome as the cancer warning on a pack of smokes. And similarly, not often heeded, either.
But how do we get people to buy EVs? As long as customers have a wide choice of gasoline-powered vehicles, only early adopters and climate activists are snapping up what companies have provided. It’s like the dollar coin—regardless of whether you put an abolitionist, an historic Native-American, or a president on it, it has been a nonstarter as long as folks could use the good old paper bill (or today, their debit card).
It’s also like selling cereal—the “good for you” Bran Flakes may attract a certain health-conscious (or constipated) clientele, but it’s not where the action is. Captain Crunch with Crunchberries, filled with sugar and marketed breathlessly to children, is the volume seller.
For a century, car marketing has evoked emotion to sell cars, and has built its products to reflect customer demand, which in turn, is fueled by massive marketing and advertising campaigns. Although there have always been compact, fuel-sipping vehicles that practical people bought because they couldn’t afford more, the action has been on style and performance, from fins to V8 engines and today, to loads of high tech features.
So far, only Tesla has been the brand to offer an exciting EV experience in all of its cars. It works because first of all, they sell ONLY EVs and secondly, they have made them attractive and powerful. In contrast, Nissan’s LEAF, while certainly practical and environmentally conscious, is too close to automotive bran flakes. GM’s excellent Bolt EV is another fine car, without the range limitations of the LEAF, but for $40,000, one could also bring home a 3-Series BMW. Not sexy.
Using the climate crisis as a marketing tool, then, clearly isn’t working. And in a consumer-driven economy we can’t force people to buy EVs if they don’t want them. Which brings us to Ford’s upcoming Mustang Mach-E crossover.
Ford’s EV history has up to now featured the lackluster battery-powered Focus and a few hybrid and plug-in hybrids, including the attractive midsize Fusion sedans and European-design C-Max. Now, with Tesla as an inspiration, Ford has decided to blend their most iconic model with the most up-to-date tech in today’s most popular body configuration to create a real Tesla competitor.
I attended a compelling online presentation by Mark Kaufman, Global Director, Electrification at Ford, yesterday, in which he outlined the plans the company has for its EVs going forward, with an emphasis on the exciting new Mustang, which will be sold alongside its gas-powered coupe stable mates.
The Mustang was an instant hit when it debuted in April 1964. Based on the tried-and-true platform from the popular but dowdy compact Falcon, it hit a sweet spot and sold half a million copies in its first year. Surely Ford’s leaders are savoring another blockbuster like that with the Mach-E. As Kaufman said, it is the only EV with the soul of a Mustang (sounds like a great advertising pitch, doesn’t it?).
The Mustang has always been a coupe, fastback, or convertible, so making it a five-passenger crossover is a nod to what’s hot today. Also, Kaufman stated that while many people love their Mustangs, when the kids come along their beloved cars are simply too small. So, it all makes sense.
Admitting that global catastrophe is not a compelling sales tool for most people, the planners at Ford will offer a GT version of the Mach-E that puts out 600 horsepower and can run from 0-60 in the mid three-second range. No climate leader has ever said that was important to them, but for the mass of car enthusiasts, especially of American iron, that’s extremely attractive (and very much a page out of Tesla’s gameplan). Kaufman mentioned an “Unbridled” setting that sounds a lot like Tesla’s “ludicrous” mode.
The arguments against buying an EV often center around the whole charging/range anxiety problem, so Ford is giving the regular, rear-wheel-drive model a 300-mile range (230 for the muscular all-wheel-drive GT). The company will promote installation of home chargers that can put in 30 miles of range in an hour. DC fast charging allows 61 miles of range in 10 minutes or 40-45 minutes to 80 percent. They have also built out the FordPass Charging Network, which isn’t new charging stations but combines four existing networks with one payment setup, for ease and efficiency. They’ve designed a slick phone app to track the process as well. Once again, Tesla is the model for a unified network, although they built their own equipment.
What else? Ford flaunts its more than a century of car sales and service, with virtually all service done by more than 3,000 dealers nationwide, of which 2,100 or more are certified to work on EVs. Tesla can’t match that. Also, the new shopping experience targets millennials with online reservations for shopping and service.
