State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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The Climate Crisis and the Transition to a Renewable Economy

The difficult process of transitioning to a renewable resource-based economy requires us to ask: how does political, economic and social change happen? To answer that question it’s helpful to look at the changes we have seen over the past century and also ask: how did they happen? It’s easy to see change: the end of legal racial segregation, women’s rights, gay marriage, the growth of smartphones and the internet, cleaner air and water, the growth of the global economy, and, here in New York City, the transformation of a manufacturing and commercial city into a center of the global brain-based economy. We live in a different world than the one our parents and grandparents lived in. When you look back you find that conventional wisdom and punditry either overestimated or underestimated the difficulty of change. But you also inevitably see a long process of triumphs and failures and a sudden awareness that the world has changed and we are no longer where we used to be.

When I read the predictions of some analysts examining the climate crisis I am often struck by their pessimism about our ability to address climate change. Current trend lines, the science deniers in congress, the influence of the fossil fuel industry and growing consumption in the developing world generate predictions of a future of drowned cities and massive shortages of food and water. That could happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What is striking about those predicting doom is their present-mindedness. Projections and scenarios rarely factor in the possibility of disruptive technological change, since by definition, it is difficult to know when it will take place and what shape it will take. Nevertheless, we can count on the certainty of some form of disruptive change.

What I am betting on is the growing sense of awareness and understanding of environmental issues among the people of the world. It could be that my personal perspective is a little warped. I’ve seen the environmental issue move from the outer fringes to the center of our political agenda. In my case, it began over 40 years ago when I walked into a small graduate seminar in SUNY Buffalo on an obscure topic called “Environmental Politics.” Only a handful of us thought this was of much importance and most of my fellow graduate students weren’t even sure what it was. Today, the average college student is well aware of environmental issues and, in fact, the average fourth grader knows about it too. Mass education and social awareness are the foundations of large-scale change. The need for global sustainability policy and management is well understood by huge majorities in every country of the world. If we believe polling data, young people get it more than old people. There is a fundamental consensus on the importance and dimensions of the problem. We don’t know how to move from our current non-sustainable lifestyle to a sustainable one, but most people know that we need to figure it out. In my view, broad public understanding of our crisis of global sustainability is the foundation for the large-scale, non-linear change that is starting to take place. Evidence of that change can be seen in the introduction of products like the new lower-priced Tesla electric car and in the policy pronouncements of leading public officials all over the world.

We’ve seen large-scale change before. Young women increasingly expect equality and assume they will get it. Racism, sexism and homophobia still exist in this country, but they are not as bad as they were when I was growing up. When we see an act of overt bias, we know what it looks like and we know it is wrong—not everyone, not all of the time, but most people, most of the time. The large-scale public discussion of racial profiling and effective policing now underway was not an agenda item in Mississippi or New York City in the 1960s. The legalization of gay marriage was not up for discussion on June 28th, 1969, when the patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn battled with the NYPD. Unequal pay for equal work was a way of life for women of my mother and wife’s generation. My guess is my daughters will end up doing better. The point is that we live in a social order that few would have predicted fifty years ago. Change may be slow, but the forward motion of social progress is undeniable. Catastrophe or terror or both could halt that progress, but people are learning more about each other and their world and society is slowly changing in response.

Returning to the theme of climate change and fossil fuels, our problem is not simply climate change, it is a broader set of issues we should call environmental sustainability. Even when we decarbonize our energy we will still have toxic substances in both our food chain and ecosystems that pose a wide range of dangers. We are still reducing biodiversity and damaging ecological systems without fully understanding the impact of what we are doing. But we are learning. The paradox is that our urban, post-industrial lifestyle means that we spend less and less of our time securing the food, clothing and shelter that occupied human effort for thousands of years. That frees us to learn more about each other, our home planet and ourselves.

We like and wish to retain the lifestyles we enjoy, but we know that these lifestyles are built on technologies that need to change. American consumers want to buy SUVs, but if an electric SUV were as cheap and convenient as a standard SUV, people would buy the electric one. People may be too busy to recycle, but understand why it would be a good thing to do.

Once we have the base of values and understanding in place that supports preserving the planet, we need to develop public policies, infrastructure and private sector business models that move the economy toward sustainability. This is also a type of change we have seen before. American government has worked with private businesses since the founding of the republic. American land grant colleges and agricultural extension built new farming methods and technologies and taught farmers how to use them. It turned America into the world’s breadbasket. Public investment in railways, roads, airports and ports ensured that goods could be efficiently transported to the market place. Government policy after World War II was designed to transform America from a nation of renters to a nation of homeowners. Government-backed mortgage insurance lowered down payments, and tax deductions for property tax and mortgage interest lowered monthly costs. The policy worked: most Americans now own their homes.

We need the same sort of creative public-private partnership on renewable energy, waste management, water management and conservation. The large-scale public support for sustainability ensures that if this is done intelligently (e.g. no direct subsidies to particular companies) it can help elected officials keep their jobs while ensuring that Miami and New York City remain above sea level.

My focus is on long-term gradual models of change, because I think it’s appropriate for this issue and because the alternative mode of forcing change is catastrophe. If a climate catastrophe takes place, all we will be able to do is to adapt to our new planet. Despite the current danger, I think a climate catastrophe is unlikely. Even if the current actions to reduce greenhouse gases are not sufficient to address the problem, together they are an impressive first step. My hope is that each subsequent step will be greater than the one that came before and growing momentum can reduce the probability of a climate disaster.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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