The Benefits to Overcoming the “Climate Change Status Quo

I have been thinking of the recent news in relation to Global Climate Change. Even among those who agree that there is problem and that its human induced issue is pulling us apart. Something’s missing from the discussion both in the mainstream and the counterculture so a finger pointing dynamic is driving the debate in a divisive way.

In order to effectively develop consensus needed both nationally in the USA and globally we need to figure out how to overcome this bickering. The discussion needs to be reformulated so that we’re clear that band aid solutions that with the symptoms are not going to work. And in the current discussion that’s not at all clear that we have this understanding. Many are afraid to confront the core economic and social issues that appear to “Deep Ecologists” to be causing the problems that we face such as this continuing believe in exponential economic growth as a solution to the problems humanity faces.

While it seems Liberals and “Deep Ecologists” can agree on is that not nearly enough is currently being done both at the global level and national level in the USA, there is little being done to offer a compelling model for action that can bring us together both nationally and globally.

This is my attempt to put together some of my thoughts in an attempt to hopefully insert something meaningful that might lead us to a breakthrough and put together an more thoughtful explanation of these extreme complex and contentious issues.

I began rethinking the topic after Chris Watkins one of the people involved in the wiki and I got into a debate on Facebook about the merits of an article by NYT columnist and liberal economist Paul Krugman Could Fighting Global Warming be Cheap and Free?

To Chris it seems like I’m unclear and ambiguous about my criticisms of Krugman. My explanation was that this sometimes happens as I formulate my ideas. This is especially the case on extremely complex subjects that are often simplistically represented in the media and on both or many and multiple sides of the debate. Krugrman’s a outspoken liberal voice and award winning economist. He is one in the most well known and respected national newspapers – the New York Times – who speaks out on many important and controversial issues important to liberals and progressives. On the other hand, I see Krugman’s views as reflecting a larger problem with liberalism being in bed with status quo of the rich and powerful and not pushing the American consciousness far enough into understanding the root causes of Climate Change.

Our fixation on Climate Change may actually have a negative aspect – its caused us to overlook and sidestep the larger sustainability puzzle. And funny it was that just as I was thinking about this that out of the blue comes the results of the WWF Living Planet Report:

Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970.

The report reminds us that Climate Change is just one of several major environmental and social problems that we face on a global level, which potentially threatens the future or at least the prosperity of modern human civilization.

US is Largely Unaccountable as the World’s Largest Economy and Largest Per Capita Consumer of Fossil Fuels

US is #1 in fossil fuel usage per capita among the world’s largest nation-states by population.

The USA is still the world largest economy and a leader in global policies with China gaining ground and in some cases overtaking its with regards in particular to the size of its investments in renewables pushing the US into the #2 position. The USA is also the largest energy user and producer of Greenhouse Gases.

What most glaring – if we want to talk about global fairness in the use of resources – is that while only having 4% of the world’s population, the USA uses about 20-25% of the world’s energy and natural resources. Much of this is due to a culture that was one of the world’s more excessive in terms of encouraging conspicuous consumption, a throwaway society and a bigger is better mentality in relation to houses and gas guzzling cars. All this leading to Americans having one of the largest Eco-footprints in the world. And that’s one major issue that the Left and Liberals seems to differ on – acknowledging that to effectively confront Climate Change that we have to address American consumption habits.

There are a range of debates about how to best address Climate Change and the USA’s disproportionate Carbon Footprint. Yet there’s little consensus about how to proceed on this, much less consider the issues in relation to the above paragraph that lead to American’s reputation as a nation of global resource and energy hogs. The Big question always avoided in the mainstream media and dodged during those big UN events like the one took place last week: Should countries that are resource hogs have to pay more to address Climate Change than countries that make big investments in sustainable development and discourage wasteful cultural and lifestyle activities? 

Despite the lack of strong US Government action, the sheer size of the American economy ensures that we still have one of the robust energy markets ranking number two globally after China at about 60 billion dollars a year in renewable energy investments with total investment at about 250 billion a year. We can’t be sure that we will continue to lead as other nations take strong actions against Climate Change. But why its important for the USA to have a leadership role is important to consider also.

I suggest its not so much about the need to be No 1 or staying competitive as it is the reality of the US influence on the global economy. And the number while it might sound big needs to be considered in relation to the total GDP of the world’s economy ($60 trillion) and the US ($16 trillion). Of that $60 trillion in global GDP the energy sector takes up about $6 trillion. If you just simply added up those investments in renewables with the current size of the Energy Sector it seems that renewables would grow to 6 (250b x 24yrs = $6 trillion) trillion dollars in about 24 years from now but of course that’s not accounting for inflation and the additional capacity for growth in power needs.

Political Obstacles

Unfortunately there seems to be little to change the mentality of the Republican Party and the lock it has on developing an effective climate policy. The party is so short term oriented that it does not see the potential long term competitive benefits to developing a strong national commitment to move and make long term investments in renewables as well as energy conservation – irregardless of the whether Climate Change is really happening or not. Part of the problem though may be that in the debate about the energy economy of the future we put all our eggs in one basket with regards to focus on Climate Change rather than considering the many reasons to shift towards more energy conservation and renewable sources of energy.

