It’s a brand new year, but many of our old problems remain – climate change being one of them. To be sure, progress has been made toward the recognition and measurement of the problem. But we’re still a long, long way from having a clear picture of its full extent, let alone a solution.
An obvious recent highlight is the success of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change which ended last month in Paris with 193 countries coming to agreement that a problem exists and that its mitigation requires reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, no legal mandate exists for countries to follow through on commitments made there, so it remains to be seen what actual impact this accord will have. Interested readers might want to check out how merely changing a single word from “shall” to “should” drastically changed this agreement. Nations agreed that they should take action (yeah, they really should) as opposed to allowing themselves to be bound by the legal implications of agreeing that they shall take action. Legally binding or not, the agreement is an important milestone.
There have been other recent milestones vis-à-vis the reduction of carbon emissions. There is the recent adoption of the Clean Power Plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – a plan that will result in an appreciable reduction in the burning of coal for electricity production. I just wish that the obvious first step towards complying with the benchmarks of this plan didn’t entail switching to the burning of cheap natural gas made available by our domestic fracking boom. Of course, there is also the scuttling this past year of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Hurrah! Wouldn’t it be great, though, if this decision had hinged on the desire to keep that huge carbon sink intact up there in Alberta, Canada rather than the economic reality (at present) of that expensive tar sand fuel just not making sense when there is cheaper fuel available from elsewhere in the world?
With so much to celebrate regarding the recognition of climate change and what we need to do to mitigate it, why do I have such a jaundiced view of things? You did pick up on that, didn’t you? Well, the fact of the matter is that we’ve blown past the 350 parts per million (ppm) measure that was once considered the point of no return standing between us and global chaos resulting from runaway climate disruption. We’re now looking at a new baseline measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide of 400 ppm.
I wish I could be as positive as my friend, Brian Ettling, whose indomitable spirit should be tapped as an alternative energy source! Brian is a tireless climate communicator, lobbyist, and park ranger who for many years has been trying to get the world to recognize what the entire world now seems to recognize – that climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity, and we can take action to do something about it. Check out Brian's blog and listen to him advocate for a carbon tax on this podcast.
I’ve tried to at least do my fair share with regards to getting this message out. However, I have to admit that I can’t hold a candle to Brian’s positive outlook. You see, of late I’ve felt about the topic of climate change much as I felt when the Iraq War seemed to be marching on endlessly. Namely, that America needed to really deeply feel the horror of war before arriving at the conclusion that enough was enough. I protested at venues in Chicago, Washington D.C., and St. Louis in order to try to keep that war from happening or try to stop it once it began. Finally, though, I simply had to accept that we as a nation needed to experience the negative consequences of our actions prior to ever changing our ways. Similarly, I have felt as though American’s needed to really feel the chaos of climate disruption prior to our ever agreeing to changing our fossil-fuel thirsty ways.
Has that time come? Glacial melting, sea level rise, thawing permafrost, droughts there and flood-inducing rainstorms here, massive hurricanes along the coasts and massive tornadoes sprouting like mushrooms all across the Plains and Midwest – are these enough of a wakeup call to those of us who’ve lived in denial of climate change for so long? If so, I must begin again to add my voice to Brian’s and begin to talk about solutions.
Yes, some form of a carbon tax seems undeniably appropriate and necessary. We’re presently subsidizing the cost of fossil fuel by paying separately for the aforementioned havoc wreaked in the form of property loss and loss of life. If we were to price these externalities into the cost of fossil fuel, we would begin to make more economically informed and appropriate choices as to how to furnish and heat our homes and energize our cars and devices.
And this is where I feel that I have something to add to the conversation. You see, it is my perception that many of those who are 100% certain of the reality of climate change still believe that all we have to do is power everything with clean energy and we’ll be good to go. Rather than our materialistic lifestyle being seen as a fundamental part of the problem, it is merely viewed as needing a tune-up – a carbon tax here, a clean energy breakthrough there, and we will all live happily ever after.
So, to those of you for whom the subject of climate change is finally gaining traction – fantastic! And for those of you who can only reflect upon technological solutions to what is fundamentally a problem of consumption – look deeper! Think about it: If the current standard of living of the average Westerner becomes 50% more carbon efficient even as the number of people actually living that lifestyle doubles, then we are no better off than we are at this moment. If everyone’s carbon footprint is cut in half, but world population doubles, then we are still merely treading water. Remember, we’re at 400 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide and we need to start bringing that measure DOWN!
It’s a New Year! Let’s take a moment to take stock of past successes; and then let’s begin taking a long, hard look at how we’re living our lives.
If you're interested in exploring how you might begin living a more sustainable lifestyle,
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Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank