No Agreement on Climate Solutions

The World’s Climate Emergency Is Getting Harder to Ignore

Climate change requires big solutions. But baby steps are the only way to go.

Implementing The One Viable Solution To Climate Change

Greenland glaciers melting

The accepted way to solve a big problem has always been to break it down into smaller components and work on them. Most solutions to the climate crisis seem to rely on this approach which, for the most part, hasn’t shown much promise. Climate defies rationality. We don’t have the proper language to express it.

But it forces its way into our consciousness and will keep intruding on our carbonized dreams until we pull our collective heads out of the sand. The first step to awareness is recognizing how current events are sending an unmistakable message. Consider:

    • the heat wave in Europe that has now moved to Greenland to vastly accelerate glacial melting
    • the crazy variability in weather everywhere, with more weather-related disasters
    • the weakness of most current plans to reduce global heating
    • the political atrocities of deniers like Trump and Bolsonaro.

Some of these things are outlined in a recent Washington Post piece by reporter Ishaan Tharoor, who is not a climate scientist. While he sounds a few hopeful notes, he thinks massive public awareness finally will not activate the changes required—though it may move the political pendulum.

Solutions offered have ranged from the cosmic to the incremental, from the Green New Deal to a carbon tax. I can’t see that either approach will finally pay off. A couple of recent proposals illustrate how far apart our climate pundits remain.

Ted Nordhaus in Foreign Policy wrote in favor of “baby steps” to resolve the crisis. He seems to feel that big solutions, like the Green New Deal and a carbon tax, will simply be rejected by consumers and government. These things are too politically difficult and economically costly. He proposes a “quiet climate policy” of incremental change.

Ultimately, the choice we face is between some action and no action. Neither economists’ dreams of rationalizing environmental policy through the power and efficiency of markets nor progressive environmentalists’ hopes of heroic state-led mobilization to save the planet are likely to do much to address the problem.

Ted, the problem is too big and too pressing to solve incrementally. There is no time left to wait for your solutions to take hold.

In another camp we have Steve Denning, an Australian management guru, who proposes what seems to be the only viable solution to climate change, an Apollo-type moon shot program that brings to bear the human talent for innovation and a commitment to bold collective action. I think he’s right.

The initiative would pursue the options already on the table, such as carbon capture and storage, nuclear fusion, storage of nuclear fission materials, as well as incremental efforts in wind, solar, batteries, and reforestation, taxes, subsidies, regulation and deregulation, where they are scalable enough to make a difference.

All this would require a massive bipartisan effort “with the best minds, agile management and adequate funding to find the best technology for creating non-polluting energy for the planet.”

If we don’t make the effort, history will not be kind—if there are any historians left.

Trump’s Climate Vendetta

The Trump Administration Takes Climate Denial to New Heights

Would Trump’s Re-election Doom the Planet?

Trump’s Failure to Fight Climate Change Is a Crime Against Humanity

Climate change didn’t come up in the Mueller hearings, but maybe it should have. Of all the high crimes and misdemeanors Trump has committed, his continued sabotage of efforts to understand and ameliorate the climate crisis may finally be judged the worst and most permanent of his crimes.

He rips away established environmental protections at EPA and other agencies by installing industry cronies and lobbyists to run them. We’ve seen it many times. Jeffrey Sachs has particularly harsh words for what happened in Puerto Rico:

Trump’s mishandling of [the] Puerto Rico disaster in the wake of Hurricane Maria is grounds itself for impeachment and trial. Thousands of citizens died unnecessarily on Trump’s watch because the administration could not be stirred to proper action before, during, and after the hurricane.

Two independent, detailed epidemiological studies, using different methodologies—one led by researchers at Harvard University and the other by researchers at George Washington University—have estimated that thousands died in the aftermath of Maria.

Then this burlesque gesture:

The Trump administration has dug us ever deeper into the hole of fossil fuel dependence and is happily pushing toward a point of no return. As early as December 2016 his transition team demanded from the Department of Energy names and professional associations of all employees working on climate change. The Department refused. But that was before climate genius Rick Perry took charge.

At Interior, Trump cohorts still intimidate and fire those who try to report the truth. All government agencies have now gotten the message. Politico noted that “The Agriculture Department quashed the release of a sweeping plan on how to respond to climate change that was finalized in the early days of the Trump administration, according to a USDA employee with knowledge of the decision.” Department stooges purge scientific reports of any mention of climate change. Sounds very much like they are trying to replicate the Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels.

While the Democrats dither over impeachment, our time for attending to the climate crisis is inexorably running out. “Another four years of Trump would probably render futile any efforts to limit planetary warming to 1.5 [degrees Celsius], which is necessary to avert ever-more catastrophic climate change impacts.” Thus Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State.

To translate science like this into terms the public can understand is a major challenge. The media has been lagging in the effort though they may finally be stepping up to the plate. But ultimately we will get nowhere without political change. And political change is impossible unless you can believe in it. More believers wanted.

Hansen’s Recent Thoughts on Climate Change—and Some History

Saving Earth (June 27, 2019)

Thirty years later, what needs to change in our approach to climate change (June 26, 2018)

Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (August 1, 2018)

Once one of the few scientific voices crying out about climate change, James Hansen has become a renowned, and sometimes vilified, spokesman. That trek took him more than thirty years, as he documents in a Boston Globe editorial. He’s a controversial figure still—both in his political views and in his opinions on nuclear power (with which I concur; see below)—but to many he is the father of climate change awareness.

A journalistic history of the climate change threat, its people, politics, and science is parsed in Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy New York Times piece, “Losing Earth,” published a year ago. It is a dramatic account in which Hansen is naturally a principal figure. I list it here as essential background reading on Hansen’s role in how the climate issue developed.

I got an early copy of “Saving Earth” forwarded from a friend. It struck me immediately as the most authoritative yet personal view of where the climate change arguments came from and how they need, in Hansen’s singular view, to be implemented.

It’s eleven pages long in pdf form and I doubt most of you will plunge into that. So I’ve excerpted some of the more significant passages.

It is wonderful that more people are waking up to the fact that we have a climate emergency. The emergency was clear more than a decade ago when it was realized that the long-term safe level of atmospheric CO2 was less than 350 ppm. Already, we were well into the dangerous zone. . . .

[The threat of an ungovernable planet] derives mainly from two large-scale climate change impacts. First, low latitudes during the warm seasons could become so hot and inhospitable to human livelihood as to generate an unstoppable drive for emigration. That potential future is emerging into view for regions as populated as India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and huge swaths of Africa. The tragedy would be that these regions are, in a ‘less than 350 ppm climate,’ among the most spectacular and livable regions on the planet.

The second climate impact is sea level rise, which is an ominous threat on multi-decadal time scales. This sea level threat may be less immediate than the low-latitude, over-heating, climate-change threat, but it is more ‘non-linear,’ implying that it has the potential to grow exponentially, becoming unstoppable and irreversible. Note that the sea level threat is near-global, because most of the world’s large cities and infrastructure are located on coastlines. Nations that would be devastated by large sea level rise include the greatest economic powers of the 21st century, the United States and China. These two climate impacts are the heart of the ‘existential threat.’ . . .

Most of the warming still ‘in the pipeline’ is associated with deep-ocean warming. Thus most of this ‘in the pipeline’ warming will not occur this century. This permits the possibility of avoiding most of that warming, if we reduce the amount of gases in the air on the time scale of a century or two. . . .

Faced with realization that we could hand young people a climate system running out of their control, political leaders took the easy way out. With the Paris Agreement in 2015 they changed the target for maximum global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C. A temperature ‘target’ approach is ineffectual. It has practically no impact on global emissions.

Global energy policies remain inconsistent with professed emission targets. Emission targets will never overrule the desire of nations to raise their standards of living. Effective energy policies, not professed targets, are the crucial requirement for phasing down fossil fuel emissions. . . .

The two essential energy policy requirements are: 1) honest pricing of fossil fuels, i.e., the price must rise to include the cost of fossil fuels to society; 2) government support of breakthrough technologies, including clean energy research, development, demonstration and deployment programs. . . .

The missing technology for China, and now for India, was a clean source of power to replace coal in massive energy requirements for electricity and industrial heat.

Later this century, when scholars look back at what went wrong, the single sentence likely to stand out will be one uttered by President William Jefferson Clinton in his first State of the Union Address, almost three decades ago: “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.”

How could such a spectacularly bad decision have been reached? Readily available empirical data showed that nuclear power was the safest energy source, with the smallest environmental footprint.

The potential for inexpensive, modular, ultrasafe reactors – built in a factory or shipyard – has not been developed. Support for research, development, demonstration and deployment – lavished on renewable energies for decades – only recently has been initiated in a small way for modern nuclear power. . . .

The most urgent task is to phase down fossil fuel emissions. There is no one simple solution to this. It will take a lot of positive actions, and also pressure on the fossil fuel industry, from multiple directions, pressure on them to become a clean energy industry. . . .

The legal approach is slow and no panacea, but it is an essential part of the solution. [It] must be pursued simultaneously with the political approach. . . .

[Voting Trump out of office is not the answer.] The public has tried that recourse. They voted in Barack (‘Planet in Peril’) Obama and Albert (‘Earth in the Balance’) Gore. The accomplishments by those Administrations in addressing climate change, to use a favorite phrase of my mother, “did not amount to a hill of beans.” Democrats and Republicans are both on the take from special interests, the fossil fuel industry. Both parties work with industry, approving and subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and use.

I wanted to write something today about the impact of tanks on the environment but then thought better of it.

The Climate Doctor Speaks

Jay Inslee has a radical plan to phase out fossil fuel production in the US

Writer David Roberts of Vox has as his subtitle: “This is going to make some people mad.” Jay Inslee, as you may know, is the only Democratic candidate to base his whole campaign on the issues of climate change. His proposals have made some of the other candidates look, shall we say, weak by comparison.

The Washington governor’s climate plans aim for net-zero carbon pollution by 2045, sooner than most of his would-be opponents would propose. Today he released details of the fourth planning component. According to Vox, “It is in many ways the most radical piece yet, and likely to be the most controversial. It is about cutting off the flow of fossil fuels from the US—‘keeping it in the ground,’ as the kids say.”

There are several big items of note in the latest plan, including a proposal to put a price on carbon. Fracking? He wants to work toward a national prohibition. He wants to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, reinstate dozens of environmental rules that President Trump reversed, step up enforcement on polluters, reject all new climate-unsafe infrastructure, and boost corporate climate accountability.

And that just scratches the surface. This is a capacious plan, requiring both executive powers and legislation. The net result would be a conscious, deliberate phasing out of US fossil fuel production.

There are five major steps in the Inslee plan, and each will face great political hurdles. But all appear necessary to avoid the otherwise inevitable disasters.

    1. end all fossil fuel subsidies
    2. end federal leasing and phase out fossil fuel production
    3. hold polluters accountable (with a climate pollution fee, or tax)
    4. reject all new fossil fuel infrastructure
    5. improve corporate climate transparency
    6. make this plan into the official Democratic platform.

I like number 6 best, though I am not holding my breath. And yet, Inslee’s new set of plans could be enough to shake up the other candidates.