How responding to climate change could change our world—for the better
I was asked to talk at the Northwest Biodiesel annual conference at the Seattle Center on May 6, 2007. My talk followed ones by Greg Rock of the Green Car Company on Peak Oil and Dr. Richard Gammon, of NOAA, one of the leading experts on climate change. This turned out to be harder work than I thought it was going to be, as I explain below ...
I want to begin by thanking Dr. Richard Gammon for being out raising the alarm about climate change way before it became popular.
I also want to thank the organizers of this conference and all of you for being about solutions.
I have to admit I found the task you gave me a bit daunting. Knowing you’d be hearing some rather bad news, you wanted me to talk about what we can do to solve the challenges confronting the future of human civilization – in 15 minutes. And presumably, you also were hoping I would cheer things up so we could all have a lovely conference.
Besides the obvious reasons, I found this challenge daunting because the news we are getting from scientists is really very bad news. The disruption of the climate is already harming people, and the harm promises to get far worse.
The more I worked on it, though, the more I came to feel that there is also the possibility for very good news. The good news is NOT that we can keep living the way we’ve been living, and just substitute one type of fuel in our cars for another, or one light bulb for another – although those are well worth doing. The good news is that the far deeper changes we will have to make to prevent all-out catastrophe have ripple effects that could mean a better life on all counts, and a more peaceful, democratic, and beautiful world.
But to make those changes, we’re going to have to have the courage to leave behind assumptions and old habits about the way we think life has to be lived.
Attempts by special interests—primarily the large fossil fuel corporations and their paid cadre of pundits and scientists—to obscure the issue are no longer working. Like attempts by tobacco companies to obscure the dangers of smoking cigarettes, there has been a great deal of damage done, but finally we are beyond the conversation about whether there is a climate change issue. There is now clarity that we must take action, and the discussion now is about what to do.
And what we decide to do, as ordinary Americans, is as important as any other decisions being made around the world. Why?
We in North America produce more greenhouse gases per person than in any other region of the world. The people who study ecological footprints show that for the rest of the world were to achieve our level of consumption, we would need several additional planets to supply the ecological resources and sinks.
Our demand for Earth’s energy and other resources is a major cause of war. George Bush senior famously said, the American way of life is not negotiable. We are now paying the terrible price for that attitude in Iraq, where an ill-advised struggle for long-term control of Middle East oil is playing out.
Other countries once looked to us for leadership, or at least for participation in solutions, since we have assumed the mantle of world superpower. Aside from the attack and occupation of Iraq, there may be no single factor so damaging to our international prestige as our failure to take responsibility for our contribution to climate change.
Although these questions are playing out on a global scale, the question of whether the United States will take action on climate change comes back to we ordinary people.
As consumers, are we willing to make green choices?
As citizens, will we demand that the people who work for us in Washington, DC, and in our state capitals and city halls take action?
As business owners, farmers, workers, will we make climate-friendly choices?
As community members, will we press for sustainable communities?
Or will we put this off for someone else to worry about?
We know we cannot continue living the way we’ve been living—not if we want our children and grandchildren to have a shot at a decent life. So is it a morally defensible choice to go forward, worsening climate change, depleting the last remaining oil, and leaving it to our kids or grandkids to live with the consequences? What will we answer when our grandchildren ask, “Why didn’t you do something when you had the chance?”
What it looks like is this:
We either make changes now during a time of relative stability, when we can think clearly about a short-, medium-, and long-term transition strategy to sustainable ways of life—or we can find ourselves scrambling to respond in the midst of increasingly serious climatic and economic crises.
We can use our society’s wealth to fund conservation, efficiency, and renewables R&D, or we can spend it on military action to continue our domination over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and to subsidize continued reliance on carbon and nuclear fuels, until life for all of us (and especially the most vulnerable) becomes precarious.
We can use the remaining supply of reasonably priced petroleum to fuel a transition to renewables, or we can wait until those supplies are too expensive to our economy or the climate.
In other words, we will transition to a different way of getting and using energy. The only question is whether we start now to make the transition in a way that preserves some amount of climate stability and societal stability, or whether we wait for chaos to force our hand (or our children’s hands).
The good news is that the transition, though difficult, may actually have some very real benefits. In fact, we may decide that even if we didn’t have the climate crisis to contend with, all these efforts might be worthwhile for other reasons.
Here’s what I mean.
1) We have a huge problem with family wage jobs in the United States. We’ve lost 16 percent of manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, but we were losing manufacturing under Democratic administrations too. Jobs are going overseas. Real wages for middle and working poor are stagnating or worse.
