One of the difficulties with how we’ve managed climate change is that we’ve become obsessed with reaching a Grand Bargain, a complete solution.
Life doesn’t work that way, usually, and there’s no real reason to think that climate change is any different.
The initial response to the newly discovered issue of global warming was to call for a global cap on emissions of CO2. The Kyoto Treaty was the consequent mechanism and it failed for want of a second. Cap and Trade at a national level failed to get passed in the U.S. and it was passed but failed to deliver in Europe.
As American budget makers are discovering, grand bargains are really tough. They are guaranteed to step on enough toes to make them difficult to enact and are even tougher in the implementation phase.
I heard once that suicide is a long term solution to a short term problem, something that makes sense to me. I think we should flip that and realize that things that generally work are short term solutions to long term problems.
Did you know that treating the symptoms, not the causes cures many diseases? It does–but it seems like a cop-out so we ignore it. It doesn’t ‘feel’ right.
This not ‘feeling’ right has caused principled opposition to many effective tactics to reduce emissions. Known as ‘no regrets’ policies, they don’t cure global warming–but they partially ameliorate it. Most energy efficiency projects, such as insulating houses and windows or installing ground source heat pumps, fall in this category. Small bore, tactical, worthy but not spectacular.
Others include efficiencies gained from modernizing air traffic control–letting planes fly closer to each other by putting iPhones with GPS in the hands of navigators, allowing staged descent to reduce wait times at landing, eliminating no fly zones that are leftovers of the Cold War. There are hundreds such.
Larger scale endeavors include things like Combined Heat and Power, something that currently supplies 9% of the world’s primary energy, but which never enters climate discussions. It’s really complex–you burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, just like everyone else does. But instead of wasting the 65% of the energy produced during the process, known by the technical term ‘heat,’ you pipe it where heat is needed.
Well, okay. Maybe it’s not that complex… Some northern countries get 40% of their energy that way and it reduces their emissions dramatically.
But we never talk about that in climate discussions because it isn’t pure–they are burning fossil fuels, damn them! The same is true for waste to energy plants, using heat from nuclear power plants, ad absurdium.
The need for a Grand Solution to climate change keeps legislators and lobbyists, bloggers and bloviators, con men and and cranks in business, muddying the waters and preventing effective action.
Those who have embraced the idea of a Grand Solution for climate change trivialize the contribution each human can make. This reduces the sense of accomplishment we can feel by conserving, changing fuels and participating at a community level. It also leaves the power and the glory to the Grand Solutionists. I somehow doubt that’s coincidental.
Fortunately, people have enough common sense to ignore them, and are busy installing solar panels on their roofs, solar water heaters throughout the world, buying more efficient cars and getting on with life in better insulated houses. At a minimum, they seem to understand something that the Grand Solutionists never will. Individual action may not change the climate–but it will change the politics, as those who answer to voters watch their individual actions and recognize they need to run in front of the parade so they can continue to pretend to lead it.
The same person who characterized suicide so succinctly also said one other thing that is quite appropriate for dealing with the issue of climate change–“You cannot do everything. You must do something.”