Climate And Revolution (“Put down that donut!” Edition)

Elizabeth Kolbert adds more perspective to the gap between policy and reality, with a look at the recent US-China emission agreement:

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster—which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.”

On top of this rather nasty problem, there’s the issue of actually fulfilling the pledges. The Administration claims that reducing emissions by twenty-eight per cent over the next eleven years is “achievable under existing law.” This is a little like someone who’s trying to lose weight saying that his goal is “achievable” on a diet of doughnuts: it may be true in theory, but it’s extremely unlikely.

Well, Americans do love fad diets, though it is true that not many of them work, and some of them are dangerous. The real solution is to put a stiff tax on donuts, I mean carbon. The politics of doing that are of beyond comprehension at the moment. Still, understanding that pricing carbon is the single most important and indispensable policy step required to fight climate change would be a good first step.

Climate And Revolution (Cont.)

In a review of Naomi Klein’s new book. “This Changes Everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert doubts Americans are ready for the reality of addressing climate change (h/t Daily Dish):

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

And Kolbert doesn’t even include “not eating meat” to her list. I’m surprised Kolbert didn’t title her review “This Changes Nothing.”

Kolbert’s probably right, but this gets back to the problem that the media (and as a result political leaders) are completely failing to explain the scale and danger of the problem. When I want to imagine how we should be thinking about, and talking about, the threat of climate change I always go back to the thought experiment of imagining how the media, politicians, and the public would respond if ISIL had a master plan to warm the planet, melt the ice caps, flood our cities, and cause a mass extinction. Now that really would change everything.

End note: In her review Kolbert mentions an interesting study that examines how much energy each person on the planet should use, and how much they actually use. This also dramatizes how revolutionary real solutions to global warming would be:

What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.

The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.

To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.

The study doesn’t really take into account the fact that new energy technologies could and should allow us to consume more energy with fewer emissions. But it is still a wake-up slap to realize that for the average American the combination of reduced consumption and more efficient energy technologies needs to achieve an 83% reduction in per capita carbon emission. See what I mean about a revolution?