The Apollo Alliance is proposing we spend $30 billion dollars a year over the next 10 years making our infrastructure energy efficient, building sustainable buildings, and doing R&D on efficient and renewables technologies. It’s expensive, but it amounts to just 5 percent of what we’re spending on the military. Could there be a better way to invest in a safe and secure future? We could assure a new batch of living wage jobs that could give thousands of young people a future. When people are paid family wages, their spending then ripples out into the economy. And these are jobs that would stay put, here in our communities, not get sent overseas.
This is the sort of call to action Americans are waiting for. Not the call to go shopping that President Bush issued after 9-11, but the call to come together to make our country great again.
By the way, this is a national effort, but we don’t have to wait for the whole country to get on board. Many cities are adopting the Apollo Project locally, as are some universities.
2) We need sustainable and affordable housing. Too many people are getting priced out of the market—partly because of stagnating wages and dead-end jobs that don’t pay enough to cover housing costs. But also because of speculation and the high cost of energy. If a house is built green, a mortgage should take that into account in determining reasonable mortgage payments.
There are many things each of us can do in our homes right now:
• Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs—they’re a great deal—cheaper energy for you, better for the planet.
• Use the sun to warm, but use shade if your place gets too warm in the summer.
• Catch rain in a rain barrel.
• Buy things made locally that are built to last. Recognize that everything we buy is a cost, not only to our pocketbook but to the resources of the planet.
• Recycle and compost.
• Use a clothesline—an amazing, cheap solar- and wind-powered clothes dryer that you can get at any hardware store and install yourself.
• Consider installing a heat pump or solar panels.
If you move, move into a home that isn’t bigger than you need. Our homes are huge energy sinks, and the average size of the American home has been increasing beyond any reason over recent year. And live somewhere close to work and shops so you don’t have to spend so much time on the road.
3) Sustainable communities. We can try as much as we want to make our individual homes more sustainable, but there is a limit to what we can do without sustainable communities. We need to re-establish walkable, bike-able, run-able communities that are compact, with green ways, car-free zones, and inviting gathering spaces. We don’t need gyms—we just need to reacquaint ourselves with what great capacities our bodies have for getting us around. This alone would have a huge positive impact on our health at a time when some of the most debilitating and expensive diseases are directly related to obesity and our car-dependent, sedentary suburban lifestyles. So if the way we’re living is killing us and the planet, there is an opportunity for a double win by making the shift to more sustainable community design.
If we cluster buildings together, we can use district heating and shared walls to retain heat. We can quit driving so much—we might not even need cars. Public transit works far more efficiently when people live near transit stops. And we could have beautiful natural areas within sight—farmland, wildlife areas, hiking trails. We can get food grown nearby. If you’ve been to Europe, you’ve seen the villages, with narrow streets and homes close together surrounded by farmland and nature. These also enhance a sense of community—you see the sidewalk cafes, the parks, the small shops, the town squares that all come alive with people living close by. There’s a reason people long to visit these sorts of villages, and few tourists venture into suburban America.
4) Transportation – if we have these sorts of sustainable communities, much of the transportation problem will be taken care of. We’ll get around by foot, bicycle, and public transit. There are likely to still be vehicles for specific purposes, but they will be powered by electricity (generated sustainably) or by biofuels.
And I do want to talk about the subject of this conference, biodiesel, for a moment. There is an extremely troubling aspect to some, not all, the biofuels being produced. Because the price of energy is so high, and there is such a strong, blind demand for energy, we may be moving toward producing energy in new ways that are just as unsustainable as the old ways. One example, palm oil, is now being used for biofuel.
Here’s what George Monbiot, a British journalist, writes in The Guardian newspaper: “Friends of the Earth published a report about the impacts of palm oil production. ‘Between 1985 and 2000,’ it found, ‘the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia.’ In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.’”
Cutting rainforest is not a solution to climate change.
And there is a rush into ethanol production, fueled by high prices and subsidies. Ethanol has little to no advantage over other fuels from a climate perspective. In fact, production is more or less a wash—it takes almost as much energy to produce ethanol as you get from it. Nonetheless, corn for ethanol in 2001 represented about 7 percent of corn produced in the US. Just seven years later, corn demand for ethanol is expected to reach nearly 30 percent of corn produced. Farmland devoted to other purposes is being switched over to corn, and the price of corn is climbing rapidly. You may remember that there were large demonstrations in Mexico over the price of tortillas which is a basic food staple there. And when staple prices go up, poor people go hungry. So the question is, does our wealth entitle us to take food from children to feed our gas guzzlers?
Here’s what Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says:
“The food and energy economies, historically separate, are now merging. In this new economy, if the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will move it into the energy economy. As the price of oil climbs, so will the price of food.”