I am eager to test this exciting new product. However, I wonder how we can get the fleet electrified in 10 years. Nobody expects it to be 100 percent electric by 2030, but I’d like to see half of the cars be EVs by then. Kaufman said, reasonably, that most predictions are based on past performance and that this won’t work here, but he also said he expected a third of cars to be EVs by 2030. That’s why Ford has plans for an electric F-150 pickup (America’s best-seller for decades) and an electric Transit van, as well.
To speed the conversion of the vehicle fleet to electric, Ford and other companies must not only provide thrilling EVs, but solid mass market EVs soon. That means we need all-electric Honda Accords and Toyota RAV4s. Buyers need to start viewing gas cars as old and out of style. Certainly the auto industry, which created the whole idea of planned obsolescence, can make fuel-burning vehicles obsolete, can’t they?
Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. I’ve been hearing about it for months, and, like most people, was preparing to go out and celebrate. With our current COVID-19-induced state of social distancing and staying at home, much of the festivity has moved online, but still, I’m not that excited.
You’d expect that as a trained Climate Reality Leader who spent three inspiring days in Los Angeles with Al Gore in August of 2018, I’d be thrilled at this milestone. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that in 2020, every day has to be Earth Day. And what’s really a shame is that if we had taken what we learned on April 22, 1970 and done more together to fix the problem in the 20th century, we wouldn’t be in the dilemma we are in today.
I was around for the first Earth Day. As a high school senior, I was a little aware of issues like smog in LA and rivers in Ohio that were catching fire. My teachers made sure I read Silent Spring, or at least knew who Rachel Carson was and what she was talking about.
The sixties were a decade of protest, starting with civil rights marches in the south and later in the decade, many young people protested the Vietnam war with huge marches and peaceful demonstrations.
What many people may not know today is that Earth Day was conceived as a giant “teach-in,” where on college campuses across the country, students and other interested people would learn about what was then called “ecology”—the beginning of the climate action movement. We were worried about air and water pollution, and the effects of DDT. We read about the overpopulation problem. We read about powerful oil and coal companies ruining the natural environment. We were worried about the loss of species.
I heard about Earth Day at school, and I recall someone handing out black armbands to wear. I also remember my shame when the mean tough kid made me take mine off in my conservative Scottsdale, Arizona high school. I moved back to California a month later.
What came from this “Woodstock” of climate events was a need and desire in many people—including me — to start caring for the Earth. Earth Day focused attention on our environmental predicament. Many of the climate organizations we know today come out of that time.
Commemorating the start of something is worthwhile, I guess. We celebrate the birth of the United States on the Fourth of July—Independence Day. We celebrate our birthdays and our wedding anniversaries. We commemorate sad things, too, like the death of a hero or events like September 11, 2001 or Pearl Harbor.
But in the case of Earth Day, we have to think, “Has it been 50 years already?” We are so behind now that we can’t just commemorate a holiday, buy a cool t-shirt, and move on. We have to be working on climate action every single day—we don’t have time to waste. If we truly take action, then maybe on the 60th Anniversary of Earth Day, if we’ve dropped our CO2 emissions by 50%, updated our electrical grid and EV charging network, taken natural gas out of many of our homes and buildings (especially all new ones), and done lots of other things to clean up our act, then we can raise a glass and toast the event. And then the next day, get back to work!
Consultant and climate activist Bill Weihl addressed an audience of about 80 people at The Foster gallery in Palo Alto on October 16, 2019. Weihl, an MIT graduate, worked for computer companies Digital and Akamai before moving to long stints at software giants Google and Facebook managing their corporate sustainability programs. The talk was part of a continuing series put on by Acterra.
Action to Advocacy
On this particular evening, Weihl addressed what large companies must do in the next decade to make a major impact in the fight to keep the climate emergency from becoming unstoppable. That means moving from actions to advocacy—with strong policies to speed the changes we need.
Weihl began by touching on the heroic, focused efforts that put Neil Armstrong on the moon in the 1960s, and then stated that what we need to do for the climate will be far more difficult. He moved on to reference Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who is delivering the right message for the times.
