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Sierra Club director calls for 100% renewables, starting in Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/28/16 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Clean energy

Michael Brune empathizes with the people who don’t raise a hand after he asks, “who believes, as a nation, we’re prepared to meet the challenge of climate change?”

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The executive director of the Sierra Club was pleasantly surprised when considerably more than the 10% average raised them up at the City Club of Cleveland this week.

Brune noted that the majority of Americans want to take action on climate change, while showing considerably less faith that the big, systemic changes will be made.

“The challenges are pretty steep,” he admitted. “Most of the conversation has been about the impending apocalypse. We have to also empathize with the families that will be affected.”

The big stumbling block is this: one of the largest industries in modern times will have to leave billions of dollars of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

“We have a long way to go,” he said, “to break the logjam of the biggest companies in the world."

There’s a conundrum. If energy companies don’t move from extraction to 100% renewables, the planet will warm beyond the 2 degrees Celsius that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown will hasten the extinction of whole ecosystems and threaten to wipe out the homes of millions of people.

Despite the odds, Brune joined those at the City Club—and Sierra Club’s 2.4 million members—who believe that, where there’s a will, there is also a way to transition from fossil fuels to 100% clean energy by 2050.

“Ghandi said, ‘the measure between what we’re capable of and what we are doing can solve all of the world’s problems,’” he added, hopefully.

Sierra Club is focusing all of its attention on how to make the switch, said Brune, whose confidence is based on the growing number of those moving to action.

“House by house, thousands of people are installing solar panels,” he said, “in response to climate change or because they think solar energy is awesome and the science of it is amazing.”

They are growing an industry, he assured.

“Dozens of utilities have made billions of dollars—with the exception of Ohio—in clean energy,” he said, referring to the state’s freeze of its renewable energy portfolio (RPS) standard which, until Ohio congressmen last year put a halt to it, required utilities to produce 12.5% of energy from cleaner sources.

When asked why Ohio froze its RPS despite signs that it was working, Brune said ideology trumped common sense.

“We’ve always had opposing parties. You have a party that is only interested in defeating the other party rather than (in) good policy.”

Ohio’s roll back is regrettable, Brune said, and places the state firmly on the wrong side of history (although Governor Kasich has stated that a permanent freeze is "unacceptable"). Evidenced by the climate agreement signed by more than 100 nations last year in Paris, the first to commit the world to carbon reductions.

The Paris agreement will depend on cities, like Cleveland, meeting their end of the bargain. Cleveland has committed to reducing its carbon emissions in its Climate Action Plan. Observers noted that the city needs a strategy to meet its goal.

“If we can build a model in Cleveland—with its manufacturing prowess,” Brune concludes, “if we can do that, it’s going to be game over. We can do it everywhere.”

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