Last week the International Energy Agency issued yet another depressing report about our dire situation.
The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be "lost for ever", according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.
Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this "lock-in" effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change, the world's foremost authority on energy economics has found. If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous.
"The door is closing," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. "I am very worried – if we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever."
How do we do it? How do we stop climate change from destroying us?
Of course, everyone knows that ending greenhouse gas emissions is what it takes. But how do we do that, given that our world is built on burning fossil fuels?
A historic parallel is World War II. To meet an existential threat, we significantly reorganized how we lived and worked. We were motivated, focused, aware of the consequences, well-led, we sacrificed & spent a lot of money, everyone pitched in, we (along with our allies) beat fascism. Saving our climate, while a longer-term proposition (and even taller order), requires a similar national "good war" mindset.
Four key things we need are leadership from the president, public support for change, a price on carbon, and major spending on energy and conservation.
Yes, we are a long way from there.
1. The president must lead.
The President needs to explain clearly what the problem is, how it works, why we know it's true, what the consequences are, and what we can do about it. Basically, the president needs to scare people. He needs to get our attention. Fear will do that. And he needs to provide a narrative of working together to defeat an existential threat.
The President has always been the one to speak to the nation about such threats. Today it's even more important that he step up, because he can cut through the noise of the deniers. Following the President, leadership from other quarters will be needed. But they can't do it without him. This problem needs to be faced on the national level. Individuals and even organizations cannot do what is necessary by themselves.
People support presidents who are leaders.
2. The public has to understand the problem and commit to fixing it.
This is the most important point. With public support great changes are possible, without it, no.
I believe the American people will accept - even demand - changes in our lifestyle if we understand the need for it. We have before. Americans want a decent life for our kids. But as yet efforts to mobilize public opinion have been weak, which is a shame, because there is a great case to be made that we have to do something. Everyone is noticing the funny weather. That should be highlighted in information campaigns (starting with the president) and connected with global warming.
The public needs to be alarmed. In WWII there was plenty to be alarmed by - Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were frightening, even insane. US domestic propaganda took advantage of these characteristics to get the attention of the people. (See the nearby example - over-the-top for sure, but it got the point across.) Likewise, unchecked global warming is frightening as well. The prospect of famine, floods, unprecedented mega-storms will similarly motivate Americans.
At the same time, the public needs to feel a sense of common purpose, the positive energy of working together. This is a narrative that will be accepted as people are asked to take steps that appear as sacrifices.
It would be best if presidential leadership did not await the building of public opinion. The former can drive the latter quicker than the reverse. However, even if our politicians continue shirking their duty, public opinion can eventually push them to do the right thing. That is why, to me, developing public opinion around climate is the most important thing.
3. There needs to be a high and rising price on fossil fuels.
Moving into policy ... we need a stick and a carrot. The stick is a high and rising price of fossil fuels as a disincentive. This can be accomplished by cap and trade (which we didn't get done in 2010), by a straight carbon tax (which Australia just passed!), or fee and dividend, which is like a tax in that money is collected by the government at point of carbon purchase or development, but, unlike a tax, the money is returned to the people as a "dividend." I like the last option best. But any of them are better than what we have now, nothing. (It is possible to work in an assistance program for those who would be impoverished by carbon fees.)
Knowledge that carbon fuels are scheduled to become more and more expensive will encourage people and businesses to conserve and rely on other forms of energy. That leads us to the carrot:
4. Massive public investment in alternative energy and conservation.
Take what we've done in recent years and multiply it five-fold. This is a war against a force poised to destroy us: this is where we need Department of Defense-level spending. Plenty has been written on what to spend on - solar and wind, better grid, trains, insulating buildings, white roofs, etc., etc. There is no limit here! (Widening the NJ Turnpike doesn't count.) And of course a side benefit is the jobs that will be created.
Currently it doesn't look like any of this stuff will happen, unfortunately. Democrats seem committed to ignoring climate, and Republicans to destroying it as fast as possible. The public is overwhelmed with sophisticated denier messages. It sucks.
But there are small positive signs .... 350.org has been doing a good job of pushing the issue back into the public eye. I support them and anyone else in that effort. OWS is shining a floodlight on our broken political process - perhaps they can flush some Democrats out of the bunker.
If we fail here the cost will be unthinkably high.