CLIMATE CHANGE: THE STATE OF THE QUESTION AND THE SEARCH FOR THE ANSWER
SPEECH BY EILEEN CLAUSSEN, PRESIDENT, PEW CENTER ON GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
ST. JOHNS UNIVERSITY, October 5, 2006
Thank you very much. It is an honor to be here at St. John’s and to be a participant in your religion and science project.
I thought I would open today with a passage from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring:
The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.
That species, of course, is us. And alter it, we have. Which brings me to the somewhat cryptic title of my remarks, The State of the Question and the Search for the Answer.
You might well ask -- what is the State of the Question? It seemed fairly straightforward to me when I first sat down to prepare these remarks, but the more I thought about it – the more elusive the question became. After much pondering, I decided that perhaps this needed to be done somewhat in reverse – that in order to figure out the State of the Question, we actually needed to first ask and answer a series of preliminary questions that will lead us finally to the state of the question.
So let’s begin our search with questions about the science of climate change, the technologies that can be used to address the problem, and the policies that will help get those technologies into the marketplace. And let me provide some relatively easy answers. And then I can move on to what I view as the larger question and the search for that answer.
Is the Science Certain?
Starting with the science, the question is: do we know enough to act? And the answer is unequivocally yes. Every year (and even every month, it seems), the science on climate change becomes more certain and more disturbing.
Consider September. NASA released a study showing higher temperatures and a pronounced retreat of winter sea ice in the Arctic over the past two winters. This study has raised the level of concern because although for years, scientists have reported declines in summer sea ice, this is the first time a similar pattern has been shown happening in the dark of the Arctic winter, a new step in the progression toward an ice-free Arctic. September also produced a report in the journal Nature putting to rest any suggestion that long-term changes in solar output, or luminosity, might be influencing global temperatures and climate. This claim has long been put forward as a reason for inaction – it’s not human interference that is causing the earth to warm, it’s a natural phenomenon. Not so according to solar astronomer Peter Foukal, who together with his colleagues has found that the theory of sunspot-driven climate change has no veracity. The impact of sunspots on the climate are simply too small and too constant to account for the changes in temperature that we are seeing.
So the drumbeat continues. And what the drumbeat tells us in no uncertain terms is that climate change is happening. Scientists are increasingly concerned too that the impacts we are seeing are happening much sooner than expected. Global temperatures have risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century, with average warming of as much as 4 degrees in some regions.
And this warming trend has accelerated in recent years. The ten warmest years recorded have all occurred between 1995 and 2005. 2005 itself was the second hottest year on record, surpassed only by 1998, when El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean contributed to above-average temperatures worldwide. And the trend continues in 2006. For the United States at least, the first six months of this year were the warmest such period on record. No U.S. state was cooler than average for the six-month period; and five states experienced record warmth.
Scientists say these increases in global temperatures will continue and accelerate in the years ahead. The projection is that average global temperature will rise by two-and-a-half to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, with the level of warming in the United States projected to be higherthan the global average.
We are often asked if the role of human interference in this warming is equally unequivocal, and the answer is also yes. The level of warming we have seen cannot be explained by natural causes. Scientists have established a clear connection between rising temperatures and rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, primarily from the burning of coal and oil. In fact, looking back 400,000 years, we can see that global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels go up and down together as if in a dance; they are intimately connected.
In 2004, a researcher named Naomi Oreskes conducted a review of over 900 peer-reviewed journal articles to see if there was indeed a consensus among the scientific community on the role of human actions on the climate, and what she found was this: not one of the authors disagreed with the evidence showing a human impact on the climate over the last several decades. Not one. Her findings titled, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, were published in the Journal Science.
Last year the United States National Academy of Sciences joined a group of 10 other science academies from throughout the world in a statement calling for “prompt action” on global warming by world leaders. The statement could not have been more explicit about the connection between human activity and climate change. It stated: “Action taken now to reduce significantly the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will lessen the magnitude and rate of climate change.”
Of course, it is not just rising temperatures that concern scientists but rather what those temperatures will mean to life on earth. We are confident that we will see an increase in weather extremes – more droughts, more storms, and more floods; the melting of glaciers and global sea-ice and the inevitable rise in sea-level; water shortages; and species loss, to name just a few. I will be talking later in my remarks about the impacts of climate change. For now, I will simply say that the impacts of climate change on the natural world will continue to intensify, and will become more and more substantial over time. And it is frankly remarkable to me that people, especially in Washington, still suggest that more research is needed before we should seriously deal with climate change.
Do We Have the Capacity to Respond?
And so the logical next question is— do we have the capacity and the technologies to do something about this? And the answer again is: Yes. We do. We may not have them all but we most certainly have more than enough to get started in a very serious way.
Each of us make choices every day that can make a difference. The cars we drive, the way we choose to get to work, the lighting and the appliances we have in our homes, the companies we invest in, the letters we do or do not write to our Congress people and our local and national newspapers. Each of us has a voice and a choice. There are countless things we can do in our daily lives to limit our impact on the climate.
And I know we have the capacity to solve this problem in large part because of the companies I work with on this issue. When we established the Pew Center in 1998, we knew that corporate involvement in shaping climate solutions was going to be essential. This was a real departure at the time—there was a real wall of opposition in corporate circles to even acknowledging that climate change was a concern. This was part of a deep-seated almost ideological divide that existed between ‘corporate America and ‘environmentalists’ – you were either pro-environment or pro-business – but you weren’t both. But climate change is different- it’s bigger and more complex than other environmental issues we have dealt with. So we persevered—and, since engaging our original 13 companies to launch our Business Environmental Leadership Council, we have grown the group to 41 companies today. These are mostly Fortune 500 firms representing most industrial sectors and many are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Thinking back to those original members of the council and why they joined, I have a deep respect for the way they took a stand on this issue and defied the prevailing sentiment in industry and business. I remember a conversation I had with a CEO of one of these very large companies and I asked him why he had agreed to join the Pew Center when it was clearly not going to win him friends amongst his contemporaries and he told me that it was time to think about his legacy, his children and his grandchildren. He believed the science of climate change and felt a responsibility to the next generation.
But these are business leaders and so they were thinking about something else too: they were thinking about the bottom line, and whether they had the ability in their own operations to reduce emissions. In other words, they didn’t buy the argument that responding to climate change in a serious way would somehow bankrupt our economy.
Is it a going to be a challenge? Of course. Protecting the climate will require a decades-long commitment to develop and deploy new, low-carbon technologies around the world. But the fact is that many technologies exist right now that will allow us to begin making substantial cuts in our emissions of greenhouse gases. And I want to talk briefly about some of the most promising technologies for reducing emissions in two key sectors of the economy: electricity and transportation.
Starting with electricity, this sector produces 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Most of the electricity generated by the sector is used in buildings—homes, offices and industrial facilities. It powers everything from heating and cooling systems to computers, lighting and machinery. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions related to electricity use will require far-reaching changes in how we produce and consume energy. But “far-reaching” is not the same as “impossible.”
One of the members of the Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council is Alcoa. And, over the last 20 years, this company has reduced the electricity required to produce a ton of aluminum by 7.5 percent.
Another member, IBM, has instituted energy conservation measures that resulted in a savings of 12.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity between 1990 and 2002. The resulting reduction in carbon dioxide emissions: 7.8 million tons. And the resulting savings to the company’s bottom line: $729 million in reduced energy costs.
And since 1990, customer energy efficiency programs at Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) have cumulatively saved more than 138 million megawatt hours of electricity. As a result, the company has avoided between 36 and 80 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Do we have the capacity to reduce emissions? You bet we do and these companies are showing us how. They are also showing that they can do it in ways that do not compromise economic growth.
Now, all of these examples I have talked about are on the demand side of the electricity sector. They are all focused on reducing consumption at the level of the electricity consumer. What about the supply side? Do we have the capacity and the technologies to do something there as well? And, once again, the answer is a resounding yes.
Right now, we have the ability to produce electric power and heat much more efficiently using both fossil fuels and renewable energy. We can build power plants that use a process called Integrated Gasification and Combined Cycle (IGCC). IGCC delivers efficiency gains along with reductions in air pollution by converting coal into a cleaner-burning gas. But right now, there are only two true IGCC plants in operation in the United States.