“Young people are terrified,” said Weihl. “They are angry and are taking action.”
While Weihl doesn’t believe that things are hopeless, he presented the choices we have to make now to prevent global temperatures from rising to unacceptable levels. A six-degree Celsius rise would be catastrophic versus 2 degrees C—so it’s a question of “less bad” rather than “good.” Climate change has already started.
Sadly, despite a leveling off over the last few years, energy consumption and emissions increased at a record rate in 2018.
“We have to act with urgency,” said Weihl.
He mentioned Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, who discusses “speed and scale” in his 2018 book, Designing Climate Solutions. That means moving at a “crazy fast rate” and tackling the big pieces first. It’s a 10-year problem, with a need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and 100% by 2050, per last year’s UN IPCC Report.
We Need Systemic Change
What do we need to do to meet this? Individual actions by people and companies are not enough.
“We need systemic change,” said Weihl. We all need to take responsibility and set good policy. Weihl proposed:
Market rules and a decarbonization path
Clean energy mandates
However, per Weihl there is no “silver bullet.” We need to do everything we can now to decarbonize transportation, buildings, electricity generation. and more. Technology can help this process, but it is also being used by the “bad guys.” For example, Weihl described how oil companies can use high tech to make drilling for oil easier and cheaper, negating the positive climate actions being taken with, say, increased solar and wind energy generation.
Weihl brought up business travel. Although we have ways of reducing it by scheduling more Zoom meetings and online interaction, by creating more long-distance collaboration we also introduce more interest by engineers in meeting those partners in person, which in turn increases air travel. Also, while green finance on one hand removes investments in fossil fuels, 33 banks are lending $1.9 trillion to fossil fuels in legacy investments. That’s why we need to deal with the whole system.
“It’s time for companies to make the leap from science-based targets to supporting a science-based policy agenda,” said Weihl. “Companies must be strong advocates for decarbonization based on science (the 1.5-degree scenario) everywhere they operate and everywhere they source.”
Here are key principles Weihl laid out to make action on the climate emergency effective. They must be:
Aligned with the latest science (which will change)
Rooted in climate justice (young people see the climate emergency as a human rights issue)
Politically possible (we have to get it done)
Transformational, not incremental (there isn’t time to move slowly)
Reasonably certain to hit the IPCC targets in 2030 (or risk losing the ability to stop it)
Why Aren’t We Acting with Urgency?
If we know what we need to do, why aren’t we doing it? Decarbonizing the whole system is hard, Weihl says. In the language of finance, as a business case, taking action now is a no brainer considering the risks and costs of inaction.
“However, climate change is a moral and human problem, so we need to get businesses to speak the language of morality and humanity”, said Weihl.
Companies need to think about youth, who are worried about human rights and are expressing empathy for others and the whole world.
“These young people are companies’ future customers, employees, and eventually, stockholders,” said Weihl. “Silence is not neutrality,” he continued. “Young people want to work for and do business with companies they believe are helping solve the climate crisis—not causing it—so it’s a good business decision to do the right thing now, supporting science-based policies.”
The next decade is crucial to keeping global temperature rise in check, so we need good policy and coordinated action now. Weihl suggested aiming higher than the minimum, as it will be hard to be successful in this great effort.
National Drive Electric Week is a nine-day celebration of the electric car. Now in its second decade, it grows annually, and spanning two weekends and the days between in the middle of September, offers EV enthusiasts a chance to meet and compare notes as well non-EV drivers a chance to look at, and sometimes even drive, the current crop of plug-ins outside of a dealership environment.
I attended the Cupertino, California event on Saturday, September 14–the first day of NDEW 2019. I brought my Chevrolet Bolt EV, which I’ve enjoyed–and showed–since I got it in January of 2017. With its three-year lease running out on 1/8/2020, it’s likely the last chance I’ll have to share it before switching to another EV next year.
The Cupertino event has a long history, and there is where you can still see some of what EVs used to be–labor-of-love science projects. I’ll talk about a few shortly.
