Climate change can be stopped

While politicians go slowly on global warming, individuals can do more than they think

Published December 9, 2012 5:00PM (EST)


Excerpted from "A Newer World: Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis"

People are nearly everywhere becoming more aware of and better informed about climate, energy, and sustainability. This savvy is becoming baked into our educational systems, our laws, and our cultural institutions, and will only further deepen the understanding that people have of the issues and the many ways of dealing with the environmental crisis that confronts us.

This awareness is reflected in many polls. Most populations in the major economies that account for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions have a high level of awareness. Gallup has surveyed people in 111 countries and found that 42 percent found global warming a serious threat. In another poll, a broad majority wanted action on climate change, with majorities in fourteen of fifteen countries, both developed and developing nations, willing to address the matter.

One other poll has found that about half of Americans recognize that particular phenomena such as coastline erosion and flooding, droughts, hurricanes, river flooding, and wildfires are being exacerbated by warming.

Another study has found that, among Americans, there are six pronounced different levels of concern, from the “alarmed” to the “dismissive.” The alarmed category was 10 percent when the survey was last done, with the “concerned” at 29 percent and the “cautious” at 27 percent. This third group believes, nevertheless, that warming is a problem, just not an urgent one. Two-thirds of Americans, according to the survey, therefore accept that there is a problem. The alarmed category is particularly strong and constitutes what political scientists call an “issue public” — a group that is highly engaged and motivated to address the issue.

Among these concerned and active groups and individuals are some that one might not immediately associate with the issue. Hunters and anglers, for instance, a traditionally conservative bunch, have nevertheless shown real interest in climate change and have supported measures to reduce greenhouse gases. One such group, the National Wildlife Federation, founded in 1935 and with more than four million members and partners, has been active in mobilizing its constituencies to seek climate legislation in Congress.

Faith Communities

Another large segment of the American population that is known for generally conservative views are those in various faith communities. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, founded in 1993, however, is itself deeply concerned about climate change, as are its four main partner organizations. The partnership declares that “both air pollution and climate change are environmental justice issues because the poor and vulnerable are the least able to protect themselves from their effects.” One of the partners, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, “mobilizes the Jewish community to advocate on a wide range of environmental issues, with a particular focus on global climate change and energy conservation.” Another, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is a key member of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, which has issued a “call for a civil dialogue and prudent and constructive action to protect God’s precious gift of the earth’s atmosphere.” Pope Benedict himself called “for strengthening the linkage between combating climate change and overcoming poverty.” The National Council of Churches of Christ says “climate change is a threat to all people and all of creation.” And one of the leaders of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Rev. Jim Ball, has a book, Global Warming and the Risen lord: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change, in which he highlights “the biblical and spiritual resources we have been given to meet this threat.”

So the American environmental movement and faith communities are aligned in some very important ways. Two-thirds of Americans report that they care about environmental concerns because we are part of God’s creation — and half of Sierra Club members say they attend services at least once a month. “Creation Care” is a concept increasingly embraced by religious adherents in the United States and elsewhere. Evangelicals & Scientists United to Protect Creation is an organization with religious signatories as prominent as Jim Ball and Richard Cizik and environmental leaders with as high a profile as James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute and former administrator of the UNDP; and distinguished ecologist Edward O. Wilson.

Other religious leaders recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis. The Dalai Lama has said, “I do have some serious concerns as a result of learning from specialists [that] unless we pay sufficient attention and [adopt] sufficient method of protection . . . global warming is really, really very serious.” Tibet and the Himalayas, as we have seen, are increasingly living under the Damoclean sword of climate change impacts.

The Consumption Divide

Much of the concern generated by the faith communities, in the United States and elsewhere, is a consequence of the many disparities between the developed and developing worlds. As we have seen, the impacts of climate change are reaching much more deeply and thoroughly into the lives of the poor in the developing world. The “North-South divide” is one way that this disparity has been framed, not only in the context of climate change, but in any number of ways relative to development.

Certainly, the question of responsibility for the climate crisis has been a key aspect in the international negotiations since 1992 and the work of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as in most of the other multilateral discussions. The basic principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to address climate change embeds the idea that the developed world powers have a greater burden for addressing the crisis. As we have seen in the acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol by all the world’s developed economies — except, notably, the United States — this principle is an accepted one. Even the United States, though, with the advent of the Obama administration, has been pushing for more responsibility by the developed economies, primarily through mechanisms such as financing for mitigation and adaptation, as well as technology transfer, and some others.