So I urge you to look carefully at biofuels. Those made from waste are almost certainly a good thing—the paper YES! is printed on is made at a mill that is powered in part by biogas from methane tapped at a landfill. Far better to burn the methane, which is otherwise a powerful greenhouse gas, than to simply let it escape into the atmosphere. So yes to biofuels made from waste. If they are made from food crops, or on land that was used for food crops, I think we need to look very carefully. We need a full sustainability audit, that looked a life-cycle costs, including the environmental and energy costs of growing the crops, and the opportunity costs, if any, of using the land for energy rather than for other vital ecological or human needs.
5) Local economies. What if, instead of shipping food an average of 1500 miles, we got our food close to home? There’s huge energy savings that could be had that way. And we’d know how our food was being produced, We would know whether it is safe or drenched with pesticides. We could achieve a better balance between the wastes produced by animal production and human communities and the soil absorption for crops. Instead of hogs, cattle, and chicken raised in inhumane factory farms, they could be raised at a sustainable scale. A scale that makes sense is one in which animal wastes, instead of causing massive stench and water pollution, could be incorporated back into the earth, where they could substitute for climate-destroying fossil fuels What if we supported local farmers and local merchants instead of Wal Marts? Maybe our young people would have the opportunity to go into farming, to start businesses. We could have communities with strong, vibrant local businesses.
What if we made our homes out of locally produced building materials—wood in the Northwest; adobe in the southwest. We might reclaim the regional flavors that make different areas distinct and culturally rich.
And we might orient our business to making sufficient profits, rather than the excessive, ever-growing profits Wall Street demands. Without the constant pressure for more profits, at whatever cost to the environment, workers, ethical standards, democracy, workplace safety, and managerial sanity we could better balance life. Maybe we would be able to again have time to be with family, to build stronger communities, to develop ourselves through lifelong learning or spiritual practices or just kicking back.
6) To accomplish this, we will have to reclaim power for the people of the United States from the special interests and corporations that have had far too much influence and have prevented us from pursuing real solutions up until now. Campaign finance reform would be a good place to start. Corporate money has paid for the science bent on confusing the climate change issue, and now is urging us to take it slow to act on any solutions. They have allowed profits to soar while wages stagnate, and given themselves free rein to externalize their costs—that is, to get the rest of us to pick up the tab—while they keep huge profits to themselves.
It’s probably a good thing that gas prices are high, because that will move the development of alternatives. But why should the windfall profits from those high prices go into the pockets of the same corporate power holders who are responsible for so much of our current mess? A windfall profits tax could help fund the transition—a transition we should have started years ago.
Suppose we used that money to make our homes and businesses energy efficient? And for R&D to improve the designs of renewable energy generation and to reduce the amount of energy it takes to get the goods and services we want. And to finance installation of solar on homes and businesses, windpower on farms, tidal power for local utilities. When the demand starts to get production to scale, the price will come down.
Corporations have too much influence in Washington, DC, and it will take democracy to bring about the changes that we need if we are to shift to a sustainable and moral economy.
What do these solutions have in common?
They address some of the fundamental drivers of climate change while also offering us a better life.
They offer more balance—we can get back the time to enjoy our loved ones and our short time on this beautiful planet.
They offer more health, cleaner air, more exercise as part of everyday life, and fresher foods grown closer to home.
They offer more sustained prosperity for ordinary people, as we create long-term jobs that will stay put instead of fleeing to wherever in the world offers the most profit at any given moment.
They offer more justice because they involve shifting to using local resources, allowing the people of the rest of the world to reclaim their own nearby resources.
They are peaceful, because we no longer are roaming the world in search of other peoples’ resources to feed our oversized appetite. So we no longer need to guard—through military aggression—our access to those resources.
They will make a major step toward restoring our standing in the world, as we are seen as a leader in solving a global problem, rather than being perceived as the world’s largest bully and polluter.
We have tried a lifestyle of over-consumption—of defining well-being by how much money we make or how big a house and car we have. We know now that this didn’t work. It didn’t bring us happiness—just look at the research on well-being and happiness. The data show we are not as happy as we were when we lived more simply.
And other research shows what we all know deep down. People’s well being does increase substantially when they go from not having enough to eat or a roof over their head, to having their needs met. But after that, happiness doesn’t increase much with additional consumption . The source of happiness is having people we love, a sense of community, a way of making a contribution that is recognized.
So the good news is that we can have all that. We can both live better, and sustain the planet through this transition to a more sustainable society.
And the other good news is that we have the resourcefulness, know-how, technology, and traditions already to shift to a way of life that is sustainable.
But we can’t just talk about change. It is already late. We are already seeing the affects of climate change, and any greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere today continue their warming effects well into the future. The time to act is now, time to take on the challenge of the creative and community-enhancing project of sustainability. Then we can answer those grandchildren’s question by saying, “We did all we could and it made the crucial difference.”
Note: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just issued their third report of the year -- this time on what we can do about climate change.