No time to waste

October 4, 2016

For a review of some of the chaos climate change is causing already, see Anthony Annett’s piece:

…The Stern Review, one of the first attempts  to quantify the costs of climate change, now considered by Lord Stern and others to be quite an underestimate, suggested that it could cause economic disruption greater than the two world wars and the Great Depression combined. And the political consequences would be just as bad: whole areas of the Middle East and North Africa would no longer be fit for human habitation, and hundreds of millions of people in South Asia and elsewhere could be displaced. In such a scenario, the current refugee crisis will look like a minor warm-up act.

The World Bank estimates that climate change could push 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. The poorest 3 billion people account for a mere 6 percent of the carbon emissions that threaten our collective future, but they will be the first to go hungry when crops fail. In a very real sense, the poor are doing penance for the sins of the rich.

The world’s leaders have done little to avert this looming crisis. Despite the lofty commitments made at the Rio Earth summit in 1992 to limit greenhouse gas emissions, governments have failed to act with courage, prudence, or justice, choosing instead the easy road of indifference, obfuscation, and finger-pointing. And so the inevitable happened—the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million. That number may mean little to most people, but consider this: these levels were last reached 3 million years ago, when sea levels were at about six meters higher and the global mean temperature was 7 degrees Celsius warmer than today—and humans did not exist. This is what keeps the experts awake at night.

Economists agree that climate change entails a massive market failure, because polluters are not paying the full social costs of their activities. According to the IMF, this contributes to fossil fuels being subsidized to the tune of almost 4 percent GDP each year in this country. This tilts the playing field drastically, making it much harder for renewables to compete. The solution is to level the playing field by making polluters pay, ideally with a carbon tax. Yet the libertarian mentality has succeeded in turning the word “tax” into a dirty word.

This ideology goes hand in hand with American exceptionalism—the idea that God has bestowed his special favor on the United States and its people, promising material prosperity and blessing the unlimited exploitation of bountiful natural resources. A subspecies of American exceptionalism is climate exceptionalism—the average American emits seventeen tons of carbon dioxide a year while the average citizen of the European Union emits just seven tons.

The math is clear: limiting the global-temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius means that 80 percent of available oil, coal, and gas reserves simply cannot be used. This amounts to $20 trillion dollars in assets the energy companies will not part with willingly. To protect their access to those assets, they spend a lot of money spreading misinformation and vigorously opposing any attempt to challenge their financial advantage. In this, they are allied with the ideologues, and abetted by a media unwilling to present the scientific consensus accurately. And the outsized influence of money in politics means that these vested interests can hold politicians to ransom.

Despite these obstacles, there is cause for hope. The world is undergoing a renewable-energy revolution, as technology advances and costs become increasingly competitive. There are now more U.S. jobs in solar than in either coal or oil-and-gas extraction. One expert suggests that reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050 would only cost somewhere between $42 billion and $176 billion a year (in contrast, the annual military budget is around $600 billion).

In short, we now have the technical and financial means to undertake the energy transition; what we need is the political will. Climate change is one of the leading moral issues facing voters, and it must be treated as such. Politicians and business leaders must be held accountable for their positions. This includes decarbonization, but it also includes financial assistance to poorer countries—to help them transition to clean energy and cope with the unavoidable effects of the climate change already underway—and to American workers who will be displaced by the energy transition. This is in keeping with Pope Francis’s call in Laudato si’ to show solidarity with the poor and the planet, with today’s generation and tomorrow’s, with our fellow human beings and all of creation. It is time to treat this issue with the moral and political seriousness it deserves.