A good bit of the problem, then, lies in the extraordinary differences in rates of consumption. The highly developed economies simply use much more energy, water, and the essential components of postindustrial societies. In many respects, we are far too profligate in our use. Developing economies, and particularly those at the far end of the spectrum among the Least Developed Countries, use far fewer resources per capita. One calculation has it that the developed world has consumption rates roughly thirty-two times that of the developing world. Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and highly acclaimed author, wrote, “If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world [consumption] rates would increase eleven-fold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).”

It would be difficult to suppose that world resources, strained as they are today with a world population of seven billion — and making the many bad a resilient future choices that we have been making — could support those levels of consumption. Consider, while we are at it, the output of GHGs and the further destruction of ecosystems from industrial agriculture and fishing, overdevelopment, and conventional water and air pollution from such galloping consumption. Are we thus doomed? Diamond’s answer: “No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels.” But then we would have to reduce our access to labor-saving devices (driven by electricity, for the most part), and infant mortality would go up, gains in nutrition worldwide would evaporate, and literacy rates would plummet. Right? Wrong. Diamond reminds us, if we had forgotten, that “living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates.”

As we have seen a number of times here, the war against our forests and agricultural lands, the degradation of our increasingly precious freshwater resources and the marine environment, the escalating threat of the “Sixth Great Extinction,” and the threat of catastrophic changes to our climate system have all served to motivate people to respond and are thus driving innovations and focused counterattacks on the forces that are causing these environmental depredations.

One big thought balloon that is appearing in more and more minds is the idea that we can consume less — and be better off for it. This means, of course, at the same time, that the people of the developing nations must be given much greater access to the basic components of a healthy life: clean air and water, healthy food, constantly improving economic prospects, educational opportunities for all — girls and boys, women and men — and a real stake and equality in the life of their communities and their nations, as well as in the community of nations. Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” — freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — can certainly be achieved without an overreliance on hyper-industrialized economies, fueled primarily by fossil fuels, industrial chemicals, deforestation, etc., with the attendant greenhouse gases — fifty billion tons of CO2eq annually. There are hundreds of examples beyond the many examples that we have seen here that illustrate that this can be done.

How We Choose to Live

Technology policy and a “price on carbon” have been cited repeatedly as key components of the new approach to resource use that it is incumbent upon us to develop. These are, without question, critical. But lifestyle choices are also said to be at the core of the newer world that many hope to realize.

As we have seen, big retailers understand that more and more consumers are looking for products that they can feel good about, that have been produced sustainably, or that will make their homes and their lives less greenhouse gas intensive. The buy-in on hybrid vehicles has been large and continues to grow. Electric vehicles, in their infancy, are getting off to a healthy start. Mass transit is continuing to be a key component of urban planning all over the world. But bike paths, bike-sharing programs, and more pedestrian-friendly cities are also proliferating. In Germany, they are even rolling out a “car-sharing” program to enable intercity rail travelers to take advantage of electric car rentals. Developers, renters, and homeowners have been clamoring for green buildings and more energy-efficient appliances. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are rapidly becoming the norm.


Air conditioning has become ubiquitous, at least in America, and increasingly across the world. Ninety percent of new homes built in the United States have central air. The United States uses as much electricity for AC as the continent of Africa uses for all purposes. Period.

There are costs beyond exacerbating the problem of energy consumption and greenhouse gases. With AC, people stay inside more, exercise less, and get sick more often. The rightward tilt in American politics in the last fifty years may, according to one intriguing analysis, even be attributable to air conditioning: More people moved to the South and Southwest as they were better able to tolerate the heat, thus expanding the voting blocs that have altered Congress and the country. More people, faster economic growth, more congressional districts, and more Electoral College votes for these primarily conservative regions have meant more Republican Party influence on the national scene. That is the theory anyway. In any event, it is, unfortunately, axiomatic that as societies become more affluent, their ac use skyrockets.

But as people are becoming more aware of their energy use and homes and offices become more efficient, the drain on energy from air conditioning should moderate. Most of the cooling that is actually going on never even reaches people. It cools the building itself. One of the many design innovations in the Bank of America Tower in New York City, designated LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council, is floor-level cooling, both in the enormous atrium in the lobby — so virtually no ac is dissipated into empty space — and in the individual offices, making it easier to control temperatures to the occupant’s liking. The ac is generated by ice that has been made at night, during off-peak hours, saving money and strain on the grid. To top it all off, the BofA Tower also has a green roof, further insulating this already hugely efficient building.