We can also build combined heat-and-power (or cogeneration) plants. Rather than wasting excess heat generated in the course of producing electricity, these cogeneration plants capture it for use in heating homes and industrial sites. The ABB Group of Companies have built approximately 1,500 small cogeneration plants in Europe. These plants produce both electricity and steam to heat nearby buildings, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent compared to coal-fired power plants. In the United States, however, cogeneration is nowhere near reaching its potential for delivering significant reductions in emissions.
And then there are renewable sources of energy. Large-scale renewable energy can be cost-competitive with other forms of conventional electricity in some cases. But renewables such as wind power, solar power and biomass still count for only a tiny share of overall electricity generation in the United States. The reason: today’s marketplace (and today’s public policy environment) favor traditional energy sources.
And then there are the technologies that show great potential in reducing emissions from power generation, but that require additional work. One example is underground storage (or sequestration) of carbon. In the IGCC power plants I mentioned, carbon can very easily be captured for long-term storage in underground geological formations. This is an enormously promising option for protecting the climate. In a nation that currently meets more that half of its electricity needs with coal, you would think we would be all over this, trying to figure out how to make sequestration work. But our efforts in this arena pale in comparison to the need. The Federal government is investing in one massive demonstration that will not be completed until 2018. What we need are multiple, smaller demonstrations that yield results more rapidly and that will affect investment decisions in the coal burning power plants that are being planned for construction over the next decade. All 130 of them.
Cars and trucks are responsible for 32 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions – but again significant reductions in these emissions can be achieved through the use of “off-the-shelf” or already existing technologies. One recent study found that commercial (and cost-effective) technologies exist right now to increase fuel economy and/or reduce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25 percent. Over the longer term, technologies like plug-in hybrid engines, biofuels made from agricultural products and hydrogen fuel cells promise even larger reductions.
This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. We simply need to do our homework to develop and refine and test the full range of technologies—and, if they work, then provide the support they need to move from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Opponents of strong action to address climate change often focus on the economic costs of dealing with the issue. Yet if we look closely at the analyses they use to support their claims, we can see that the models are full of assumptions that defy reality, that the policies modeled are far more draconian than contemplated by any policymakers, and that the costs of not acting are not included. The bottom line is that, yes, significant investments are needed. And a technological revolution, which is what we need, will not be free. But addressing this issue in a reasonable and concerted way will not bankrupt our economy. Not addressing it just might.
U.S. insurance company AIG has warned of—and I quote—“far-reaching negative impacts on economies and societies worldwide” from climate change. According to the global insurance giant, Allianz, climate change already is increasing the potential for property damage at a rate of between 2 and 4 percent every year.
And it is not just about the benefits that will come with avoiding costs. Think for a moment about the economic opportunities tied to developing and deploying these new and emerging technologies I’ve talked about. GE has committed to doubling its investment in environmental technologies to $1.5 billion by 2010. That is the equivalent of starting a new Fortune 250 company focused exclusively on clean technology. This is what I call a win-win. GE sees the potential for real profits – green is green -- and I see the potential for real progress on the climate front.
If we do it right, protecting the climate could mean new industries, new markets and new jobs, as well as a new future for localities and states that successfully position themselves as centers of innovation and technology development for a low-carbon world. In many cases, however, the benefits and the opportunities tied to climate action simply are not a part of the conversation – and the result is added support for the myth that we can’t afford to do anything about this issue.
But the truth is that we can’t afford not to do this. We know what technologies will get us started on a path to reduced emissions, and we also know that there are promising technologies out there that can deliver substantial, long-term reductions as part of a global energy technology revolution.
Are There Policies That Can Help?
This brings us to the third question: do policy solutions exist that will prove effective without causing more harm than good. And the answer, again, is yes.