EVs You Can Buy or Lease Now
Hyundai Kona Electric
With a bit smaller number of display cars than it was last time I attended, and a thin crowd, it was a little disappointing, but many of today’s pure EV options were there. I saw three Chevrolet Bolt EVs, including my own. A compelling new entry, the Hyundai Kona Electric (shown above), was there, sporting a white top over its jaunty blue-green.
The Kona, with a 258-mile range, is the next-best thing to a Tesla for range, and probably today’s best deal for range. This base model, at about $36,000, sat mere steps away from a 2019 Jaguar i-Pace, which starts about about twice that price. The Jaguar offers great style and luxury, and with 220 miles in the big battery and all-wheel-drive, has its own, different, buyer.
Nissan brought a new LEAF to show, and from its booth awarded prizes throughout the six-hour event. It was the one chance you had to ride in a car. Some NDEW events are more experience-oriented, but this one was more of a show and meet-up.
I saw a BMW i3 down at the far end, and a couple of Tesla Model 3s. Also nearby was a plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion, flanked by two Ford Focus electrics. These EVs, with just 76 miles of range, would make cheap used cars if you wanted a stealth EV.
At the other end was a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It’s actually a significant vehicle, since it’s the only PHEV minivan available in the U.S. Its 33 miles of electric range is plenty for local soccer practice shuttles and commuting. This one sported a little extra flair.
EVs are not just cars, of course. I saw some electric motorcycles and bicycles there, too, but as I stayed near my car much of the time, I didn’t spend time with them. I have ridden a few, and they are a fine option for some people under particular circumstances (good weather, short trip, no baggage, etc.). I did hear one motorcycle zoom past a few times with its electric whine. I’ve considered getting my motorcycle driver license just so I can test these in the future.
Here’s Roberta Lynn Power with her folding Blix electric bike from Sweden.
EVs have been available in major manufacturers’ showrooms since 2010, when the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came out. But before that, besides the conversion projects, there were few. One model that had two representatives there at the show was the Toyota RAV4. Built just around the turn of the century, it put Toyota ahead of the crowd. Too bad they didn’t keep building them, because the RAV4 is a very popular body style now. You can get a new one as a hybrid today.
A pair of cute little Corbin Sparrows sat together. Not much more than shrouded motorcycles, these little pods would make perfect little errand-runners or last-mile transit connection vehicles.
The tiny German 1993 City-EL weighs a mere 575 pounds and can shuttle one person for about 40 miles at up to 45 miles per hour. This one is nicknamed “Lemon Wedge.”
Pioneers, Projects and Conversions
As long as there have been cars there have been tinkerers–people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) who enjoy a tough project. While some folks like to make a classic Mustang faster and louder, others enjoy electrifying an old gasoline car. The man displaying the Jaguar i-Pace had converted a Mazda Miata before.
I spent some quality time with George Stuckert, a retired engineer who also serves as secretary of the San Jose chapter of the Electric Auto Association. This group, a major sponsor of NDEW, was founded way back in 1967. They used to host a Cupertino event that was all project cars. George is glad that you can buy a new EV at a dealership today, but his pride and joy at this event was his 1996 Volkswagen Golf, which he converted ten years ago. It looks like an old Golf, but has a clever pinstriped design with a plug along the side (that I somehow managed to forget to photograph). It’s filled with electronic tech.
George proudly displayed a large card with photos of the project, and showed me his notebooks of carefully documented steps and the book that got him started.
It was not a smooth process, and included a few spectacular explosions, but he showed the grit and determination that’s what I admire about people willing to get their hands dirty and triumph over failure to ultimate success. The fact that you can buy a used 2015 VW e-Golf that is superior in every way to George’s car is completely missing the point.
In the front corner of the exhibit were two fascinating displays that, along with George’s Golf, gave a look at what a Cupertino Electric Auto Association event was like before the NDEW and mass market EVs. Bob Schneeveis, a local legend, showed off his two-wheeled inventions, including a prototype steam-powered bike.