Another burgeoning green building breakthrough is with the installation of many hundreds of thousands of geothermal (or ground-source) heat pumps all over the world in new buildings and as retrofits. These provide cooling as well as heating. This is another way of obviating the need for massive demand on electricity, particularly during the peak hours and days when it gets really hot. The number of units installed worldwide is expected to nearly double from almost three million in 2010 to 5.66 million in 2015.

Moderating Energy Consumption

Electricity providers work with their customers to moderate energy use, very much including ac, when demand gets particularly heavy. As the smart grid becomes more of a reality, these demand-side management programs will increasingly be done automatically, because the “smart” appliances, like the ac unit in the home or business, will be programmed to respond.

One of the most salient and interesting phenomena regarding energy use is that when consumers are made aware of their own energy use relative to what their more energy-frugal neighbors are using, they are more apt to shave their own consumption with efficiency fixes and conservation. “Home Energy Reports” contain this sort of information, which is much more than the standard monthly utility bill. In a major study, data was analyzed from 750,000 households and found that these reports drive an average 1.8 percent reduction in household energy use. This modest reduction could translate, applied to all households in the United States, into a lowering of CO2 emissions by almost nine million tons — the output of three 500 MW coal-fired power plants — and cost savings of $3 billion to consumers. The study used data from opower, a company that has “successfully converted large-scale customer engagement into a highly reliable energy efficiency program that delivers unprecedented energy savings to our utility partners.”

Japan, in the wake of the nuclear power catastrophe at Fukushima in March 2011, lost the power from those six reactors, plus they also suspended operations at another particularly vulnerable facility. With the advent of summer, the federal government asked citizens to cut back on their energy use. In particular, it re-emphasized the “Cool Biz” campaign initiated in 2005, asking businessmen and women to dress more lightly when it is hotter. The acceptance by the Japanese public of warmer office temperatures and cooler, but appropriate, business attire has been growing year by year. Japanese businessmen, like their counterparts in Hawaii, have been embracing the “kariyushi” shirt, a close cousin of the aloha shirt.

These sorts of messages are increasingly pervasive. The U.S. Postal Service even has a “Go Green” program, including wonderful stamps that encourage environmentally sound behavior including composting, walking, biking, using public transportation, and adjusting the thermostat.

Sustainable Tourism

People are not only concerned about their environmental footprint at home. They are taking their awareness on the road, too. This is particularly true when they are on vacation. Tourism provides more than 235 million jobs, with more than 9 percent of global GDP generated from the industry. “Sustainable tourism” is, as you would guess, another rapidly growing area, because people want their experience to be environmentally sound.

Some of the major tourist destinations have always been in natural areas, from America’s well-loved national and state parks to the coral reefs of the Pacific, from the mountains of Europe and North America where people can a resilient future ski, hike, and camp, to the plains of Africa to see wildlife. The International Ecotourism Society (ties) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” ties has more than five hundred members in over a hundred countries, works to promote the industry through conferences and other vehicles, offers training in sustainable tourism, and helped to inspire the International Year of Ecotourism declared by the UN for 2002.109

The Rainforest Alliance, UNEP, the United Nations Foundation, and the UN World Tourism Organization initiated the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria in 2008. These are a set of thirty-seven voluntary standards provided to guide tourist destinations in how to sustain natural and cultural resources, enhance and increase tourist business, and alleviate poverty.

UNEP coordinates the activities of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism. The partnership has scores of members: national governments, UN organizations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development international business groups, and NGOs. Its mission is simply to “integrate sustainability into tourism.” An International Task Force on Sustainable Tourism Development, led by UNEP and France, produced a comprehensive set of policy recommendations with its report in 2009, the overall aims of which help stakeholders identify ways to improve business while guaranteeing sustainability and to promote awareness of and action on poverty alleviation and climate change.

Voluntary Offsets:
Expanding the Possibilities for “Carbon Neutrality”

One of the ways that individuals and businesses have chosen to confront climate change is through the purchase of voluntary credits to “offset” their greenhouse gas footprint. You may, for instance, choose to make a donation to compensate for the greenhouse gas output of your air travel. The money you voluntarily contribute goes through a fund or other mechanism to validated offset projects, like a wind farm being built in South Korea, a landfill gas mitigation initiative in Colombia, or a project in Cambodia to preserve rainforest. Businesses also choose to buy offset credits in order to bank them with an eye to the future when they are likely to be regulated under a “compliance” regime. Businesses may also purchase offset credits in order to conform to standards of corporate social responsibility that they may have set for themselves. The credits are known as Verified (or Voluntary) Emission Reductions (VERs) and are certified by a number of different organizations to ensure the purchase of “emission reductions and credits that are real, measurable, additional, permanent, conservatively estimated, independently verified, uniquely numbered and transparently listed in a central database.”

