To Save the Climate, Give ‘Em What They Want
In 1997, the international community came together to approve the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The goal was simple: to get started on the task to slow and eventually reverse climate change as the international community continued to discuss how to make further cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Four years later, in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that the United States, then the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, would not participate in the treaty, deciding instead to encourage voluntary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. It was that action that gave rise to the climate movement in the U.S., leading to strong reactions by businesses, colleges and universities, municipalities, and states to address global warming.
Fast forward to 2012, and things have changed quite a bit. From a technological perspective, we have made significant improvements in producing more fuel efficient vehicles, cutting the cost of solar power, making households and buildings more energy efficient, and increasing the capacity of wind, among other positive accomplishments. The international community has built an incredible movement fueled by people power, and many governments have decided to move forward on climate change on their own. Yet 2011 saw not just another record year for the global average temperature, but also another record year for greenhouse gas emissions globally. With developing countries continuing to grow fast, fossil fuels are being burned as fast as we can extract them from the Earth. We have seen what 1 degrees Celsius is already doing to the planet, from record warm weather in the Arctic to dust bowl like droughts. In spite of these realities, the international community has failed, year after year, to come up with a binding treaty that will get the job done.
Now, one source of hope is the technological revolution happening in the clean energy sector, especially in countries that have recently entered the clean energy race. Solar, for example, has seen its average cost drop by about 40% in the last few years as technologies have improved and supplies increased. Wind energy is becoming even more mature as output per turbine increases. Many countries are investing so heavily in clean energy that it is hard to argue that clean energy isn’t the future. Even the United States, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, understands that clean energy is a clear source of competitiveness that will determine “who will win the future.” Today, in spite of the global recession that dragged climate change outside of mainstream public debate, we are in a better position to do something about climate change. Yet we seem to be so far away from doing anything truly significant.
The reality is that the world will not take the necessary action to slow down and eventually reverse climate change unless the United States signs on with some significant weight. That clearly may not happen any time soon if Republicans continue to have it their way, even with Barack Obama in the White House. So time is running out, and we have to ask ourselves what else can we do to ensure that less fortunate people, countless other species, and future generations don’t pay the price that the fossil fuel industry is already incurring and will continue to incur as a result of human-induced climate change. Do we continue to wait until the right leadership is in place? Or do we think about what it is that the fossil fuel industry truly wants and is the reason why real action isn’t happening?
First, let me be clear about something I deeply believe in. I believe that most people want real action on climate change, and that over the years people have made themselves heard loud and clear. I also believe we have the capability to turn things around rather quickly, and that tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year, something big could happen that would sound a loud alarm across the globe and spur the international community to action on climate change. I still have strong hopes that we can come together and take on what is the biggest challenge facing humanity. But I have been this hopeful now for nearly a decade, and if trends tell the future, I’d rather not put the pain of the less fortunate, the diversity of species on Earth, and the opportunities of future generations on the line on hope alone. In the end, I think we have to do whatever it takes to prevent all of these things from happening.
So, do we wait or do we give ’em what they want? I think we can wait until the outcome of this year’s presidential elections in the United States, but if the outcome isn’t good, we need to think about alternatives. In my opinion, the only reason the fossil fuel industry has used it’s financial muscle to prevent action on climate change is because it wants to keep generating the large and rising sums of profit it generates today. As a clearly government-protected industry, it doesn’t want any competition. The few large businesses operating in the industry want to keep the energy market largely to themselves. So, if that’s it, could we consider as a last option to give them all the incentives necessary to transition them away from coal, natural gas, and oil and towards clean energy sources while keeping them as the majority shareholders of the energy market?
This sounds completely anti-competitive and unfair, and it is. It’s not the right thing to do at all. But at least it would ensure that we lessen the pain of the less fortunate, prevent massive extinction, and pass on a better planet to future generations. Personally, I don’t want to wait until 2020 and know that greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. At that point, it just may be too late. We can always make this first step strategically, and then focus on making sure that the energy market is truly competitive and fair. If we can do the latter now, I would be for doing so. But we haven’t been able to in the last couple of decades with everything we know we’ve done, and while still hopeful, I really think the 2012 elections will be a make or break moment on climate change. Let’s continue to work harder every day on doing what’s right, but let’s not forget that we still have an option when all else fails.