A Backdrop For Copenhagen
December 5, 2009 - 1:16pm ET
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Jonathan Hiskes at Grist has written up a Copenhagen 101 primer for anyone who's just tuning in to the latest round of world climate talks, so I don't have to. Which is great, because there were three main points I wanted to go over.
First, the imperative: the planet is likely on track to lose life support ability for 5 billion people below current levels and our window to prevent this outcome is closing rapidly.
Catastrophic changes could happen within the lifetime of someone born today and have already begun. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted earlier in the year, California could be an uninhabitable desert within 40-50 years, and the state is already seeing mass dust storms, snow pack failures and widespread forest die-off. Around half the Midwest was declared an agricultural disaster area this year. Just for this country in the next couple decades, we could face drastic upheavals and it's no better outside our borders.
We're seeing ice changes happening 20 years ahead of schedule, sea levels that could rise over a meter by the end of the century, and a number of environmental indicators pointing to a worst-case scenario.
So here's the thing, there isn't a bigger problem than this facing humanity. This is the one that will make all our other difficulties impossible to solve.
Second, the obstacles: who's going to pay for all this and why do we keep asking that like it's a bad thing?
There are other obstacles, like Exxon-Mobil, but mostly, somebody has invest the startup costs. Germany has done this in-country, as they've met their Kyoto targets three years early and have a strong economy and manufacturing base to show for it.
Though paying for climate mitigation and a clean energy transition is like being offered a chance to get in on the ground floor at Microsoft.
The old economy is dying, and the remnants of it are creating ever lower-paying jobs and an ever-decreasing standard of living. It isn't clear that policymakers have realized this yet, but unemployment and underemployment lead to even bigger deficits and kill the prospect of recovering a broad tax base for struggling state and local governments. We're headed for the bottom right now, if we maintain business as usual.
We must create new industries and new markets to get out of that situation, just as the way out of the Great Depression was direct job creation.
Clean energy, energy and efficiency retrofits, updated transit infrastructure - this is the way forward. People may worry about going forward, but there's no standing still option, only back.
Which is the dirty, big secret of the fossil fuel industry, that they've set us on a path of inevitably declining living standards, fewer jobs and worse health. Indeed, if forty years from now there are more people living and shivering in makeshift huts than there are today, it will be the direct result of listening to the Luddites of the oil, gas and coal industries who don't want our energy economy to advance beyond what it was 100 years ago.
Third, we're all in this together: the climate is a global phenomenon and there's no real escape from it.
Some areas may feel the impact worse than others, some are feeling it earlier than others. But in a globalized economy, wild and unpredictable weather can have worldwide repercussions. Consider that Hurricane Katrina caused an oil price spike, and a scramble throughout the world oil industry over the interruption of refinery and transport services.
A serious commitment to reduce emissions needs to be a worldwide commitment. This has been previously used as a call for inaction by delayers in Congress, dragging their feet until some other country does something first. (Since when did Congress get to be so whiny, so unconvinced that America was capable of great things, anyway?) But it is true that as developing countries pull themselves up, if they do what we did to industrialize, it'll cook the planet.
Developing nations must have the financial support and knowledge resources to lift people out of poverty and create opportunity with the latest, cleanest technology. Now that Obama's planning to attend the last, crucial day of the summit, partly in response to the commitment of so many world leaders to personally attend and really try to get an agreement, that might happen.
If it doesn't happen, we're cooked. And I don't mean that metaphorically.
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