Yes–you read that right. Although it’s not quite in the “drive it around the lot” stage, it is a beautiful piece. His electric motorcycle featured a fascinating front fork that made the ride soft and smooth. As a novelty, he had a “chariot” with a horse up front with “legs” made from brushes that capably gave rides to lucky attendees.
I enjoyed an extended conversation with Jerrold Kormin, who brought two displays: his converted Honda Insight and his prototype solar panel trailer. The former, besides swapping its engine for a motor and batteries, had new fiberglass nose and radically changed tail (and just one rear wheel). These design changes, per Kormin, gave the car a 15 percent improvement in its coefficient of drag.
The car was being charged by Kormin’s fascinating portable solar generator. The inventor’s goal is to replace dirty, noisy Diesel generators. He is renting his prototypes out now. One appeal of replacing Diesel, Kormin told me, was that companies can avoid the major inconvenience of refueling Diesel generators, which adds complexity and expense. He claims customers can save $500 a month in fuel costs with a solar generator working just a 40-hour week. The trailer folds up for easy towing and takes about 5-6 minutes to open up. Learn more at his website.
I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who was showing his Cirkit electric bike prototype. Looking clean and simple, it reminded me a bit of early minibikes, that you would assemble from a kit and the engine from your lawnmower! Click the link above to go to his website for more information.
Vendors and Services
EVs need to be charged, which is why you’ll always find a friendly ChargePoint booth at EV shows. ChargePoint is a leader in chargers (I have one in my garage).
I also met Shane Sansen, the owner of DRIVEN EV. His company works directly with manufacturers to acquire their lease returns and sell or lease them directly to customers. A great idea, and one I’m considering for my next EV. You can learn more at their website.
Besides seeing the vehicles and booths, I had a chance to network with some other folks who are working on EVs and climate action. I met up with my friend Greg Bell, who told me about his exciting new job working with Home Energy Analytics. Offering the Home Intel program, Greg meets with homeowners and shows them how they can reduce their energy consumption and save money. It can be as simple as replacing incandescent bulbs with LED ones, or more. Find out more at their website.
So, having consumed 3-1/2 pints of water and all my snacks, I packed up and drove home. It was a good day.
You can attend an NDEW event in your area through Sunday, September 22. Check their website for details.
There is scientific consensus that the earth is warming and the climate is changing. We are starting to see actual changes, the U.N. IPCC reports come out regularly, and the news media features climate change content every day. Yet, we are still living in a state of denial. And it’s easy to understand why. As Al Gore said years ago, it’s “an Inconvenient Truth.”
I believe there are three kinds of climate deniers.
The first kind of denier knows that climate change is real, but has too much to lose, so although they may officially say it’s not true, they are working to obscure the facts or create denial in others. They are protecting their livelihood in any way they can. Think of coal plant managers, oil industry executives, or automobile industry leaders. The changes we need to make will devastate their business model. They must change, but they are going to resist. This is understandable, but is also a real problem.
The second kind of denier is likely to call climate change a hoax. This person could be a Trump supporter who believes his every tweet, or may simply be stupid. It’s inconvenient for them, too, but they also want to make it into a political issue. If they are not stupid, they still see the changes we must make as taking away their job, sending the economy into a recession or depression, or may believe it’s a plot for the government to take over and tell everyone what to do.
The third kind of denier knows that climate change is real, and may sincerely want to act, but is too deeply involved in their work or other activities. Somehow, they just never get around to shopping for an electric car, changing their diet, attending an event, writing their congressperson or learning more than the frightening top of the news. They may wake up with the best of intentions, but by the time they get to work, it’s heads down (not unreasonable as they’re just doing their job) and when they finally get home, a refreshing beer beckons and it’s time to wind down.
Which one are you? I’m in category three. Despite three days of intense Climate Reality Leadership training with Al Gore a year ago, a library full of climate-related books (many of which I’ve read), emails daily from a variety of climate-related websites, and writing an automotive column that features electric and hybrid vehicles, I still long to be free to live my daily life. I do drive and promote electric vehicles and I have installed solar on my roof. I recycle diligently. I’ve presented four climate talks. I sometimes pass on the beef and take chicken. But I am still denying the true urgency of the situation in some way. I crave a “normal life.”
