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Code Red

The news delivered by the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change couldn’t be worse. According to the report’s 234 contributors, the world has already warmed 1.09 degrees Centigrade since pre-industrial times, and there is no doubt that rising levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other byproducts of our fossil fuel-based economy in the atmosphere are the cause.

The higher global temperatures, now a permanent feature of our world, make certain that the extremes of weather we experienced this summer in Massachusetts are here to stay. We are stuck with a new normal, the IPCC report concludes. No matter how much we cut emissions, human activity has put enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to guarantee more of the same, or worse, for decades to come.

The best-case scenarios explored by the IPCC report would stabilize warming at 1.5 degrees, but that requires cutting emissions to “net-zero” by 2050. Such a dramatic change requires collective action at all levels: national, state, municipal, and—ultimately and painfully—individual.

The climate resolution approved by the Select Board last week is a step in the right direction, aligning Harvard with the emission goals of the state and requiring that every town project, purchase, and policy meet them, a necessary but hardly sufficient commitment. (See story)

If every Massachusetts city and town adopts a policy like Harvard’s, and acts on it, perhaps there is hope. But resolutions are mere words on paper. When it comes time to purchase the next heavy-duty dump truck, will the town look for an electric or hybrid option, assuming such a vehicle is available? Are residents willing to relax Historical Commission rules to allow more solar panels in the town center? And what are citizens willing to do as individuals? Compared to the impact of the hundreds of fossil-fueled vehicles owned and driven every day by Harvard residents, what difference can the purchase of a $200,000 all-electric dump truck make to the town’s goal?

Thankfully the signs are encouraging. Hybrids and all-electric vehicles are an increasingly common sight in town parking lots. Police chose a hybrid for their most recent vehicle purchase. A majority of residents have opted to power their homes with electricity provided by the town’s wind-generated supplier. Most lights in Harvard public buildings are LEDs. And a lively discussion of heat pumps on the social media site Nextdoor this week shows new interest among residents in gas- and oil-free heating and cooling.

Without such dramatic changes in the fossil-fueled lifestyle we’ve all come to accept, the battle for a liveable planet will be lost. As Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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