A revolution such as this simply will not happen without a push and a pull from government. And the fact is, we know what kind of policies will work to reduce emissions across the economy. Again, there is no question about this. And we also know what kind of policies won’t work. For example, while the White House and its allies continue to say that our current, voluntary climate policies are enough, U.S. emissions keep on rising. Last year, the Department of Energy reported a 2-percent jump in greenhouse gas emissions between 2003 and 2004. Since 1990, our emissions have increased by more than 16 percent.
Voluntary policies are not going to get the job done. Mandatory policies are clearly what we need. And so in 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan measure calling for a national, mandatory, market-based program to slow, stop and, ultimately, reverse the growth in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Although the measure was nonbinding, it marked the first time the Senate has gone on record to support mandatory action on this issue.
Among the key climate policy solutions we know about is “cap-and-trade.” This is a policy that requires emissions reductions while allowing companies to trade emission credits so they can achieve their reductions as cost-effectively as possible. The most important benefit of this approach: it establishes a value for emissions reductions, as well as an economic advantage for the technologies that can achieve them.
The cap-and-trade model already has proven successful in this country in reducing emissions of the pollutants that cause acid rain. We know it can work. Cap-and-trade, in fact, is the cornerstone of climate legislation introduced by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, and others, in both the Senate and the House have also introduced cap and trade legislation. In the state of California, where Governor Schwarzenegger
recently signed the most ambitious state program to address climate change, there is authorization to move forward with a cap and trade program. Many of the businesses we work with at the Pew Center support the cap-and-trade approach because it is effective—and because it will grant them the flexibility they need to achieve the necessary reductions at the lowest possible cost.
Here in New York, your governor is supporting a cap-and-trade initiative together with seven other Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. It is called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (or “RGGI”). This innovative pact among the states is aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the region. It’s the first cap-and-trade program to control these emissions in the United States—and it reflects a sophisticated understanding among these governors that mandatory, market-based policies are essential. It also reflects an acknowledgment that, when it comes to government action on climate change, the more parties that work together, the greater the efficiencies and the lower the costs. This is why the ultimate goal has to be a national cap-and-trade system that covers the entire U.S. economy.
But cap-and-trade is not the only policy solution to climate change. We need a wider range of policies. Governments also need to invest in research to develop some of the most critical, long-term, climate-friendly technologies. And policies are needed to ensure that those technologies that reduce emissions can gain a solid foothold in the marketplace.
Many of these policies are sector specific. I already talked about the transportation sector and its emissions. And it’s worth noting here that many governments around the world have adopted more stringent policies than the United States to reduce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions and/or increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks. Even China has higher standards than we do. So, of course, it is clearly possible. Despite the automobile companies’ resistance, technologies exist to reduce emissions from this sector. And by adopting tougher but reasonable standards, we can hasten the rollout of cost-effective, commercially available technology to reduce vehicle emissions.
Typically, the state of California has been a national leader on this issue. Lawmakers in that state have taken steps to begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks. It is a policy that 10 other states are poised to follow if it survives a legal challenge from the automakers. California’s standard for vehicles could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 30 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2020. And the reductions will build from there as other states follow California’s lead. And, once again, the work of California, like the work of New York and its partners here in the East, will build momentum for national action to reduce emissions from cars and trucks.
So that’s an important policy solution in the transportation sector. In the electricity sector, a policy that shows real promise for reducing emissions is something called the “renewable portfolio standard” (or RPS). As of today, 22 states, including such large emitters as Texas and California, now require that electric utilities generate a specified amount of electricity from renewable sources. These states see an RPS not only as a way to protect the climate but also as a way to support new energy industries and new jobs. The state of Texas, for example, estimates that the amount of renewable energy that has entered the system because of the state’s RPS exceeds the amount of renewable energy produced in the state over the past 100 years. By reducing fossil fuel generation, the Texas program should cut carbon dioxide emissions by 3.3 million tons. And this is a policy that was signed into law by none other than former Governor George W. Bush.
The work that states like Texas and California are doing on the climate issue could produce enough material for an entire lecture—and I encourage you to visit the Pew Center’s website so you can see our database of state activities and related reports. My point today is that these states know what types of policies will be needed to reduce our nation’s emissions—and a growing number of our lawmakers in Washington know it too. It is going to take mandatory, market-based policies, as well as policies that support research, development and deployment of new low-carbon energy technologies.
