While I’m convinced that our current financial crisis is the product of both The Market and Mother Nature hitting the wall at once — telling us we need to grow in more sustainable ways — some might ask this: We know when the market hits a wall. It shows up in red numbers on the Dow. But Mother Nature doesn’t have a Dow. What makes you think she’s hitting a wall, too? And even if she is: Who cares? When my 401(k) is collapsing, it’s hard to worry about my sea level rising.
It’s true, Mother Nature doesn’t tell us with one simple number how she’s feeling. But if you follow climate science, what has been striking is how insistently some of the world’s best scientists have been warning — in just the past few months — that climate change is happening faster and will bring bigger changes quicker than we anticipated just a few years ago. Indeed, if Mother Nature had a Dow, you could say that it, too, has been breaking into new (scientific) lows.
Consider just two recent articles:
The Washington Post reported on Feb. 1, that “the pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said. ‘We are basically looking now at a future climate that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulations,’ Christopher Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, said.”
The physicist and climate expert Joe Romm recently noted on his blog, climateprogress.org, that in January, M.I.T.’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change quietly updated its Integrated Global System Model that tracks and predicts climate change from 1861 to 2100. Its revised projection indicates that if we stick with business as usual, in terms of carbon-dioxide emissions, average surface temperatures on Earth by 2100 will hit levels far beyond anything humans have ever experienced.
“In our more recent global model simulations,” explained M.I.T., “the ocean heat-uptake is slower than previously estimated, the ocean uptake of carbon is weaker, feedbacks from the land system as temperature rises are stronger, cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases over the century are higher, and offsetting cooling from aerosol emissions is lower. Not one of these effects is very strong on its own, and even adding each separately together would not fully explain the higher temperatures. [But,] rather than interacting additively, these different effects appear to interact multiplicatively, with feedbacks among the contributing factors, leading to the surprisingly large increase in the chance of much higher temperatures.”
What to do? It would be nice to say, “Hey, Mother Nature, we’re having a credit crisis, could you take a couple years off?” But as the environmental consultant Rob Watson likes to say, “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics,” and she is going to do whatever they dictate. You can’t sweet talk Mother Nature or the market. You have to change the economics to affect the Dow and the chemistry, biology and physics to affect Mother Nature.
That’s why we need a climate bailout along with our economic bailout. Hal Harvey is the C.E.O. of a new $1 billion foundation, ClimateWorks, set up to accelerate the policy changes that can avoid climate catastrophe by taking climate policies from where they are working the best to the places where they are needed the most.
“There are five policies that can help us win the energy-climate battle, and each has been proven somewhere,” Harvey explained. First, building codes: California’s energy-efficient building and appliance codes now save Californians $6 billion per year,” he said. Second, better vehicle fuel-efficiency standards: “The European Union’s fuel-efficiency fleet average for new cars now stands at 41 miles per gallon, and is rising steadily,” he added.
Third, we need a national renewable portfolio standard, mandating that power utilities produce 15 or 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020. Right now, only about half our states have these. “Whenever utilities are required to purchase electricity from renewable sources,” said Harvey, “clean energy booms.” (See Germany’s solar business or Texas’s wind power.)
The fourth is decoupling — the program begun in California that turns the utility business on its head. Under decoupling, power utilities make money by helping homeowners save energy rather than by encouraging them to consume it. “Finally,” said Harvey, “we need a price on carbon.” Polluting the atmosphere can’t be free.
These are the pillars of a climate bailout. Yes, some have upfront costs. But all of them would pay long-term dividends, because they would foster massive U.S. innovation in new clean technologies that would stimulate the real Dow and much lower emissions that would stimulate the Climate Dow.