Two Studies that Indicate that Renewable Energy Need not Increase Energy Costs

Krugman refers to two studies (New Economy Report & IMF’s Carbon Pricing is Good for You & Good for the Planet), one of which I was just reading when I started going over his article. To him this is more supporting evidence, building on the already strong notion that renewables are NOT going to increase the cost of energy dramatically, despite Republican Claims to the contrary. To me this is part of the Energy Paradox: reflected in the reality that the cost of energy is currently too cheap and this is discouraging a lot of necessary changes that are going to have to happen one way or another to reduce waste and inefficiency in the economy and to move us towards true sustainability.

The reality is that its difficult to succeed politically in the USA or most other countries, talking about the need to raise energy prices, even if its for the sake of a more sustainable future. Who cares about the cost of renewable energy, because we pay too little for energy that is highly polluting and contributes to Climate Change? Its a similar argument that we see being applied in relation to how Organic food produces struggle to compete against heavily subsidized corporate monoculture farming that makes heavy use of GMOs, fossil fuels, industrial equipment and industrial fossil fuel based chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. Yet similarly its difficult to argue for higher food prices just because the conventional food system is engaging in practices that is degrading the environment and negatively impacting human health. However, its important to note that a major policy difference between the US and Europe is the heavy taxes on gasoline that discourage car use and support the increased use of mass and intercity transit.

Co-Benefits are Other Benefits Besides CO2 Migitation from the Conversion to Renewable Energy Economy

In addition to the optimism about the growth and increasing competitiveness of the renewables and energy conservation sectors, Krugman makes important points about the long term economic and social Co-benefits and how money can be saved by addressing the market failures of the fossil fuel industries such as pollution and its impact on human and ecological health. In addition to money saved the reason many co-benefits also increase social well being and quality of life. Possibly a financial product could be developed to stimulate and shift the accounting benefits of renewables in the future economy so that they could applied to the present?

Some Gaps in the Research?

Some of the changes to the economy and society that Krugman proposes seem like they might be technologically and economically viable including those that revolve around the shift to renewable electricity production. However he only skirts these issues which include:

  1. Not accounting for fugitive gases in the fracking of natural gas could be significant globally if fracking becomes the primary means for extracting natural gas as is becoming the case in the USA
  2. Even if methane gas leakage was minimized that it still may not change the fact that switching to natural gas from coal may not really provide the transition technology its hyped by some to be.
  3. Gains in renewables in the electrical power sector appear more attainable than in the other areas of the economy which account for 2/3s of CO2 emissions: transport, agriculture, construction and building heating.

A More Comprehensive Report & Plan for Addressing Climate Change in the Future?

The Center for American Progress and the Political Economy Research Institute released a report, titled “Green Growth: A U.S. Program for Controlling Climate Change and Expanding Job Opportunities.”

By following our current energy path, a dangerous and costly climate crisis will become a certainty. For the United States to do its part in changing the course of this mounting global crisis, we must immediately commit to an ambitious program of investment in a new generation of efficient and renewable energy infrastructure,” said Bracken Hendricks, CAP Senior Fellow and co-author of the report. “By improving market rules, increasing direct public investment, and getting smart about private financial incentives, this report demonstrates that it is both technologically and economically achievable to cut U.S. emissions by 40 percent, while investing in new jobs and growth. The window for action however, is small and closing rapidly. We must act now.

Key Success Factors outlined in report:

  1. Key to success will be a dynamic public- and private-sector partnerships
  2. By investing roughly $200 billion a year—1.2 percent of current USA GDP—in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy, the United States can cut CO2 emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2035 and create a net increase of 2.7 million clean energy jobs in the process.
  3. A substantial wave of mostly private investment in advanced energy technology, but also includes the need for higher performing infrastructure such as buildings.

Regardless of the various scenarios, the shift to a renewable energy economy does not appear very possible, even if its technologically or economically viable, so long as we lack the consensus in America to take effective and decisive actions. This includes an understanding that strong government action is needed to do the things that business, finance and the overall economy does not due well because its more short term oriented. These actions include passing legislation to empower government at all levels and move forward on the need funding for programs to subsidize renewable development and also fund conservation efforts. What we see are many layers and human dimensions of resistance to change as such an overwhelming reality – politically and socially – that need to be overcome.

Indeed to make the needed changes that account for the other 2/3s of the USA’s carbon footprint, we’re going to have make radical and rapid shifts in how we build, eat and heat our cities, homes and businesses. And what about transportation? Fact is the biggest personal decision we can make right now to reduce our Carbon Footprint is to eliminate the car from our lives as a personal transportation option. Right now we are moving like a snail, especially in comparison to what need to see.

And this gets me to exploring the potential role of Paolo Soleri’s Arcology manifesto in offering a comprehensive and holistic model of addressing the root causes of Climate Change focused on what he termed The Lean Alternative.

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