Our First Response to Climate Change

Our First Response to Climate Change

We badly need renewables to combat climate change, but we need ramped-up efficiency measures even more.

Time is passing very quickly," Irving Mintzer wrote in his 1987 study A Matter of Degrees, which I reviewed for the very first edition of World Watch. Two decades later, Mintzer's words, like his report on ways to reduce the risk of global warming, seem understated.

It was later than it seemed. Even those of us who have long been alarmed about global warming did not expect the rapid changes we have seen.

We have watched the northern polar ice cap melt over an area the size of Alaska. We have seen glaciers shrink on every continent while the depth of snow in the Swiss Alps fell by half. We have experienced twice as many hurricanes per year as our parents, and measured them growing stronger year by year. We might have known, when World Watch was launched, that New Orleans was vulnerable to flood, but we have all been shocked by the devastating force of Hurricane Katrina.

Scientists now are highly confident-more than 90 percent certain-that the change we have seen is real, anthropogenic, here to stay, and growing worse. We know this because, since it was founded in 1988, there have been four sweeping assessments of climate science, impacts, and emissions mitigation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC this year published its Fourth Assessment Report and the scientists' concern was palpable.

Their consensus view is that warmer days and nights are virtually certain in the coming century, or centuries, and that the cause is the release of greenhouse gases mainly from energy use. Sea levels may rise by meters rather than the meter we expected. The worst impacts will be suffered by the poor, especially those living in low-lying agricultural lands like Bangladesh. As climate scientist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University put it recently in the New York Times, "You don't want to be poor and living on a river delta or the Florida coast."

Policy change, meanwhile, has been glacial (in the now obsolete sense of the word). Positive signs are few. Europe has implemented the Kyoto Protocol, putting into practice important mechanisms to spur emissions reductions at home and to finance them in developing countries. China has announced ambitious plans to cut energy waste in industry and improve automobile fuel economy. The Soviet Union collapsed a few years after the launch of this magazine, ending the world's most egregious forms of energy waste. Even some in the United States seem to be taking action, with almost 20 states having announced plans and policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But these examples are not proportionate to the challenge. Imagine if this were war and we so meekly surrendered our coastal cities.

The worst scenarios of warming described in Mintzer's 20-year-old paper may yet be realized. Mintzer in a recent conversation said that he thinks we have at most 10 years to mount a serious response that will avoid catastrophic change. If that is true-and I believe it is-then there is no time to develop a magic bullet. Technology, unless it is ready to be deployed now, will not save the natural world as we know it.

A response appropriate to reality will require climbing above the reflexive nationalism, racism, and fears that shape our international affairs. It is fashionable to point to China and India, their rapid energy demand growth and increasing wealth, and to demand that they take responsibility for their actions.

It is not that simple. China already suffers from air and water pollution crises that kill tens of thousands of its citizens each year. India is unable to supply adequate electric power to several hundred million of its people, and they suffer the attendant drudgery and ill health. Who can blame the governments of these and other developing countries for pointing out that the per-capita greenhouse gas emissions of their populations are one-fifth that of Americans and saying, "You created this problem, you do something about it."

That is not an answer either, of course. A serious response will require the participation of all the world's leading nations. What could move the United States, China, India, Europe, and Japan to work together on a global accord?

One vision is to catalogue all the low-carbon energy alternatives and ask the world's governments to subsidize and compel their use. But market penetration of wind and solar will take decades, nuclear plants contain plutonium and thus the germ of nuclear terror, and scrubbing and sequestering carbon from coal-fired power plants is two decades down the road-outside Mintzer's 10-year time frame.

Maybe we are asking the wrong question. A recent United Nations Foundation team argued that, without energy efficiency, none of the other energy solutions will work. It is, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the extraordinary-revolutionary-event necessary to enable all the ordinary events to continue.

Maybe the right question is, how can China and the United States work together to build a safe, comfortable, affordable, high-efficiency automobile? Or how can India build efficiency into its power generating systems-and the ways power is used-as the country develops?

Making markets work to implement efficiency is hard. Investors balk not only because of real and perceived risks, but because they do not quite know how to invest in it. Intervention to reduce energy demand requires a lot of work.

A better question is how we can replicate the good sense of the International Finance Corporation which, unlike so many programs, seems to have figured out, in China, Central Europe, and elsewhere, how to rapidly finance and provide technical assistance for energy efficiency investment projects.

Maybe the answers are in learning how to do the small things, rather than in putting together all the world's leaders to talk. Maybe it's time to pay attention to what people do and not what they say.


William Chandler is president of Transition Energy and co-founder of DEED China, private companies with energy efficiency projects in China.