Ross Gelbspan, July 1, 2006
RX FOR A PLANETARY FEVER
[Introduction: This is the final chapter of Ross Gelbspan's 2005 book, Boiling Point.]
"Our house is burning down and we're blind to it...The earth and humankind are in danger and we are all responsible. It is time to open our eyes. Alarms are sounding across all the continents... We cannot say that we did not know! Climate warming is still reversible. Heavy would be the responsibility of those who refused to fight it." -- French President Jacques Chirac, September, 2002
It is hard to get people focused on climate change today, not only because it has been misrepresented as a future problem, but because there is so much competition from other problems.
We are under attack from terrorists. We are apprehensive about the aftermath of the war with Iraq. The recent period of economic stagnation has stunned us with the realization that the global economy is just as vulnerable to abrupt and unpredictable shocks as the nation's electricity grid. The press has stubbornly refused to accord this story the attention and energy it requires.
So it is worth repeating that climate change is not just another issue in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It is the issue which, unchecked, will swamp all other issues.
Conversely, the solution to the climate crisis may well contain the seeds for solutions to some of the most threatening problems facing humanity today. The solutions to climate change have the potential to begin to mend a profoundly fractured world.
Take, for example, our newfound vulnerability to terrorism.
The most obvious connection is that the solution to the climate crisis -- a worldwide transition to renewable energy -- would dramatically reduce the significance of oil, and with it our exposure to the political volatility in the Middle East.
A second connection is that a renewable energy economy would have far more independent sources of power -- home-based fuel cells, stand- alone solar systems, regional windfarms -- which would make the nation's electricity grid a far less strategic target for future guerrilla attacks. (Even absent terrorism, the vulnerability of large grid-based systems was underscored by the blackout of much of the northeastern U.S. in the summer of 2003. That power outage, whose reach exceeded a similar blackout in 1977, was the fourth such failure in the last decade, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.)
More relevant to our security is the fact that poor countries are much more immediately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The continuing indifference by the U.S. to atmospheric warming -- since this country generates a quarter of the world's emissions with 5 percent of its people -- will almost guarantee more anti-U.S. attacks from people whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose populations are afflicted by epidemics of infectious disease and whose borders are overrun by environmental refugees.
The real truth about terrorism is that, aside from hardening specific targets like airports and nuclear plants, there is no way to protect any complex organized society from guerrilla attacks. In the long run, what is really required is a major change in our posture toward developing countries.
Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the new chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, pointed out at the end of 2002 that the impacts of climate change " will exacerbate world poverty and could make millions of people more open to extremism." In an interview with Reuters New Service, Pachauri added: "Large areas of poverty are dangerous for the world as a whole as they provide fertile ground for extremist views. Things go wrong. People want to blame someone." In this case, the U.S. really is the major culprit.
Just as runaway carbon concentrations are threatening to destabilize the global climate, runaway economic inequity can only continue to destabilize our global political environment.
The prevailing view of developing countries as economic competitors reflects a near-mystical, almost fundamentalist, belief in the divinity of free markets -- and an equivalent of hypocrisy about the unacknowledged political control we exert over those markets. In fact, the continuing economic exploitation of the developing world -- through rigged trade rules, unfair subsidies in industrial countries and the stultifying burden of chronic indebtedness -- will only further impoverish poor countries relative to the industrial world. In shrinking foreign markets and preventing the sound development of an industrial base in many developing countries, this posture is basically a recipe for the slow-motion suicide of global capitalism.
Stepping back, it is worth repeating that the real economic issue in rewiring the globe with clean energy is not cost. The real economic issue is whether the world has a big enough labor force to accomplish the task in time to meet nature's deadline.
A properly-funded global transition to clean energy would create millions of jobs in poor countries and substantially raise living standards in the developing world.
It is an article of faith among development economists that energy investments in poor countries create far more wealth and jobs than investments in any other sector. Were the U.S. to spearhead a wholesale transfer of clean energy to developing countries, that would do more than anything else in the long term to address the economic desperation that underlies anti-U.S. sentiment.
Beyond the threat of terrorism, the competition for the world's dwindling supply of oil is certain to be a major source of potential military conflict in the coming decades. "Many resources are needed to sustain a modern industrialized society, but only those that are viewed as being vital to national security are likely to provoke the use of military force when access... is placed in jeopardy. There is no question that oil [enjoys] this distinctive status," according to Michael Klare, a leading expert on international security issues.
On the economic front, it seems clear the entire global economy is susceptible to periods of stagnation, even recession. In mid-2003, economists at the Federal Reserve were raising concerns about that most frightening of economic dynamics -- deflation. A truly floundering economy seems relatively immune to tax cuts and interest rate reductions. A more proven remedy for long-term economic stagnation seems to lie in public works programs. Depression-era "New Deal" programs, like the Works Progress Administration, implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, created jobs for millions of unemployed people. A generation later, President Dwight Eisenhower's construction of a national interstate highway system -- at the time the biggest public works program in history -- provided a substantial number of government- funded job opportunities.
Today, a global public works program to rewire the globe with clean energy would be the most productive investment we could make in our future. Within a decade, it would begin to generate a major and continuing worldwide economic lift-off.
Given the ferocious resistance of big coal and big oil, it is clear that the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry are, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the economic interests of the larger economy.
For example, there are a large number of multi-national corporations -- many of them based in the United States -- who have saturated their markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan. A large class of companies like Boeing, Gillette, Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble and many others see virtually all their future earnings growth coming from developing countries.
But as we have seen, the impacts of climate change hit poor countries first and hardest -- not because nature discriminates against the poor, but because most developing countries cannot afford the infrastructures to accommodate flood, droughts, severe storms, epidemics of disease and incursions of environmental refugees.
The majority of the extreme weather events that have been rocking the world for the last few years have taken increasingly severe economic tolls on developing countries. That trend will only continue. And as it does, those global corporations that look to developing countries for their future profits will see that projected growth evaporate as climate disasters drain national budgets and shrink purchasing power in the developing world.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that climatic instability is beginning to threaten the keystones of the world's financial structure -- its banks and insurers.
In the 1980s, the world's property insurers lost an average of $2 billion a year to weather extremes. In the 1990s, they lost an average of $12 billion a year. In 1998 alone, property insurers lost $89 billion to extreme weather events which is more than they lost in the entire decade of the 1980s.
As noted earlier, the community of property re-insurers estimates losses from climate impacts to the global economy to jump to about $150 billion a year within this decade, to $300 billion a year in the next few decades, and even to bankrupting the global economy by 2065.
By contrast, the dramatic expansion of the overall wealth in the global economy from a worldwide energy transition would create new markets and significantly invigorate existing ones.
There is, however, another line of argument that centers not on the economy but on the most basic human moral principles. When policy makers discuss climate change, they discuss it in economic terms -- the costs of climate impacts versus the costs of addressing the issue. That is the vocabulary that counts today with many decision-makers.
But, at root, climate change is not an economic issue. It is, first and foremost, a moral issue.
It is telling that, of all sectors of civil society in the U.S., perhaps the most proactive and energetic response to the climate crisis is coming from the religious community. Congregations around the country are mobilizing both practically as well as in the pulpits. A number of congregations are beginning to bulk-buy renewable energy for their churches, synagogues and mosques. But even more critical than the buying power of churches is the resonance of unified voices of faith.
To continue to ignore climate impacts means putting at risk billions of poor people around the world who are much more immediately vulnerable to its impacts. It means dishonoring all the effort and sacrifice of all those generations who have worked so hard to create this civilization we enjoy today. Ultimately, it means consigning our children to a future of chaos and disintegration.
What is really missing from the climate debate is an insistence on the moral imperative of truly facing this challenge in all its dimensions. In this case, that moral imperative requires an equivalent policy imperative.
One model of such a policy centers on a set of macro-level, global scale policies that would address both the extraordinary threat of climate impacts and the economic desperation of the majority of the world's citizens.
The World Energy Modernization Plan contains three interactive, mutually- reinforcing strategies that are designed to reduce carbon emissions by the 70 percent required by nature -- at the same time as they would create millions of jobs around the world, especially in developing countries.
The Plan was developed by an ad hoc, informal group of about 15 energy company presidents, economists, energy policy experts and others (including the author) in 1998 who met at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Since that time, the plan has been presented at side conferences to the climate negotiations in Buenos Aires and Bonn. It has been endorsed by a number of developing country NGOs. It received a very positive reception from the former CEO of Shell/UK who was also director of a G-8 Task Force on Renewable Energy and has attracted the interest of a small number of senators and congressmen. Most recently, it was endorsed by a former British Ambassador to the United Nations.
To set the plan in its starkest context: the deep oceans are warming, the tundra is thawing, the glaciers are melting, infectious diseases are migrating and the timing of the seasons have changed. And all that has resulted from one degree of warming. By contrast, the earth will warm from 3 to 10 degrees F. later in this century, according to the IPCC.
Against that background, we are offering this set of strategies. While they have been vetted by a number of economists and energy policy experts, they are still provisional. Some elements may require major surgery. Although we happen to think this proposal is elegant, we are not dogmatic about its particulars.
What we do believe -- very strongly -- is that these strategies present a model of the scope and scale of action that is appropriate to the magnitude of the climate crisis. And, to date, we have not seen other policy recommendations that adequately address the urgency of the problem.
As Britain's prestigious Institute for Public Policy Research declared recently, "Kyoto will not stop climate change. The next international climate change negotiations must agree on a safe level of emissions in the long term and fair shares between nations." Tony Grayling, of the IPPR added: "Future international climate change policy should be based on sound science and social justice, not the horse trading that characterized the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol."
Those sentiments were echoed by Graeme Pearman, chief scientist at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who added : "Slowing the rate of emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will not stop the increase of its concentration and thus climate change. [R]eductions of 70% or more in current global emissions are necessary in order to stabilize concentrations."
Because of U.S. recalcitrance, coupled with the escalating pace of climate change, the Kyoto goals (but not the Kyoto process) are today irrelevant. It is time to go straight for a global reduction of 70 percent. The hope is to get ideas of this scope into the conversation to help move it to an appropriate level.
The Plan involves three interacting strategies:
* a change of energy subsidy policies in industrial countries;
* the creation of a large fund to transfer renewable energy technologies to developing countries; and,
* the subordination within a Kyoto-type framework of the mechanism of international emissions trading to a progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year.
While each of these strategies can be viewed as a stand-alone policy, they are better understood as a systemic set of interactive policies that could speed the energy transition far more rapidly than if they were implemented in piecemeal fashion.
On the issue of subsidies, the United States currently spends more than $20 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuels. Industrial country subsidies for fossil fuels have been estimated at $200 billion a year. (That figure does not include another $15 billion in U.S. subsidies that is frequently cited by other economists. That figure represents the amount of military expenditures the U.S. spends to ensure the security of transportation of oil from the Middle East).
In the industrial countries, those subsidies would be withdrawn from fossil fuels and equivalent subsidies established to promote the development of clean energy sources. Clearly a small portion of the U.S. subsidies must be used to retrain or buyout the nation's 50,000 or so coal miners. Their welfare cannot be sacrificed to the interest of climate stabilization. But the lions' share of the subsidies would still be available for use by the major oil companies to retrain their workers and re-tool to become aggressive developers of fuel cells, wind farms, and solar systems. In other words, the subsidy switch is intended as a tool to help oil companies transform themselves into renewable energy companies.
These strategies would best not be implemented in isolation. If the subsidy switch alone were implemented in industrial nations, it would promote the growth of the renewable energy industry in the North.
But, as we know, the problem is global in scope. Even if the countries of the North were to dramatically reduce emissions, those cuts would be overwhelmed by emissions from the large developing countries. Therefore the second element of the plan involves the creation of a new $300 billion a year fund to help transfer renewable energy resources to poor countries. Virtually all poor countries would love to go solar; virtually none can afford it. The most air- polluted cities in the world today are in China, Mexico, Thailand, Chile and other developing and transitional countries.
One attractive source of revenue to fund the transfer lies in a "Tobin tax" on international currency transactions, named after its developer, Nobel prize- winning economist Dr. James Tobin. Tobin conceived of his tax, which has yet to be implemented, as a way to dampen the volatility in capital markets by discouraging short-term trading and encouraging longer-term capital investments. But it would also generate enormous revenues. Today the commerce in currency swaps by banks and speculators amounts to $1.5 trillion per day. A tax of a quarter-penny on a dollar would net about $300 billion a year for wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and vast, solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East.
Since currency transactions are electronically tracked by the private banking system, the need for a large, new bureaucracy could be avoided simply by paying the banks a fee to administer the fund. That administrative fee would, to some extent, offset the banks' loss of income from the contraction in currency trading that would inevitably result from the imposition of the tax.
The only new bureaucracy envisioned would be an international auditing agency to monitor transactions to ensure equal access for all energy vendors and to minimize corruption in recipient countries.
Several developing country commentators have suggested that corruption could be further curtailed by requiring recipient governments to include representatives of indigenous minorities, universities, NGOs and labor unions in making decisions about the procurement and deployment of new energy resources.
If a Tobin Tax proves unacceptable -- and some economists express a nervousness about this untested mechanism -- a tax on airline travel or a carbon tax in industrial countries, while more regressive, could fulfill the same function. Florentin Krause, of the IPCC's Working Group III, and Stephen DeCanio, former staff economist for the Reagan Council of Economic Advisers, estimate that if carbon emissions were taxed at the rate of $50 a ton, the revenue would approximate the $300 billion from a tax on currency transactions. (It is unclear what would happen to transitional prices of carbon fuels if subsidies were removed and a carbon tax imposed at the same time. That may, or may not, be an economically viable step.)
Regardless of its revenue source, the fund -- on the ground -- would be allocated according to a United Nations formula based on climate, energy use, population, economic growth rates, etc. to determine what percentage of each year's fund would go to each developing country.
If India, for instance, were to receive $5 billion in the first year, it would then decide what mix of wind farms, village solar installations, fuel cell generators and biogas facilities it wanted. The Indian government (in this hypothetical example) would then entertain bids for the construction of new windfarms, solar panels and fuel cells. As contractors reached specified development and construction benchmarks, they would then be paid directly by the banks. And the banks, as noted, would receive a fee for administering the fund.
As self-replicating renewable infrastructures took root in developing countries, the fund could simply be phased out. Alternatively, progressively larger amounts of the fund could be diverted to other global environmental and development needs.
The fund is not a traditional North-South giveaway. Rather it represents the transfer of resources from the finance sector -- in the form of speculative, non- productive transactions -- to the industrial sector, in the form of intensely productive, wealth-generating, job- creating investments.
The fund also represents a critical investment in our own national security. The global climate envelops us all. What is needed is the kind of thinking that gave rise to the Marshall Plan after World War II. Today, instead of a collection of impoverished and dependent allies in Europe, we have prosperous and robust trading partners. We believe a plan of this magnitude would have a similarly enriching effect on the world's developing economies. It would create millions of jobs. It would raise living standards abroad without compromising ours. It would allow developing countries to grow without regard to atmospheric limits -- and without the budgetary burden of imported oil. And in a very short time, the renewable energy industry would emerge as a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.
Any strategy to change the world's energy diet must directly address the oil producing nations of the world -- especially in the Middle East. Were the countries of the North to phase out their oil consumption without accommodating the traditional geopolitical role of the oil producing nations, the drain on Middle Eastern economies would be disastrous. It would inflame the world's most politically volatile region. It would exacerbate tensions in oil kingdoms where popular resentment against autocratic rulers is already seething. It would strengthen the perception that the U.S. is waging a war on Islam. Given the high levels of unemployment in Egypt, Iraq and other oil producing nations, it would elevate economic despair and political desperation to new levels.
The solution to this dilemma lies in the fact that hydrogen will be the central fuel of a new energy economy. The cheapest and most environmentally benign way to make hydrogen is by putting electricity into water and capturing the liberated hydrogen gas.
In this case, an energy modernization plan would involve helping the nations of the Middle East cover their deserts with salt-water pipelines and electricity-generating solar (photovoltaic) panels and windfarms. A structure of vast, hydrogen-producing farms would allow the nations of the Middle East to be hydrogen suppliers to Europe, North Africa and East Asia. It would allow those countries to use the resources on top of their land (sunlight and wind), instead of the oil deposits below the surface. While the countries of the Middle East may not realize the same profit margins on hydrogen as they do on oil, they would still retain their geopolitical role as major energy suppliers in the global economy. Moreover, since the installation of windfarms and solar panels is far more labor intensive than the highly automated activity of oil drilling, this kind of initiative would create jobs for many of the under and unemployed people in the region.
One highly improbable fantasy might involve a collaboration between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israeli scientists and engineers are developing truly cutting-edge solar technologies. Were they to work with their Arab neighbors on a system of solar-powered hydrogen farms, it could begin to create the kind of economic collaboration that might, in time, help create conditions supportive of a real peace process.
The third -- and unifying -- strategy of the plan -- which makes it all work -- calls on the parties to Kyoto to subordinate the uneven and inequitable system of international emissions trading to a simple and equitable progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard which goes up by about five percent per year.
This mechanism, if incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol, would harmonize and guide the global energy transition in a way that emissions trading can not.
As noted earlier, the mechanism of emissions trading can work relatively well within nations. Domestic cap-and-trade programs -- like the U.S. trading program set up to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions -- have been relatively successful because they are easy to monitor and enforce. For that reason, a well-constructed, properly monitored "cap-and-trade" system could work well within individual companies and countries as a supplementary mechanism to help meet the five percent annual increase in the Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard.
Under this mechanism, every country would start at its current baseline to increase its Fossil Fuel energy efficiency by 5 percent every year until the global 70 percent reduction is attained. That means a country would produce the same amount of goods as the previous year with five percent less carbon fuel. Alternatively, it would produce five percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the previous year.
Since no economy can grow at five percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.
The fact that every country would begin at its current baseline would eliminate the equity controversies inherent in the "cap-and-trade" system -- and would, in tandem with the Fund -- assure the participation of developing countries.
For the first few years of the efficiency standard, most countries would likely meet their goals by implementing low-cost or even profitable efficiencies -- the "low-hanging fruit" -- in their current energy systems. After a few years, however, as those efficiencies became more expensive to capture, countries would meet the progressively more stringent standard by drawing more and more energy from non-carbon sources -- most of which are 100 percent efficient by a Fossil Fuel standard.
That, in turn, would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them competitive with coal and oil.
This approach would be far simpler to negotiate than the current Protocol, with its morass of details involving emissions trading, reviews of the adequacy of commitments and differentiated targets. It would also be far easier to monitor and enforce. A nation's compliance would be measured simply by calculating the annual change in the ratio of its carbon fuel use to its gross domestic product. That ratio would have to change by 5 percent a year.
This approach has a precedent in the Montreal Protocol, under which companies phased out ozone-destroying chemicals. That protocol was successful because the same companies that made the destructive chemicals were able to produce their substitutes -- with no loss of competitive standing within the industry. The energy industry must be reconfigured in the same way. Several oil executives have said in private conversations that they can, in an orderly fashion, decarbonize their energy supplies. British Petroleum may be the world's largest vendor of solar systems. Shell may have invested $1 billion in a renewable energy subsidiary. Ford and Daimler Chrysler may have entered into a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell cars. But for these efforts to have more than a marginal impact, the oil and auto industries need the governments of the world to regulate the process so all companies can make the transition in lockstep without losing market share to competitors. A progressive Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard would, I think, provide that type of regulation.
The plan, then, would be driven by three engines: the subsidy switch would propel the metamorphosis of oil companies into clean energy companies; the competition for the new $300 billion a year market in clean energy would power the whole process; and the progressive fossil fuel efficiency standard would harmonize the transformation of national energy structures, create a predictable regulation for the major energy corporations, and jump renewable energy into a global industry.
A global energy transition requires the governments of the world to regulate some of the largest corporations on the planet. On the record, corporations reflexively resist any move toward new regulation. But history indicates that if the regulations are non- discriminatory, industry-wide and, most important, predictable -- so corporations can depend on them in formulating their strategic plans -- business leaders will accept them.
These climate solution strategies present a clear deal to the multi- national oil majors: the relinquishing of a measure of corporate autonomy in exchange for a new $300 billion a year market.
They present something else as well -- the glimpse of an opportunity to begin to democratize the global economy by putting people back in charge of governments and governments in charge of corporations.
The rise of the current corporate state seems, to many people, to be killing off the democratic impulse in the name of economic rationalization. Many people today feel that their human roles have been reduced to agents for the movement of money. Political participation in the United States -- especially at the national level -- has declined to all time lows. One powerful reason for this malaise of political alienation lies in the control of the government by large corporate interests. Energized people who organize around obvious and needed reforms -- campaign finance reform, environmental protection, worker rights -- become exhausted and demoralized as each popular demand for reform is trumped in Washington by lobbyists representing huge corporate interests, who dominate the invisible workings of our national government.
It is not a stretch to say that the solution to the climate crisis contains the potential to begin to reverse our slide into a permanent corporate state and to resuscitate participatory democracy as an operating principle of our civic lives.
Given the reach of the major multi-national energy companies in today's globalized economy, it is apparent that the problem requires a mechanism of international governance to achieve this regulation. In the case of the climate crisis, that institution is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the compact under which the Kyoto Protocol was drafted. That mechanism of international governance could well provide a pilot model for a much more extensive regime of popular governance of the world's industries.
Even as we are seeing the globalization of the economy, we are also seeing the globalization of communication among activist groups all over the world. In many countries, moreover, governments depend on the expertise and insights of non-governmental organizations for policy guidance. This is especially true in many developing countries, where governments simply do not have the resources to develop their own expertise in specialized areas. There are also a large number of established NGOs in industrial nations that exert considerable influence on government policies. One can readily imagine a coordinated global movement in which activist organizations around the world mount simultaneous campaigns to pressure their individual governments to impose uniform regulations on multi-national industries -- and to penalize governments that do not comply.
Those coordinated national-level campaigns could be paralleled by a coordinated international effort. The climate crisis -- like many other global problems -- requires an international agency to regulate multi-national corporations. That agency could provide an access point for real influence by a global community of electronically-linked activists. The United Nations has long provided institutional roles for accredited non-governmental organizations in its decision-making. Civil society groups have participated with the UN and its member states on a range of issues including, among others, disarmament, human rights, sustainable development, social policy and humanitarian affairs.
Initially one can envision the activist community participating in international decisions on the narrow area of energy technologies. Ultimately, that participation could expand to include popular regulation of many other areas of corporate activities that affect not only our environment but our social and economic well-being as well.
If such a collaboration on climate and carbon emissions were to be broadened and refined, one could imagine people around the world voting on what is the acceptable discrepancy between the salary of a CEO and a janitor. One could imagine people voting to put democratically-determined limits on the activities of entire industries. For instance, people might vote to require multinational corporations, setting up manufacturing facilities in developing countries, to pay new workers 150 percent of median income in the host country. One could imagine people voting on a mandatory regime of testing for any new chemical released into the environment. Groups representing investors might vote on a set of corporate reporting standards that are far more transparent and publicly accessible than those that provided cover for the unconscionable deceptions at Enron, Tyco and Worldcom among others. In all kinds of areas, people could be given the opportunity to vote on regulations which would limit the most damaging impacts of corporate activities on vulnerable communities, populations and ecosystems.
This is one promise embedded in the climate crisis -- an opportunity to begin to put corporations in the service of people rather than keeping people at the mercy of increasingly huge conglomerates whose activities are determined by the demands of a market that does not account for the social or environmental consequences of its operations.
This is not socialism. Companies would still compete within these democratically-determined boundaries -- and the quality of product development, customer service and corporate innovation would continue to determine the winners and losers in the marketplace. In specific industries, these regulations might reduce overall profit margins -- but they would be reduced equally for all the companies within an industry.
It seems highly probable, moreover, that those lower profits would be offset by the economic benefits of better working conditions, higher wages, less costly environmental clean-ups, far lower expenditures on negative public health impacts and a massive savings in the amount of money most corporations pay -- directly to their lobbyists and indirectly to candidates and their parties -- to procure special advantages in Washington.
That is a process that could begin with a program of public involvement in the area of emissions reduction -- and lead toward a new kind of democratization of the global economy.
Were the nations of the world to come together around the climate crisis, it could also set the tone for a new set of international relationships. The meltdown of the planet can not be reversed by unilateral policies or exclusive alliances. The global climate does not respect national boundaries or international coalitions. The climate crisis pits us all against the gathering fury of nature.
But there is a central conundrum embedded in these solutions -- how to expand the overall wealth in the global economy without destroying the physical environment on which it depends. Ultimately, the democratization of the economy must be yoked to the twin goals of equity and sustainability. The ominous arrival of climate change aside, the physical planet will not long support global levels of consumption, material use and pollution that characterize the affluence of industrial world.
We are cutting down forests at an astonishing rate. Between 1980 and 1995, for instance, at least 2 million square kilometers of forests were destroyed -- an area larger than Mexico. According to a recent study, 90 percent of all large fish have disappeared from the world's oceans in the past half century because of industrial-scale fishing. Each year, we release thousands of new chemicals into the environment -- which aggregate in growing "dead zones" on ocean floors, in the contamination of already-scarce drinking water sources and in the extraordinary increase of the amount of chemicals (and, presumably, cancers, birth defects and reproductive disorders) in our own bodies over the past several generations.
At the same time as we are decimating our natural world, we are relentlessly exacerbating the ever-widening divide between the world's rich and poor. This is a recipe for certain political chaos.
Overshooting the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb our carbon emissions -- and thereby beginning to destabilize the global climate -- brings us up against only the first of many limits of the natural world.
A switch to a clean energy economy will, at best, only buy us a bit more time to prepare for other retaliations of nature which wait just around the corner.
The unprecedented challenge is to raise living standards abroad while, at the same time, reducing the rate at which we are depleting the global storehouse of resources and exhausting the capacity of the physical world to accommodate our wastes. Ideally, most of the economic benefits of an energy transition should accrue to the developing world so that, even as the wealth gap becomes progressively narrower, the larger global economy moves toward new levels of sustainability in which raw material is used more sparingly and strategically and in which far more of our waste is eliminated at the source and reused at its endpoint. In the case of the climate crisis, a global transition to clean energy sources should intrinsically generate more economic growth in the developing world -- if only because would provide more new energy sources to poor countries. The same transition in the industrial, by contrast, would likely involve a much higher proportion of replacements for currently existing energy sources.
Beyond the technological change involved in a clean-energy revolution, the continuity of a cohesive civilization seems also to require a profound shift in our values. It suggests that much more of our gratification -- especially in the wealthier nations -- comes not from acquisition and consumption of an endless stream of products, most of which depend on artificially created demand and many of which are superfluous to our personal happiness. It seems to require, instead, that we look for personal fulfillment to our intellectual pursuits, our creative activities, our recreational competitions and our expanding web of relationships.
While this is beginning to happen very gradually -- through the shift from an industrial to an information economy -- it is happening far too slowly. The transition needs to be accelerated dramatically. The planet will not accommodate anything less. And it is the planet, ultimately, that holds our history hostage against a future which, to remain coherent, must unfold in ways that accommodate nature's limits and thresholds.
These "climate solutions" represent a technological fix to the climate crisis. But, given the rapid rate at which many of the systems of the biosphere are deteriorating, it is clear we can not "fix" our way into a secure future with technological innovations alone.
My own instinct is that changes in values frequently follow changes in technology. The larger hope here is that the very act of addressing the climate crisis in its true proportions would bring home to everyone around the world the realization that we are living on a planet with limits -- and that we are now bumping up against those limits.
Ultimately a worldwide crash program to rewire the world with clean energy would, I believe, yield far more than a fuel switch. It could very easily lead to "closed-loop" industrial processes (that captures industrial waste products rather than releasing them into the environment), "smart-growth" planning (with its emphasis on clustered housing, more open space and a reliance on public transportation), far more recycling and reuse, the adoption of "environmental accounting" (which includes the true costs of resource depletion and pollution in calculating national GDPs), and, ultimately, a whole new ethic of sustainability that would transform our institutions and practices and dynamics in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
I think the realization that we are all part of a larger -- and increasingly vulnerable -- community could engender a new sense of common purpose -- that would begin with an energy transition and lead, in turn, to a sustainable redesign of the entire human enterprise in a global project which could keep us all very busy for years to come.
This crisis requires the kind of cooperative global response that the founders of the United Nations never dared dream about. It requires us to abandon the artificial divisions of a stale nationalism which, even against our will, we are outgrowing. Our context is changing faster than our understanding of ourselves.
In the early 21st Century, the U.S. is redefining itself as an empire. But every empire is doomed by the limits of its military power. We can not protect a complex, highly organized society against terror attacks. Ultimately, all empires contains the seeds of their own destruction -- resistance, resentment and sabotage.
If the U.S. were to lead the world in a global partnership of this scale, it could lay the foundations for a new era of history. Thus could the U.S. regain its position of leadership -- not through its military power but through its nurture and support of the rest of the world. The payback would take the form of an expansion in trade and commerce as well as a resurrection of moral leadership and international goodwill.
A properly framed global public works program to rewire the world could unite every country around a project that is critical to our common survival. It would not pit countries or alliances against one another. There is no historical precedent for this kind of global cooperation. It has never happened before. The rapid and unpredictable pace of intensifying climate change may never allow it to happen again.
Human institutions and planetary system operate on very different time schedules. Large planetary systems, with huge amounts of inertia, maintain their equilibrium for centuries, frequently for millennia. But when they do begin to move toward a new state, their momentum may be unstoppable until they settle into a new equilibrium -- one which will probably make conditions on the planet far less hospitable to organized civilization.
