Softening the Climate Sell - Commentary
Emphasize Human Health, Not Carbon
When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $50 million to the Sierra Club to help it fight coal-fired electricity, he made a point of saying that public health is the central issue. True, the mayor is an advocate for reducing carbon emissions. But he is also a proponent of cutting acid rain, soot and mercury that also flow from burning coal.
At a time when the world is ensconced in poverty and war, it has shown that it has little staying power with regard to climate change. Nations are disagreeing on the tactics to curb heat-trapping emissions and the targets that they would be required to meet. Money, of course, is also at the heart of the debate: Who will pay and what economies will be helped or hurt by participating in such global protocols.
Therein lay the wisdom behind Mayor Bloomberg's approach. He is not getting caught up in the politics of climate science. He has risen above the typical partisanship. Instead, he has kept this on a level that anyone's mother gets: It's about "public health" and ensuring that all of our kids are free to breathe clean air -- not suffocate from a lot of political bull crap.
"If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal," the mayor said in a recent statement. "Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and the leading cause of climate disruption."
This is a similar tack to that of the United Nations and President Obama. The president has shifted the focus away from enacting carbon constraints and more toward the formation of cleaner energy sources. He wants 80 percent of all such energy forms to come not just wind and solar but also nuclear, natural gas and "clean coal," and all by 2035.
Likewise, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is now emphasizing the employment of more sustainable fuels without trying to extract firm commitments on carbon reductions. The UN's leader remains steadfast in his belief that man-made carbon emissions are causing global warming that has the potential to create environmental devastation. But he now says that the most practical way forward is to try and facilitate the wider use of green technologies.
No doubt, the topic of climate change and whether it is a manmade phenomenon is contentious. One side is proclaiming that the world's leading scientists have given sufficient warning while continuing to say that the other position is bought and paid for the fossil fuel industry. Meantime, the warming skeptics are arguing that the science is -- at best -- uncertain and that the link to human activity is weak.
But even if one accepts that the phenomenon is less than "urgent" and more like "uncertain," the world's leaders cannot slam the door and hope for the best. They must at least be pragmatic and inspire the use of cleaner burning fuels.
In his book, "The Art of the Long View," Peter Schwartz gives the example of the 1973 oil embargo and how the Japanese responded compared to the United States. Japan reacted to high oil prices by implementing energy efficient strategies. This country, meanwhile, did little, believing instead that such an economic dynamic was temporary. Nearly 40 years later, we are having the same debates.
At the time of any policy decision, it is impossible to know which scenario will play out. Still, it is imperative to think through all decisions -- in effect, to suspend one's beliefs in an effort to think the unthinkable. Just as boom and bust cycles are inevitable so too are catastrophic events. In business, entire industries once thought to be inevitable have faded. Meantime, social media enterprises as well as internet giants unheard of 20 years ago are now the fabric of society.
"If you had said Enron and WorldCom would fall, and the World Trade Center and the city of New Orleans would also be gone, people would have said you were crazy," says David Hallam, former chief executive of the Structure Group, in previous talk with this writer. "Executives understand the implications of each scenario and use them when evaluating decisions."
Policymakers must also do the same. Dealing with climate change may seem insurmountable. But once again, the answer is not to ignore the other's position; rather, it is to listen carefully to what their solutions are -- and to incorporate a practical path forward that heads off a potential problem in a cost-effective manner.
To that end, the country needs to pursue the tools that will help curb carbon emissions. The American Energy Innovation Council that advocates investment in clean technologies says that this nation must spend more money on research and development. It needs $16 billion a year. But last year it spent $5 billion.
For sure, the science has never been exact with predictions that temperatures could rise by 1 degree Celsius to 6.4 degrees Celsius, all over the next century. But it would be highly irresponsible to disregard what many acclaimed scientists have said.
"Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action," notes an editorial in the business-minded Economist. "The range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small. Just as a householder pays a small premium to protect against disaster, the world should do the same."
Driving forces can change the course of human existence. But the democratic process is designed to deal with those evolutions. As such, lawmakers are required to engage the opposition and to then effect reasonable solutions. Responding to environmental threats should not be a partisan issue. It should be -- as Mayor Bloomberg phrased it -- a human health one.
EnergyBiz Insider has been named Honorable Mention for Best Online Column by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.
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