There Is No Need For More Climate Confusion: Moving to a Sustainable Economy Improves Individual Lives While Protecting Children’s Futures
By Robert E. Driscoll
The conflicting and very contentious arguments for and against human-caused or human-influenced climate change have done little more than sow confusion among average citizens. The evidence cited by each side of the argument seems to have some level of validity, but all too often the facts are twisted to suit individual positions.
Yet, the impacts are real and immediate. This summer has seen mounting devastation from massive disruptions in normal weather patterns, with catastrophic consequences: 41 million people displaced in South Asia from some of the worst monsoons in recorded history; the US’ 4th largest city devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and now Irma, the first category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic in 12 years, is causing untold havoc across the Caribbean and Southeast US. And it is being followed immediately by Jose, another strong hurricane that will hit many of the same islands in the Caribbean. The coincidence of all of these weather events points to how climate change impacts our daily lives.
It is hard for an individual to relate to pollution caused by climate change. Carbon is not a visible pollutant, like smog, or particulate matter in the air. It does not have immediate effects on forests, like acid rain from emissions of sodium dioxide. It does not pollute water. Climate scientists point to massive changes – for example sea levels rising to a point that many islands and countries will be under water, but it all seems so many decades off that it is nearly impossible to relate these future events at a personal level – until a Harvey, Irma, or some of the worst monsoons in decades disrupt our lives.
That human behavior, including past energy policies, are causing climate to change is well documented and supported by leading international scientists. But the political debate adds to the confusion by telling us that it is already too late, that temperature rise is now likely irreversible, so we have to stop using coal immediately, not accept natural gas as a transition fuel, but with limited focus on what can and must be done now. Some commentators make it seem impossible to deal with human influences on the climate, except for a drastic change that would not be acceptable to most people.
The climate deniers cause far more confusion, and delay needed steps to transition from a fossil economy to a sustainable renewable economy. Climate deniers claim that there is no impact of human behavior on Earth’s climate, attempting to make the case that the changes we are seeing are part of a normal weather cycle, or other natural phenomenon. This is a convenient, and easily accepted answer, as it does not require making hard decisions at the individual, corporate or government level. Just maintain business as usual, and everything will be fine. The current leadership of the United States clearly falls directly in this camp.
Is it possible to have access to low cost energy that sustains our lifestyles and brings new opportunities to millions of marginalized people? The answer is clearly yes, and it is being played out all across the globe. Sustainable, renewable power, including solar and wind and other renewable technologies are not only competitive, but can be less costly on a kWh basis than coal. But even with the most optimistic projections for investment in these technologies, coal will remain a significant source of energy for many years. But economics are a powerful force for change. As an example, it was only 40 years ago that heavy oil was a significant fuel for generation of electricity – until it became uneconomic.
Fortunately, there are forward looking companies and individuals who recognize the potential for a sustainable energy policy, and are making substantial investments to realize that potential. In doing so, they are not relying on government subsidies, but instead on the underlying economics of renewable energy. Recent examples are Duke Energy in the US announcing the shuttering of their nuclear power plants and replacing them with $7 billion investment in renewables. Nextera is also projecting substantially increased investments in solar in their home state. In both cases, and many more across the US, the investments are being made because they can deliver reliable electricity at less cost to their customers.
India and China, both major carbon emitters, have some of the strongest policies promoting renewable energy. India’s program has led to some of the lowest solar prices within the Asia region, and without government subsidies. Yet, both countries will still be dependent on coal and other fossil fuels for a substantial portion of their energy requirements, as they seek to provide electricity, and with that improved education and job opportunities, to millions of their people who have no or inadequate access to electricity.
Dealing with the immediate and long-term impacts of climate change will not, as claimed by many of the climate deniers, result in a poorer standard of living for the world’s population. Continued economic growth, and rising individual incomes are compatible with reduction in carbon emissions, without massive disruption to our individual lives. Rather it is just the opposite – moving to a sustainable economy will improve individual lives while protecting our children’s futures.