Is climate change an unstoppable freight train or a ship about to turn? | TheHill – The Hill
An energy historian cannot help but observe how, in hindsight, humans might have made different choices. He or she must also acknowledge that we don’t have the option of redoing past decisions. Unlike the floundering golfer, we don’t get mulligans.
Nowhere is this unpleasant reality more striking than the changing of the world’s climate by burning fossil fuels. These fuels made possible the industrial revolution and the comforts of modern life. But the fuels that have sustained us are also the fuels that endanger us.
Adding to our discomfort, the carbon dioxide that creates most global warming remains in the atmosphere for more than a century. Thus, we live with the consequences of how our great-grandparents used energy, just as our great-grandchildren will confront the enduring effects of our fuel choices.
Currently, the world pins its hopes for dealing with climate change on something called the Paris Agreement adopted by 196 countries in December 2015. Unlike in previous international agreements, the world’s most significant players on climate — China, the United States, and India — entered the club of nations vowing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Although a needed step forward, the agreement provides a shaky foundation for solving the climate problem. Nations set their own goals without any legal mechanism for enforcement. So far, the goals are too modest to solve the climate challenge. In some cases, a country with new political leadership can withdraw (though the rationale for ending an agreement with voluntary commitments is difficult to fathom).
The most significant limitation of the Paris Agreement is its timing. By 2015, the world had already set in motion the forces likely to surpass a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) – the limit that many scientists and economists had for decades tacitly accepted as inevitable and even acceptable. The Paris Agreement urges a bolder cap of 1.5 degrees Centigrade (2.7 Fahrenheit). The new goal better reflects the threat of global warming, but it came very late in the debate.
To put the situation in historical perspective, the first testimony before the U.S. Congress on the importance of understanding climate change came in 1956. The first testimony from a scientist laying out a rather precise road map on how to reduce the earth’s emissions of carbon to zero by the year 2040 came later. Congress heard that in 1979.
Between then and now, we have made progress in energy research & development (e.g., wind and solar) and energy efficiency (e.g., vehicles and appliances). So we are not starting from scratch. We have the tools needed to slow and then turn around the momentum of climate change, though we will have to invent new ones to get to net zero.
Unfortunately, previous advances have been sporadic and usually motivated by factors other than climate, such as energy independence. As a result, we will never recapture the lost years when we did little if anything to protect the climate, after repeated warnings from scientists.
In 1962, President John Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the Moon, in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, and one we are unwilling to postpone.”
The task of reining in carbon emissions is much more daunting than human travel to the moon. In any case, climate solutions have passed the point where they can be easy, even if they ever were. The task before us is finding the strategies that work politically and economically and save the planet from irreparable harm.
Conservatives will need to get over their claim they want to “do something” about climate change while never supporting the solutions that come anywhere near solving the problem. They will have to recant their zealous opposition to any government regulation of any kind. And they will have to go beyond relying solely on adaptation to climate change. That strategy resembles a chess player trying to win by sacrificing all his or her pieces.
Progressives must avoid spending their political capital on symbolic battles that make little if any impact on global emissions (Offshoring emissions does not reduce them). They will sometimes have to accept partial victories and return for more of the loaf the next year. The perfect must not become the enemy of the good.
Unfortunately, mother nature is not impressed by good intentions or rhetoric from either side. However, results — many now achievable because of technologies available or on the horizon — will matter a lot to us and future generations.
Jay Hakes is the author of”:Energy Crises: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Hard Choices in the 1970s” (April 2021). He is currently working on a book about the climate change debate from President Eisenhower to President Clinton.