State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Building Consensus on Climate and Sustainability Policy

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on a new international agreement that will phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a chemical that is used in refrigerators and air conditioners that is a powerful greenhouse gas. The irony is that HFCs were developed to replace chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, chemicals that caused a hole in our atmosphere’s ozone layer and were banned by the Montreal Protocol of 1987. Just as when CFCs were banned, the companies that make HFCs have been involved in the treaty discussions and have already developed new chemicals to replace HFCs.

Under the treaty, rich countries phase out HFCs quickly, while the poorest, hottest countries are given more time to stop production of these chemicals. While some might consider this new agreement a small act, it should be seen in the context of a number of actions taken by an increasingly legacy-focused Obama Administration. According to Coral Davenport of the New York Times, this new amendment to the Montreal treaty:

“…adds momentum to a series of new global climate change agreements. Last week, the Paris agreement entered into legal force after it passed a major threshold: More than 55 countries representing over 55 percent of emissions have ratified the deal. The same week, governments from 190 countries adopted a deal to curb planet-warming emissions from the aviation industry.”

The issue of HFCs is an indication of the learning curve we experience in many areas of environmental sustainability. We tend to use new technology first and ask questions later. Fix the ozone hole now; worry about greenhouse gases in a few decades. The drive for economic growth dominates nearly all other considerations. As we experience more negative environmental impacts on a richer and more crowded world, we need to carefully assess our behavior and impacts and change them when we need to. This past summer I wrote about the HFC/CFC issue and observed:

“The technological world we live in inevitably creates impacts we can’t predict. By definition, not all the dimensions of new, cutting-edge technology are well understood. As we struggle to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy technology, we should be prepared for the unanticipated impacts of solar cells, batteries, wind generators, smart grids and all the rest. Having stepped down the path of technologically based economic development, we should not expect a pristine planet. But we can expect and work toward an environmentally sustainable earth. There is no excuse for willful disregard of the facts and every reason to listen closely when someone finds that your breakthrough invention has some negative effects.”

We need to approach these issues with care and modesty. The new HFC treaty allows poorer and hotter countries to take a longer time to phase out these chemicals. This is largely due to the pressure for the emerging middle class in those countries to enjoy the comfort of air conditioning. If the new chemicals that replace HFCs end up being cheaper, and new air conditioners continue to be more energy efficient, the price of cooling could go down and the transition could take place much faster.

In my view, the surest and most rapid path to a renewable and sustainable economy is to accommodate mass political demands for greater wealth but also work hard to accelerate the development of more effective, efficient, and less polluting technologies. An approach that denies modern comforts or raises the price of desired technologies will set in motion opposition that will delegitimize the need for change, and delay change until it is too late or too difficult to implement.

The political differences we see on climate issues globally reflect different cultures and distinct stages of economic development. Anyone watching the horrific spectacle of America’s Presidential campaign should also acknowledge the extreme degree of polarization in this country’s political culture. Just as gobal treaty negotiations work to bridge the divide between nations, Americans need to renew our search for common ground. For most of the 21st century, our national politics has been about how we differ. Perhaps the sheer nuttiness of Trump’s conspiracy-driven message will cause the ideological extremes of the left and right to rediscover a political center: a space where common values can be explored for practical compromise. This election should be teaching all of us that the legitimacy of our political institutions should not be taken for granted. We have a candidate for president who is threatening to jail his opponent if he achieves power. He is questioning the honesty of our electoral process. One of the most important and moving parts of our ritual transfer of power is the joint appearance of the outgoing and incoming president at the inauguration. Another is the gracious concession message of the losing candidate; you can’t do that from the inside of a jail.

On environmental issues we have distinctly different views and objective conditions. Ranchers in Wyoming are less worried about toxics in their basements than folks in subdivisions in the northeast. Some Americans consider regulation, by definition, as limits on freedom, while others see regulation as the price we pay for living on a more crowded, toxic, high-tech planet. But everyone likes to breathe and everyone understands the need for the air, water, and land to be free of poison. But how we get from here to there needs to be discussed and negotiated. We need to learn how to listen to each other. We need to empathize with each other’s needs and values instead of dismissing or delegitimizing them.

While it’s a long way to Election Day in an election year characterized by unpredictability, there is a reasonable chance that the Democrats could emerge with the White House and the Senate. There is even an outside chance they could take the entire federal government. However, winning one election would not mean that the nation is less divided. It would be a huge mistake to interpret such a victory as a mandate for anything. It would be an indication of disgust with Donald Trump and the “down ticket” impact of a profoundly weak candidate.

The solution to climate change is not to punish consumers or raise the cost of energy. Poor people and rich people rely on energy. For poor people, the energy bill is a high proportion of their weekly budget. Rather than raise the price of fossil fuels, our climate policy should lower the price of renewable energy. We should subsidize electric cars, solar panels and other technologies to make it possible for working families to afford them. When we discover a technology is damaging the environment we should do what government did with both CFCs and HFCs: work with the manufacturers to develop a high-quality, cost-effective, lower-impact substitute.

The 2016 presidential campaign has brought out the worst of America’s fears and extreme politics. It has brought out the deep frustration and dissatisfaction of a large portion of the American public. This has been coupled with Trump’s complete lack of civility and inability to adhere to the norms of public dialogue. The American political process is designed by its structure to reinforce center, moderate, majority views. The absence of proportional representation in Congress, the Electoral College, and federalism itself ensures that no extreme voice can dominate the entire political power structure in America. But we are learning this year that the best designs and deepest traditions are never invulnerable to corruption and collapse. When this election is over and a new government comes into office in Washington, I hope that the lessons of 2016 are not forgotten. In the case of environmental sustainability we need to resume the search for common ground and policies that generate consensus and agreement. I would start with a determined public-private partnership on renewable energy and a modern electrical system.

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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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