What If “They” Are Wrong?

Every year around this time we get to reset our goals, lifestyles, diets, exercise routines, social media obsessions and other aspects of our lives that have fallen short in our eyes. For a relatively few souls, New Year’s resolutions make it past January; for the rest, varying degrees of success. One thing we can’t reset, unfortunately, is the damage we’ve done to a priceless gift, the planet. We have gone headlong into exploiting that gift, and we are living the consequences. I get it that unless there is a hurricane knocking on the door, or a wildfire racing down the ridge, the appearance of “normal” is seductive. Right now, snow is on the ground in Colorado, the temperatures are within a tolerable range and the mail is still being delivered. There are ample distractions within our personal environment that shield us from the “distant” global adjustments that are occurring every moment.

The year 2018 has been, to be stunningly understated, turbulent. Setting aside the 24/7 insanity emanating from our Nation’s Capitol, as difficult as that may seem, the latest and most dire predictions of the state of our planet are now in print. The publication, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, hasn’t made the Best Sellers List. It should, but it’s pretty scary. It’s much scarier than Stephen King’s “It” (but don’t get me started on scary clowns). Scanning the summary of this report gets one’s attention. The short list of impacts really comes down to one thing: the interconnections of natural, built and social systems. When one goes south, everything else is going to follow. No reasonable, conscious human is going to continue to argue that we are not in the midst of a global crisis. Hence, the “debate” in Washington, DC.

But what if, by some miracle of Providence, the report is off? There is nothing to substantively suggest that it is, but for the sake of argument, let’s push the apocalyptic end dates out a hundred years. Feel better? You shouldn’t, at least if you have children and grandchildren that you cherish. The predictions of past decades are happening as I write, so we’re well past the era of prevention and deep into response mode. Doing nothing ensures the worst of the scenarios, and an assured level of misery for the next generations, but can we just sit and watch it happen?

As a practical matter, we are at a point in our occupation of Mother Earth that individual actions, while ultimately necessary in sustaining a healthy planet, are not going to hold off the inevitable. It will take national and global cooperation and substantial, albeit potentially painful, actions. The Earth Summit was a start; the Paris Agreement is an updated version with a greater sense of urgency. At the Earth Summit in 1992, where we (City of Austin) received an award for our Green Builder Program, the United States, then under George H.W. Bush, was notably non-committal when actions should have been ramped up. Indicative of the reticence, the U.S. declined to sign the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global partnership that attempts to protect the “biological resources [that] are vital to humanity’s economic and social development.”

Figure 1: Global signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity in green; nations that signed but did not ratify in blue; all United Nations member-states ratified the treaty but one, the United States

In spite of President Obama’s push for action, a Republican Congress and now an anemic (I’m being very kind) administration have not only muted, but reversed action from one of the planet’s greatest contributors to CO2 emissions.

This is not to say that there are not efforts being made in spite of the lack of national leadership. Corporations, states, cities and individuals are taking action. Paul Hawken, among others, has laid out a game plan in Project Drawdown for turning this out-of-control stagecoach around before disappearing in space at the cliff’s edge. Back in 2001, when George W. Bush was just taking the reins and Dick Cheney was “Dick-tating” our energy policy, Paul penned an article called “Beyond the 2% Solution.” This was specifically focused on the folly of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and what very attainable efficiency goals could do to eclipse any predicted production from that ecologically destructive option. But in that brief we were reminded that it’s not a scarcity of energy that looms in our future, but a scarcity of efficient use of the energy we have. As many of us have preached over the past several decades, focusing on efficiency first reduces the need – and cost – of renewable energy systems, making then an even more viable solution. Because of continuing improvements in efficiency, total energy consumption in 2017 actually declined by 0.2 percent.

The renewable energy component of the Green Energy solution, the “free” energy of the sun and wind, has been tapped with increasing success since Paul wrote that article in 2001. Market forces and natural gas have been the drivers for reduced coal generation, while the contribution of renewables (primarily solar, hydro and wind-generated power) has more than doubled. That same renewable energy industry has created more than three million jobs.

A bold plan has been put forth by newly-elected legislators, many in the age group that will feel the real pain of our past folly. It’s a plan that mimics the mid-twentieth-century New Deal that put Americans to work building the infrastructure that was the economic engine for the U.S. That’s the infrastructure that is beginning to crumble from lack of care and vision. The “Green New Deal” has plenty of detractors, none of whom seem to be concerned about the survival of life on the planet (and include the shrinking list of those who have convinced themselves that the declining health of the eco-system is a Chinese hoax). Instead of an attempt to make such life-preserving goals work, they are derided in favor of the status quo. What is clear to me is that we dismiss lofty goals at our peril.

Back to the original question: what if the predictions of the dire consequences of climate change are off? Note that I used the word “off,” not “inaccurate” or “imagined.” We are clearly on a wild ride, the end of which is uncertain. Continuing down this current path, ignoring the obvious and the fact that Nature doesn’t have borders, will ensure a dire future for our kids and grandkids. If we cease burning of fossil fuels, eliminate plastic from the environment, preserve wild areas, protect biological diversity, end deforestation and find ways to live with, not in spite of Nature, what do we end up with? Cleaner air, a healthier life-sustaining eco-system and perhaps a chance to head off extinction? Sounds like a better deal to me.