Human political institutions have much the same type of inertia -- albeit on much smaller time scales. By the time we detect the beginnings of really major movements in natural systems, our human institutions must respond immediately.
In the case of the climate crisis, this is happening only partially in other parts of the world -- and in the United States barely, if at all. This disjunction may be the undoing of us all. The escalating pace of climate change may well outstrip our capability to respond. We have become so engaged in a moment- to-moment global lifestyle, it seems as though our sense of future is becoming progressively more truncated.
Today a significant number of scientists are now saying it is already too late to avoid major disruptions. Many cite extrapolations of current trends. But even the ominous trajectory of those trends pales in the face of a seldom- acknowledged truth about the climate. Nature is capable of immense and unpredictable surprises -- and those surprises are becoming progressively more likely than not. The increasing likelihood of major disruptions, of abrupt discontinuities, may render current extrapolations obsolete.
All of which raises the question: has humanity already passed the point of no return in our slide toward climate chaos?
Several years ago, I was invited to make a short presentation to a small number of senators and congressmen in the office of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. At the end of my presentation, one Congressman, John Olver, of Massachusetts, a former chemistry professor, said: "I agree with everything you've just said. Except that I think it's too late."
While that sentiment -- which is echoed by a growing number of observers -- is profoundly discouraging, it may not be completely true.
What is true is that it now appears very likely that it is too late to avert a cascade of major and destructive impacts of climate change. Many, many signals indicate that events are outpacing our ability to contain them. That is the conclusion one infers from a steady flow of scientific findings and a succession of warming-driven impacts around the world.
But the honest truth is that we really do not know.
We do not know where on the trajectory of disintegration we stand. We can not identify thresholds of carbon concentrations that could flip the climate into a new regime. We do not know what other feedback mechanisms lie in wait -- and when they may kick in.
There is one other unknown that may be even more critical than the mysterious timetables of nature. It has to do with sudden and unpredictable eruptions of sweeping social and political movements.
Given the urgency and magnitude of the escalating pace of climate change, the only solution lies in a rapid and unprecedented mobilization of humanity around this issue. There are a few precious precedents in our recent history. The Berlin Wall fell within a couple of years of the demise of the Soviet Union. The citizens of South Africa overturned that country's long legacy of apartheid in the historical blink of an eye.
This hope represents the most intellectually honest consolation when virtually all the evidence points toward the increasing inevitability of catastrophe: the hope that some spark might ignite a massive uprising of popular will around a unifying movement for social survival and the promise it holds for a more prosperous, more equitable and more peaceful world. Absent that spark, the prognosis is deeply disheartening. The antidote to the paralysis of despair lies in acknowledging our ignorance. Regardless of the apparent hopelessness of our situation, we really do not know the timing or the nature of the huge surprises embedded in nature and, hopefully, in our own collective behavior. The existential imperative in the face of this profound ignorance is simply to keep trying. No alternative seems morally acceptable.
At this extraordinary crosspoint in history, we are fast approaching a unique pivot point in our social evolution. Either we will move forward toward a much more cooperative and coordinated global community, or we will regress into a progressively more tribalized, combative and totalitarian existence. And we will watch the unbounded promise of the future -- which has been our birthright since the beginning of civilization -- as it disintegrates in a cascade of climatic disruptions.
There is really no choice. One way or the other, this world we inhabit will not long continue on its historical trajectory. Like it or not, we are facing a massive and inevitable discontinuity.
We will either retreat into ourselves and scramble to defend our private security in an increasingly threatening environment, or we will move forward into a much more coherent and prosperous and peaceful future.
This perspective may well be overly visionary. But the alternative -- given the escalating instability of the climate system, the deterioration of other natural planetary systems and the increasing desperation of global economic inequity -- is truly horrible to contemplate.
The ultimate hope is that -- especially given the centrality of energy to our modern lives -- a meaningful solution to the climate crisis could potentially be the beginning of a much larger transformation of our social and economic dynamics.
Our modern history has been marked by a dichotomy between the totalitarianism of command-and-control economies and the opulence and brutality of unregulated markets and runaway globalization.
It is just possible that the act of rewiring of the planet could begin to point us toward that optimal calibration of competition and cooperation that would maximize our energy and creativity and productivity while, at the same time, substantially extending the baseline conditions for peace -- peace among people and peace between people and nature.
(c) Ross Gelbspan