Ecocentricity Blog: What's the APR on Climate Change?

By: John A. Lanier
Feb 4, 2020 2:15 PM ET
Summary: 

By burning fossil fuels these last couple hundred years, we’ve been borrowing against our carbon budget and our climate future. Trillions of tons of carbon have been spent into the atmosphere, and we now need to pay them back by returning them to the earth.

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My parents are awesome. Yes, I do work for them, but I promise I’m not paid to say that. They are genuinely, truly awesome. I couldn’t have asked for better people to be my people when I was learning how to be a person. Childhood was just easy with them, and they are pretty amazing grandparents to my kids as well.

I learned so much from them. I could literally rattle off an A-Z list of things they taught me, but in this word-capped blog post I’ll just settle for sharing lesson P – “Pay your credit card bill in full, always.”

Now, I know that many people are burdened by credit card debt, and plenty bear that burden due to no fault of their own. I’m exceedingly fortunate that I’ve always been able to pay my credit card in full. Please don’t read this blog as being dismissive or judgmental of those struggles.

It's been an invaluable lesson in my personal life though. My folks took out a credit card in my name when I was in high school, which helped me build a credit history. They had me review my statements and keep an eye on my checking account reserves so I would always know how much money I had and never spend money I didn’t have. I learned to fear credit card interest rates, knowing that if I ever dug that credit debt hole, I’d eventually have to climb my way back out.

Which, by analogy, reminds me of climate change. In this case, the bank is mother nature, the dollars are carbon emissions, and the interest rate is radiative forcing combined with the approaching positive feedback loops from thawing permafrost and the declining albedo of our planet.

Okay, let me try that again, simpler this time – by burning fossil fuels these last couple hundred years, we’ve been borrowing against our carbon budget and our climate future. Trillions of tons of carbon have been spent into the atmosphere, and we now need to pay them back by returning them to the earth.

I’ve been encouraged recently by the increasing number of carbon neutral commitments that are now being made, often by some of the largest and most significant companies. But if we frame these commitments in terms of my credit card analogy, all they are doing is promising to pay the interest on their debts. That doesn’t get you out of debt! We need businesses to set loftier goals than carbon neutral – we need carbon negative businesses that work to pay back the carbon principle of their climate debts.

Which is exactly what Microsoft is now aiming for! Massive hat tip for its recent climate pledge. There is A LOT of good detail in that commitment, but I’ll simply applaud the bottom lines. Microsoft is committing to being carbon neutral by 2030, and by 2050 they pledge to remove from the atmosphere all of their historical carbon emissions since their founding in 1975.

If Microsoft can do it, it will be carbon-debt free. What an accomplishment that will be! And if other companies follow its lead, then maybe, just maybe, the planet will cool.

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Valerie Bennett
Ray C. Anderson Foundation
+1 (770) 317-5858