And it is also going to take international policies. This, too, is not in question. Climate change is a global problem requiring global action. Even if we were to get smarter about reducing the United States’ contribution to climate change, global energy use will continue to surge, carbon dioxide emissions will continue to grow, and climate change will remain a significant threat. We cannot protect the climate without a global framework that enlists all countries to do their part to reduce emissions, and that provides poorer countries with the support they need to do so. Because climate change is truly an issue that knows no bounds.
The Kyoto Protocol has been the focus of a lot of attention and a lot of discussion (and a lot of controversy) over the past several years. Kyoto, of course, is the international agreement that commits participating countries to specific targets for reducing their emissions. However, Kyoto’s targets take us only to 2012, and without commitments from the United States, Australia, China and other major emitters, it’s not nearly enough. What’s needed looking forward is a new global framework for action, one that engages all the major emitting countries and that provides them with the flexibility they need to reduce emissions in ways that make the most sense for them.
The Pew Center recently held a series of discussions with a range of policy makers, companies and NGOs from 15 countries to consider the elements of a global framework that looks beyond 2012. The participants laid out a number of clear priorities. For example, they strongly endorsed market-based approaches as a core element of the international effort, but they said we shouldn’t necessarily limit ourselves to Kyoto-style targets setting binding absolute caps on emissions. Most importantly, they understood that not every nation is the same; not every nation has the same emissions profile; not every nation has the same capability; and not every nation is in the same state of development. So we have to be flexible and we have to recognize that developing countries, who are still trying to supply their populations with basic services, including electricity, may have to make their contribution to solving this problem in a different way.
From this effort, and from the work we are continuing to do that will further flesh out this framework, it is clear that there are policies at the global level that can lay the groundwork for effective action. But the global discussion on future frameworks is only beginning – and the United States is not even at the table.
The Search for the Answer
So if I could briefly recap: The scientific integrity of climate change is solid – the earth is warming. This warming will likely manifest itself in ways that are detrimental to life as we know it. And human actions are largely to blame for the warming.
We have the capacity to solve this problem. Many of the technologies to combat global warming already exist. And importantly, we know that there are policies we can put in place that will unleash the kind of technological revolution we are going to need.
So now, after searching through some of the answers we arrive at the State of the Question. And it is this:
Given everything we know, why are we doing so little to address climate change?
And I believe the answer to this question leads us directly into the provinces of values and ethics, because it forces us to confront a still more fundamental question: what is our responsibility to others? What is our responsibility to our children and our grandchildren, and to their children and grandchildren? Do we leave them a world that is better or worse than the one we inherited? Of course most people, when asked, would insist that we should leave a world that is better than the world that we inherited. But if we do not grapple with this problem, if we do not adjust our behavior in an intelligent, measured way—we will neither protect our environment nor sustain a growing global economy. And the world we leave will be in far worse condition that the one we were born into.
The first thing we have to understand is that it is not we but future generations who will likely bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. And the brunt will be borne not by the wealthy but by the poor.
Consider for a moment some of the expected impacts of a changing climate: more flooding and more droughts; a scarcity of fresh water resources; extended heat waves; more powerful storms and other extreme weather events; rising sea levels; damage to fragile ecosystems; diminished agricultural yields; and threats to human health as communicable diseases now known mainly in the tropics will worsen and spread to temperate climates.
Consider only the issue of sea level rise. By the end of the century, if nothing is done to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases, global sea level may be three feet higher than it is today, bringing unforgiving impacts to low-lying coastal communities throughout the world.
And we know that these impacts will be borne disproportionately by those least able to cope. So why are we paralyzed?
An estimated 97 percent of all natural disaster-related deaths happen in developing countries. These countries need help doing two things: they need help with planning so that disasters do not inflict such an enormous toll on their societies; and they need help with investments in safe drinking water supplies, better sanitation, sustainable farming, safer housing, anything that can help their residents make it through these disasters and resume their lives, and livelihoods, without having to start all over.
