Durban and the Nadir of Earth’s Fortunes

11 Dec

I believe this is called political opportunism.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: Hi. I’m Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma. Today I’m happy to bring you the good news about the complete collapse of the global warming movement and the failure of the Kyoto process, as world leaders meet for the United Nations global warming conference in Durban, South Africa. For the past decade, I have been the leader in the United States Senate standing up against global warming alarmism and cap and trade, which would have been the largest tax increase in the history of America. This victory is especially important today, as families in America and around the world continue to face really tough economic times. And tossing out any remote possibility of a U.N. global warming treaty is one of the most important things we can do for the economy.

I’m making this announcement from Washington, D.C., where I am confident that the only person left talking about global warming is me. The message from Washington to the U.N. delegates in South Africa is this, this week, could not be any clearer: you are being ignored.

Unfortunately Inhofe has the advantage of selling inaction to those of us who would rather not hear bad news or would rather deny it altogether. And, bad news it is, indeed.

Most of us (myself included) draw the line at personal convenience, but the ugly truth is that we won’t fix the climate problem without fundamental changes to how we live. In a world with seven billion people, there will be winners and losers, but we can’t continue to consume energy at our current rates.

A hard look at the numbers shows that there’s simply no way we continue on the energy- intensive path that we’re on. “We’re going to have to plan for a future where we use less energy,” Richard Heinberg told me at the Aspen Environment Forum a couple of years ago. Some groups, like Heinberg’s Post Carbon Institute and are already working toward this reality.

The problem can seem insurmountable, and it’s possible that it is — not because there is no solution, but because we are incapable of choosing it. There’s a one-word solution to the climate (and energy) problem staring us in the face —restraint. Simply consuming less. It’s too late to talk about carbon emissions. With a population catapulting toward nine billion or more, it’s time to focus on carbon omissions.

That’s the broad side of the stinking heap angle. Here’s a little more on the actual costs.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Lest we become too alarmist, though, I remember that economics is a matter of trade-offs. Short of a technological leap, making it harder to use energy that is harmful for the environment will be expensive.

The solution to climate change is unlikely to be found in Durban or any future COP site until the leaders in Brussels, Washington and other capitals come to grips with the massive economic challenges they face and create the framework for a return to robust growth.

That observation might seem paradoxical, given the linkage between economic growth and the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One climate change expert at Shell recently questioned whether it’s even possible to reduce these emissions, because the expansion of low-emission energy sources is merely displacing fossil fuels into other markets where the appetite for them remains insatiable. We’ve also seen the rebound in emissions that occurred once the US economy began to recover from the worst effects of the financial crisis and recession that began in 2008, and a new report from the International Energy Agency projects a similar result globally. Yet it’s also the case that prosperity and concern for the environment go hand in hand, along with the capacity to afford the costs and penalties that a massive global reduction in GHGs would entail. It’s no coincidence that the UN climate process and parallel US efforts lost most of their previous momentum during the Great Recession.

I’m skeptical, that changing personal habits would do the trick. Again, Inhofe has the easier task, because I’m sure most of us would rather not forgo consuming. The task is just to reduce consumption fairly in a way that no one is prospering as others take one for Earth Team One. A carbon tax is still the fairest way to accomplish this, and, right now, it couldn’t help but inject some needed rationality into the fiscal juggernaut that is America.


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