So, what should I do? What should we all do? The Green New Deal is an example of how we can work together to make a difference. The bottom line is, if this is a real emergency, we need to act like it and pitch in. The Green New Deal takes Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal as a model. We can use the World War II mobilization as a model too. Or, we can think about the way we banned CFCs years ago to help close the hole in the ozone layer.
I believe that we need to somehow provide enough information and motivation to people while balancing the frightening future and current problems with the promise and excitement of the possible solutions. We need to act like it’s the most important thing we can do while avoiding despair or missing the day-to-day beauty of living on this earth with each other.
So, let’s define the Climate Crisis accepter–and become that person.
While walking with my wife in downtown San Francisco on July 22nd, I looked into a gallery window and saw the Beatles—John, Ringo, Paul, and George—walking along, just like on the Abbey Road album cover. Of course, I had to investigate.
The life-size work is made up of four separate statues, lined up and looking remarkably like the famous cover of the Beatles’ final album of work together. But here’s the kicker—the statues are made out of approximately 10,000 vinyl records! The top half of each Beatle is made of about 2,000 hand-cut records and the bottom half contains about 450 melted records. Artist Georges Monfils either used a speed scroll saw and pliers to hand cut the discs or a professional heat gun to achieve the effect.
That’s a lot of vinyl that will hopefully never see a landfill. And that’s important, because one way to handle the mass of plastic we use every day is to find a new purpose for it. The goal is to avoid sending more to places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or to our landfills. If it’s burned, it goes into the atmosphere, something we really want to avoid.
Reuse and repurposing are great ways to make it a win/win. For example, Sea2See uses plastic from the ocean to make glasses frames. Old decks make great bodies for guitars. See my blog post about both.
It’s so much more than just recycling—it’s about moving towards zero waste. I recently heard a talk by Climate Reality Leader Nancy Hu, who studies (and practices) the art of zero waste. She told the audience about the 5 R’s (well, it’s 7 actually):
Refuse – Don’t get it in the first place (do you really need it?)
Reduce – Use less
Reuse/Repair/Repurpose – This triple-R includes different aspects of keeping an item out of the trash once it’s already made.
Rot – Compost organics like paper and food scraps.
Recycle – This helps, but is really the last resort (another R word)
It’s likely Monfils’ stunning artwork will be treasured, so it won’t see a landfill for a long, long time. You could be the lucky owner. Contact Gefen Fine Art in downtown San Francisco, at 415-323-4080 or email@example.com. The price? $250,000.
For more information on zero waste, see these websites:
I’ve hosted and attended the group’s Drive Electric Week events and they’re a great organization, so why not?
Today, July 4th, after lunch, I decided to join the EV count. I needed the exercise anyway, so I grabbed my trusty pad and a ballpoint pen and headed out into my Castro Valley, California neighborhood. It was clear and in the low 70’s–perfect.
The rules of the EV Count are simple:
Walk or drive in your neighborhood and count all the cars you see
Note the all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids
Tally it up, fill out the online form, and send it in
The group doesn’t include regular plugless hybrids (their name is Plug In America, after all), but I noted them anyway, just to satisfy my own curiosity.
I walked a loop that I often take to add a couple thousand steps to my Fitbit. I started out well, as I could count my personal Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid I’m currently testing right away. However, as I walked and wrote, the bad news piled up.
White Generation 2 LEAF
When I returned home and tallied up the numbers, I had:
118 cars total
3 EVs (my Bolt and two Nissan LEAFs)
2 plug-in hybrids
7 regular hybrids
That’s pretty disappointing.
Perhaps Castro Valley is a little behind–I know I see more EVs in San Francisco, where I work. And it wasn’t a scientific study–just a small sample. But it means that I need to work harder to get the word out on the many benefits of EVs–and the necessity of stopping using fossil fuels now to help control the effects of the climate crisis.
My Blue Bolt EV
In 2019, as the U.S. turns 243, we have a long way to go to significant EV adoption. At least in my neighborhood.