Of course, these credits add up and are traded on the carbon markets. There were voluntary credits amounting to 131 million tons of CO2eq traded in 2010, with a value of $424 million. The volume and value are, to be sure, minuscule in comparison to that of the compliance markets — 6,692 MtCO2eq worth $123.95 billion — but the voluntary markets have a certain “nonmarket” value in terms of providing funds for innovative projects and an outlet for ethical behavior for individuals and businesses. These enterprises and the complex system of finance that support them have been in the vanguard of international environmental project development.

They also provide tremendous educational and practical value in helping people manage their greenhouse gases. The motto of one of the funds providing offsets is “Reduce what you can. Offset what you can’t.” Its suggestions as to how to reduce are practical and easy to do, with ideas applicable to the home, office, local and long-distance travel, your diet, and even your wedding!

Basics: Transport and Food

One of the most personal of preferences is how we get ourselves around. Bike sharing is growing exponentially in popularity in cities all over the world. There are as many as four hundred bike-sharing programs in just ten European countries. Paris and Barcelona were the grandparents of the movement, and the idea has spread to North America, East Asia, and Israel, among other places. New York City is gearing up to have ten thousand bicycles available at five hundred stations. Hangzhou, China, has the world’s largest program, with 60,600 bikes and more than 2,400 stations.Of course, what we eat is another highly personal choice, driven by culture in most cases, that has a tremendous impact on the environment, not the least aspect being the climate system. The Dutch study referenced in the last chapter said that we could cut the cost in half of reaching the desirable goal of 450 ppm CO2eq in the atmosphere by 2050 with a low-meat diet in place worldwide. The Indians put us all to shame with their per capita annual meat consumption of about five kilograms (11 pounds) per person. They have been a largely vegetarian society for centuries. The British, American, and French levels have remained relatively stable over the past twenty years, but the Germans reduced their consumption about 15 percent from 1990 to 2002. The Chinese, as with most things, have radically increased their levels of consumption. They doubled their meat consumption per capita to 52.4 kilograms (115.5 pounds) by 2002, and that figure has gone much higher again ten years later.

No less a personage than Lord Nicholas Stern, the world’s leading environmental economist working on climate change, recognizes the facts and calls for change. Perhaps even more important, he acknowledges the potential for lifestyle changes to occur:

Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better. I think it’s important that people think about what they are doing and that includes what they are eating. I am 61 now and attitudes towards drinking and driving have changed radically since I was a student. People change their notion of what is responsible. They will increasingly ask about the carbon content of their food.

The Pace of Change

Not only for food choices but also for the whole kaleidoscope of other lifestyle changes, any number of expert commentators with long experience of working on environmental issues have the same perception as Lord Stern: that change can and does occur.

Can we effect the “convergence” of consumption that Jared Diamond and others recognize as necessary for the well-being of the planet’s climate system? Will rapidly emerging economies like China and India be able to “leapfrog” from the development path that the major developed economies have taken with a near-total reliance on fossil fuels toward the much more environmentally benign “technology-driven” path that Hermann Scheer prescribed? Indeed, can the big economies of the G7 like the United States, Japan, Germany, and the UK make this transition?

In order to do this, we will need increasingly more aware and concerned publics driving political and private-sector leaders to make the right choices. These publics themselves have incredible power, both in how they spend their money and use resources, and in the messages they deliver at the voting booths and in other forums, such as in civil society vehicles they use to voice their concerns.

Indications are that we have been getting the message on climate change and sustainability, and that forces, perhaps inexorable, are moving to restore the balance and health to our planet and its ecosystems that are a reflection of its natural state and that are our birthright. It is certainly not a done deal and will require, if we are going to be successful, a continued and intensifying focus on making positive change happen, in our neighborhoods and personal lives, in our cities and our nations, and in the global village in which we are all now citizens.

Excerpted from "A Newer World:Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," by William F. Hewitt. With permission from the publisher, University of New Hampshire Press. Copyright © William F. Hewitt, 2012.

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