In addition to a responsibility to future generations, we also have a responsibility to the poor, both today and tomorrow. In developed and developing nations, poor people do not have the resources to respond and adapt to climate change in the same way in which the rest of us can respond and adapt.
Think about what we saw last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We saw an American city, New Orleans, completely devastated, and we saw the city’s poorest residents suffering the most. I cannot categorically say that Katrina was caused by global warming, although scientists have observed that hurricanes are becoming more intense, and will continue to do so as ocean temperatures rise. What I can say, however, is that Katrina was a bitter taste of things to come. None other than the CEO of Wal-Mart, Lee Scott, has referred to climate change as “Katrina in slow motion.”
The disproportionate impact of Katrina on poor people should serve as a reminder to us all: people with resources can move and rebuild and start new lives in the event of hurricanes and other weather disasters brought about by climate change. Poor people, on the other hand, often have nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn, no resources to make the kinds of changes in their lives that will protect them from this global problem.
What strikes you most when you look at the data on the impacts of climate change is that the most vulnerable countries are in the developing world. Africa, for example, is extremely susceptible to the impacts of climate change; in fact, the continent and its people already are showing signs of having trouble adapting to a warmer world.
Africa, of course, is not alone. Other parts of the developing world face similar threats. In Bangladesh, a one-meter rise in sea level would inundate 17 percent of the country. Even in areas that might be spared from flooding, the availability of freshwater will be threatened as saltwater intrudes into estuaries and groundwater.
Agriculture in developing countries will take a special hit. Wheat, for example, will virtually disappear as a crop in Africa; there will be substantial declines in Asia and South America as well. At a time when we are looking anew at debt forgiveness and other strategies for reducing disparities between rich and poor countries, it is essential that we consider the role of climate change in making those disparities even more pronounced.
And what of the developing countries whose very existence is threatened by climate change? I am talking here about small island states such as Tuvalu. This is a nine-island chain in the central Pacific that is home to 11,000 residents. On average, these islands are just one meter above sea level. As sea levels rise, these people will have to leave their homeland, becoming the world’s first climate refugees – but certainly not the last.
Now, if all of these countries I’ve talked about had in some way been largely responsible for climate change, that might be another matter. Maybe we would look at the issue a little differently, for example, if Africa had produced the lion’s share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over time and now was being asked to suffer the consequences.
But Africa produces just 2 to 3 percent of worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases. The United States, by contrast, with just 5 percent of the global population, is responsible for more than 20 percent of worldwide emissions. And there is also the issue of cumulative emissions. The fact is that climate change is a problem that has been decades in the making as carbon dioxide and other gases have accumulated in the atmosphere over time. These gases have a long life and can remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries. And, in the span of the last century or so, it was the United States and other already developed countries that were producing the lion’s share of these emissions.
Looking only at carbon dioxide, the United States was responsible for more than 30 percent of global emissions between 1850 and 2000. The comparable figure for China: just 7 or 8 percent. Even considering the high rates of projected growth in China’s and India’s emissions, the cumulative contributions of developed and developing countries to climate change will not reach parity until sometime between 2030 and 2065.
Clearly all of the major emitting countries need to be a part of the solution to climate change. But saying that all of today’s big emitters should be equally responsible for reducing their emissions is like going to a restaurant and having a nice dinner and then running into a friend who joins you for coffee. And, when the check comes, you make your friend who only had the coffee split the cost of the entire dinner. Yes, developing countries need to do their part, but there is no denying that the developed world, including the United States, has a moral and ethical responsibility to act first.
We also have a responsibility to help developing nations adapt to a warming world. No matter what we do, some amount of global warming already is built into the climate system. There will be impacts; there already are impacts. And it is people living in poverty in the developing world who will face the most serious consequences.
So it really comes down, again, to a question of responsibility. What is our responsibility? And it is not just our responsibility to our fellow man (or woman). There is also our responsibility to the natural world, to the earth. Beyond human societies, the natural world also will suffer from the effects of climate change. In fact, we are already seeing changes in the natural world due to climate change. Coral reefs are at risk because of warmer and more acidic ocean waters. Polar bears are threatened by declines in sea ice. Species already are disappearing because of new diseases connected to climate change. In short, climate change holds the potential of inflicting severe damage on the ecosystems that support all life on earth.
