The Go-Getter Approach to Climate Change

World Resources Institute, 2010: US Emissions by Sector

The TakeAway: With extreme weather mounting and Congress dithering, WRI report outlines what we can do now to reduce GHGs.

In the world of climate change, the gap between scientific consensus and political resolve is widening – but luckily, this doesn’t bar action on climate solutions already in place.  On the science side, the World Meteorological Organization considers the spate of extreme weather events this summer (fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan and China, melting of Greenland’s ice-shelf) to “fit patterns predicted by climate scientists,” according to a Friday AP report.  In politics, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew climate legislation late last month in the face of resistance from Republicans and some Democrats.

On the action front, the World Resources Institute delivered welcome relief from this depressing divide with a refreshingly pragmatic take on what we can do right now to combat climate change, with the tools at-hand.  “Even if Congressional action is ultimately necessary to put the US on a long-term low-carbon path and aid in the transition to a low-carbon economy, can federal agencies and state governments get the U.S. started down that path?” the WRI report released late last month asks in the Introduction.  Yes is their emphatic answer, putting a new twist on the late Tip O’Neil’s old dictum: all politics is local, even though the issues at stake are global.

Before turning to the WRI report, let’s first look at what the world’s weather is telling us, and how the climate scientists interpret it.  Sunday’s New York Times confirmed the AP report, citing the replacement of scientific caution with grave concern over the growing trend of extreme weather events. In Russia, for example, extreme heat, drought, and wildfires rage in normally cool regions.  The result: a doubling of deaths in Moscow, crop losses, and toxic smog.

The Pakistani floods have affected 20 million people, raising the specter of disease and displacement; yesterday Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Britain estimated it would cost $15 billion to rebuild the lost infrastructure. In China, flooding in northwest Gansu province has killed over 1,100 people, with more than 600 missing.  And finally, a breakaway iceberg from the Petermann Glacier – four times the size of Manhattan – raised concerns about rising sea levels, and sent scientists scrambling to play catch-up with the melting polar realities.  Mother Nature seems to be telling us ever more insistently: Change, or face dire consequences.

This message has been obscured for decades now, so the recent summary of “Everything You Need to Know About Global Warming in 5 Minutes” by venerable Boston investment manager Jeremy Grantham of GMO does the best job we’ve seen of ticking off the causes, consequences, and controversies surrounding climate change.  He deftly challenges conservative think tanks and conspiracy theorists, asserting that they are held sway by “fossil energy companies, driven by the need to protect hundreds of billions of dollars of profits, [and therefore] encourage obfuscation of inconvenient scientific results.”  Global warming, he says, “is a classic tragedy of the commons”, where individual action does not lead to the common good, and ideology has trumped science.

Given the clarity of the case for climate action, combined with this increase in climate-related catastrophes, why, then, does the US remain the only major industrialized nation not to have legislated caps on carbon emissions?  The US pledge in Copenhagen called for reductions in 2020 “in the range of 17% [below 2005 levels], in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation.”  With Congress scuttling efforts toward a coordinated plan for meeting that goal, what are we to do?

WRI report authors Nicholas Bianco and Franz Litz provide many suggestions in their finely-grained analysis of Federal regulatory tools currently available, as well as announced actions as the state level.  Bianco and Litz studied potential GHG reductions across a range of key sectors – power plants, light duty vehicles, manufacturing, refineries, aircraft, coal mining, and so on – that already are possible.  They then framed this peer-reviewed analysis within three broad scenarios:

  • a “Lackluster” scenario that aggregates reductions at the lower end of what is technically feasible, therefore representing “low regulatory ambition”;
  • a “Middle of the Road” scenario that combines reductions “generally in the middle of the range considered technically feasible and corresponding to moderate regulatory ambitions; and
  • a “Go-Getter” scenario that combines higher-feasibility reductions with “higher regulatory ambition”.

“Readers can make their own judgment about which scenario they think is the most plausible,” they wrote.  With Mother Nature’s wrath mounting, our future depends on the “Go-Getter” option.

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