The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference met for a couple of weeks recently, in Paris. 196 countries were represented. That’s amazing. What’s even more amazing is that they all agreed to something; to reduce carbon emissions.
Of course, you’re not going to get 196 sovereign nations to agree to anything all that binding. The central doctrine of international diplomacy is national self-interest. What everyone agreed to was voluntary compliance. The members agreed to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible” and to “do their best” to keep global warming to “well below 2 degrees C.” It’s likely that some nations will try their darndest to live up to these promises, and that others, frankly, won’t do much. It’s not unfair to characterize this agreement as ‘toothless.’
Honestly, though, if the Paris Agreement is flawed, it’s also what’s possible. A binding agreement, with actual consequences for nations that don’t comply was never going to happen. And this agreement isn’t nothing. If governments don’t act, their people have ammunition to hold them accountable. Perhaps it’s naive, this touching liberal faith in democracy. But this is what we have. It might work. That’s where we are.
Of course, some folks–mostly conservatives– believe that the idea of anthropogenic climate change is a fraud. Carbon emissions aren’t warming the planet. It’s a big hoax. It isn’t happening. It’s just more liberal nonsense, driven by shrill fearmongers like Al Gore. And Obama’s plans to combat climate change will destroy our economy. It’s those people I want to address.
I’m not a climate scientist–just a playwright with WiFi. I’m not an international diplomat, nor any kind of expert on this subject. It does seem to me that there are four possible ways this could play out.
First, it’s possible that climate change is a real phenomenon, and that human beings both caused it and can take steps to fix it. And that we, the nations and peoples of Earth, do just that. Fix it. If so, great. Well done us.
Second, it’s possible that climate change is real, but that we don’t do much about it, that we drag our heels. If so, the consequences could be damaging. It could be that the worst nightmares of Al Gore come true. Or maybe the results aren’t completely catastrophic, but still really bad, flooded cities, disrupted weather patterns, extreme weather events. Seems like something we should try to avoid.
Third, suppose that conservatives are right, and this really is a lot of hoo-raw over nothing. Let’s suppose that climate change data really are misleading or really have been misinterpreted, that nothing’s really wrong. And let’s suppose that we do nothing; non-existent problem, which we do nothing to fix. So: we get lucky. Well, all right; no big deal.
Fourth, though, let’s suppose that climate change isn’t real, but we don’t figure it out in time, that we take measures as though it were a problem. What if we act, and it turns out we didn’t need to. What then?
And I think I know the answer. Conservatives are worried about governmental overreach. National Affairs had a thoughtful and interesting article about this recently. Conservatives are afraid of statist solutions. They are concerned about cap-and-trade legislation, or a carbon tax, or other regulatory solutions which expand the powers of government. And those are legitimate concerns, I think, though I don’t necessarily share them. Of course, part of it is the perfectly understandable human disinclination to believe that people you despise might be right about something important. But climate change deniers are not just idiots full of pique and rancor. There are legitimate reasons for conservatives to distrust climate change as an issue, and legitimate reasons to regard the Paris conference as risible.
But my scenario four isn’t necessarily all bad. In fact, it seems to me that climate change is one issue where there may very well be market-based solutions, and at least the potential for common ground between liberals and conservatives. This is because at least part of the solution to the problem of climate change is technological.
The alternative energy sector of the American economy is, frankly, booming. Bloomberg Business recently posted an article predicting that solar power will attract three and a half trillion dollars in investment money over the short-term foreseeable future. I remember reading somewhere that if the US covered a third of the state of Nevada with solar panels, we could meet our nation’s entire energy needs. Well, have you ever driven through Nevada? Not much there, except desert and sunshine.
How interested would you be in stock from Tesla? Would like you like to own a Tesla car? I sure would. They’re expensive right now, but prices are dropping. Would you be willing to power your home with a Tesla battery? I’m looking into it now. And what about other alt-energy companies. Like, for example, Altenergy, a fast growing, highly profitable solar power company with offices in Virginia, Idaho, Georgia and Maryland. What about Enphase, or First Solar, or Solar City, or Vivant? These are all multi-billion-dollar firms, growing fast and hiring workers. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the US economy.
And let’s be honest. Are fossil fuels so great? Don’t they come with significant downsides? Isn’t mining for coal destructive, and ugly, with a huge human cost? Aren’t you just a little bit queasy about fracking? Doesn’t the prospect of pumping toxic chemicals into the ground, with at least the potential for polluted aquifers and ground water, strike you as possibly not the greatest idea in the world? I’ll grant you that shale oil shows some promise as a source for domestic oil. But have you seen shale oil sites after the oil’s extracted? Is this technology really a panacea? Wouldn’t we be better off just using the sun and the wind? And if we’re fighting a war on terror, wouldn’t it be nice if Isis, who finances their horror-show through oil revenues, lost that source of income? How beholden do we want to remain to the Saudis and Iran and Iraq?
And I get that no one wants to get rid of their cars. But electric cars, or hybrids, really do have their advantages. I live in Provo, Utah, forty miles south of Salt Lake City, the two cities separated by a really big mountain. I drive between the two places quite frequently. And I can see it, the poor air quality in both valleys, the haze. Caused by vehicle emissions. And occasionally (and obnoxiously), both valleys sock in with really nasty inversions, with poor visibility and respiratory issues and lots of other health-related problems. Even if there is an international global warming fraud, a massive scientific scam, well, so what? Reducing carbon emissions is a good thing anyway, isn’t it?
On the Republican side, in this endless Presidential-race buildup, climate change is not really a major issue. I’ve watched the debates, and terrorism and immigration are bigger issues for this crop of candidates. That seems strange to me, but then, I’m not a Republican. But what really does surprise me is that none of the candidates praised American business and innovation and entrepreneurship as significant factors in solving the climate change problem. Seems kind of unRepublican. And it turns out that the majority of voters who self-identify as conservative Republicans are, in fact, concerned about climate change, and believe that human actions have, to some degree, caused it. Supporting alt-energy could be smart politically.
Is this climate change nonsense all a lot of hooey? I don’t know, and neither do you. You have climate scientists you trust, and I have climate scientists that I trust (but a lot more of them). But why does it matter? Who cares who’s right? There are things we can do that are a good idea anyway.
If man-made climate change is really happening, with potentially damaging, even lethal consequences, then it would be grotesquely irresponsible of us not to act. If it’s not happening, well, what harm is there in supporting one of the fastest growing sectors of American business? And in, possibly, giving less support to Big Oil, which looks more and more, nowadays, like what it is: a dinosaur industry.
In other words, how big a gamble is this? If we choose to do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, and it turns out that global warming is real, then what are we doing to our children, and grand-children? On the other hand, if we act, and it turns out that we never needed to, well, so what? I’ll be honest. I don’t much care. And neither should you.
If the US leads, much of the world will follow. So let’s lead. Let’s innovate. Just like we’re already doing.