So why, then, have we failed to take responsibility? Why has there been such an absence of political will?
As I consider the politics of climate change, I am drawn to two answers.
First, this is a problem that demands solutions and sacrifice now, even though its most serious consequences will be felt in the future. Our democratic political institutions are based on time horizons that correspond to political terms of two, four or six years. But climate change is a problem that, although we are beginning to see impacts now, reserves its most severe consequences for future decades and centuries.
For a member of Congress or a President to ask today’s voters to sacrifice in some way when the benefits are not immediately apparent (and, frankly, hard to conceive) is asking a lot. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask, but we need to understand the nature of our democratic political system. Any time a politician even suggests that there is a possibility that we should perhaps consider raising the gasoline tax, he or she is virtually guaranteed to be slammed by opponents in the next election. The pretext of the attack is that this politician is threatening our way of life.
It is now vs. the future. Today vs. tomorrow. And, more often than not, today is going to win. Our present generation enjoys the benefits of doing next to nothing to address climate change in the form of low energy costs, convenience and ample creature comforts. Even hinting that we may have to sacrifice some of those benefits for some elusive future gain does not win elections. Tomorrow does not win elections; today does.
The second answer revolves around money. In the same way that the voters of today benefit from the current system, so too do the influential interests that support today’s political campaigns and that have a strong lobbying presence in Washington and many state capitals. There is no National Association of Tomorrow’s People in Washington, but there are countless trade groups whose sole purpose is to make sure that our lawmakers’ decisions protect the ability of today’s industries and businesses to maximize current profits. Yes, many businesses have come around to recognizing the need for action to protect the climate, seeing it as assuring profits in the future. But the balance remains tilted in favor of the status quo. Today’s interests support political campaigns. Tomorrow’s interests do not.
And, in the same way that our national democratic systems are not well equipped to deal with a problem such as climate change, our international system is even more poorly equipped. We simply do not have mechanisms in place for mobilizing (and enforcing) international action on an issue such as this. And, given the potential for varying climate impacts in varying places around the world, some nations may erroneously think they will be better off as climate change continues, at least in relation to others. And, as a result, there are these varying levels of incentives, and varying levels of alarm, about the problem. And the result is an inability to reach consensus about a global approach.
And, it is because of the inadequacy of our political institutions (both domestic and international) to deal with an issue such as this that those with a vested interest in the status quo can prevail. All they have to do is raise questions about the science, the technology or the policies—and our institutions, which already are enormously challenged by this problem, simply back off.
James Freeman Clarke once said. “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.” Ladies and gentlemen – I believe it is time for statesmanship.
And while I am happy to discuss the shortcomings of many in leadership positions in this country – I don’t believe they bear the whole of the burden for their actions (or lack thereof). The public – you and I -- bear some of the responsibility. We have not clearly told our elected officials that we believe this is a vital issue – for today and tomorrow; that we are willing to change our energy habits and to make sacrifices if necessary. We have not made our voices heard.
And we must find a voice for those who do not have one – future generations, and people without means. For far too long, climate change has ranked near the bottom tier of environmental issues – but climate change at its core is not an environmental issue, it is a moral and ethical issue. I believe we will only see progress on this issue if and when our leaders finally see it that way.
While conducting some research to prepare for today, I reread the statement on climate change on the Catholic Bishop’s website and there was one part – attributed to Pope John Paul that I found beautiful in its’ simplicity – It says:
At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both "the human environment" and the natural environment.1 It is about our human stewardship of God's creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When we have arrived at the question, the answer is already near.”
So what is the question? I believe it is this: Why are we shirking our responsibility to address climate change? And Emerson was right: the answer is near. Because in arriving at this question, we are acknowledging that we should be doing more, much more, to protect our climate. We know what we need to do, and we know we can do it. We simply need to muster the courage and the political will to put the status quo behind us and shape a safer, better future for our planet and the generations to come.
Now, I will welcome your questions. Thank you very much.