Whatever happened to morning in America?
The party of Ronald Reagan just drips with malaise every time they talk about climate. With the horrific reality of climate consequences now overwhelming the denial machine, their posture is subtly shifting from steadfast ignorance to a passive slouch.
The new face of climate irresponsibility is futility, ineffectuality, collective national impotence: Even if we tried, it wouldn’t matter, because Asia’s emissions would overwhelm any progress we make.
Of course it’s not just about climate. With the government shutdown, ineffectuality is now the prevailing zeitgeist. But when it comes to climate solutions, the reign of impotence is especially lethal. The climate crisis calls for bold, effective, concerted action at all scales. If you don’t believe that’s possible, then you’ll have a hard time getting pumped about climate solutions. And the opponents of climate policy, ever loyal to King Coal and Big Oil, are doing their damnedest to convince us that collective public action is kaput. That they would pummel us into thinking we are collectively worthless is a measure of both their cynicism and their desperation. It’s un-American – not in the McCarthyist sense, but in that it runs deeply contrary to the American exceptionalism that defined Reaganism and that has enjoyed bi-partisan political consensus ever since. (You know, “Americans, not American’ts.”)
Senator David Vitter brandished our collective impotence in a written question to me, following up on my testimony on national climate policy imperatives in the Senate Environment and Works Committee in July. (Questions from Senators Boxer and Vitter, and my full written responses, are here.) His question and an excerpt from my response are below.
Senator Vitter: You cited in your testimony a 2011 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) regarding your perception that the world needs to shift away from fossil fuel use. However, that same organization issued an analysis just this year that: “Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow… and… will catch oil within a decade” as the most utilized fuel source. Further, the IEA’s Director stated in 2012 that: “Coal is a staple energy source [and] will remain a key primary energy source and an important part of fostering economic growth and alleviating energy poverty.” Do you dispute these statements – that regardless of policies being considered here in the United States, developing nations around the globe will continue to utilize coal and other fossil fuels in pursuit of their own economic prosperity?
Excerpt from my response:
Relieving “energy poverty” is necessary as a matter of global economic justice, but so is stabilizing the climate. Clean energy sources and energy efficiency can do both. Expanded coal use cannot. Some coal will continue to be used for many years, as the IEA director suggests. But the direction of current and future energy investment is moving, and must move, in a different direction: we will engineer a transition from coal to cleaner energy sources, or face unimaginably grave human consequences from climate disruption – consequences that will fall most harshly on the world’s poor.
I am not an energy forecaster. The purpose of my testimony was not to predict energy market trends, but to suggest a path forward through this difficult situation, a path that is consistent with both the IEA report that I cited, and the IEA quotes in the above question: We must move steadily and unswervingly in the direction of reduced emissions, greater investment in clean energy, and long-term transition away from fossil fuels. This transition can and must be accomplished patiently and incrementally over the course of decades; we simply can’t do it overnight. However, in the short term and from here forward, we (meaning the people who share the Earth’s atmosphere) must categorically avoid new investments in long-lived, capital-intensive fossil fuel infrastructure. We can’t solve the problem by making it better and worse simultaneously. We have to stop making it irrevocably, irreversibly worse, so we can indeed make it better. IEA’s analysis offers mathematical confirmation of this common sense proposition.
Finally, I do strenuously dispute the implication of the final sentence of the question: the implication that what we do as Americans doesn’t matter or affect what happens in the rest of the world with respect to climate solutions. We have emitted more climate pollution than any other nation. And while our contribution to the problem has been substantial, our contribution to the solutions can be even greater. America has an unparalleled capacity to innovate and engineer big solutions to big problems. We can and must pioneer a new, sustainable path to prosperity that doesn’t result in catastrophic disruption of the climate and all the human and natural systems that depend on climate stability. That’s our responsibility as Americans to the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters – the world’s kids, and our own.