Overcoming the Barriers to Action


Remarks by Eileen Claussen

Earth’s Future: Taming the Climate
Columbia University Symposium

April 23, 2004

Thank you very much.  It is a pleasure to be here to celebrate Columbia University’s 250th anniversary.  So let me begin by saying Happy Birthday to one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning.

On the flight here today, I was thinking about the next 250 years and wondering what will become of Columbia and the wider world in that time. (Given the topic we are here to discuss, along with projections that Manhattan could well be threatened by sea level rise in the years ahead, I decided that Columbia always has a future as a great underwater oceanographic institution.  So all is not lost.)

Yesterday, as all of you know, was Earth Day—or, as the Bush administration referred to it, Thursday, April 22nd.  The 34th anniversary of Earth Day, I believe, provides an important opportunity to acknowledge how far we’ve come since the 1970s.  Our air and water are cleaner, and we have laws to control pesticides, ocean dumping, and hazardous waste disposal.  On the other hand, we still have to endure the music of long-lasting 70s rock bands such as Aerosmith and Kiss.  So I suppose things have not universally improved.  (My apologies to all of the Aerosmith and Kiss fans in the audience.)

Seriously, we have made significant progress on environmental issues since the 1970s—but, obviously, not nearly enough.  And I commend you for commemorating Earth Day yesterday in such an appropriate and public-spirited way, by focusing your attention on an issue where we have not seen significant progress: global climate change. 

During the first day of this symposium, you heard from Michael McElroy and a number of distinguished panelists about the state of our knowledge regarding the climate change issue.  You heard about trends in global temperatures and what this means for the climate.  You heard about ways we can possibly adapt to the predicted changes.  And you heard some ideas about what can be done to slow down or stop climate change. 

My job in this symposium is to try to explain why humanity is doing so little to prepare for the certainty of climate change.  And, because I am genetically programmed to focus on solutions, I will also lay out some ideas for an overall approach that might help us chart a productive path forward on this issue. 

But first a very brief refresher course on why we are here.  We are here because there is overwhelming scientific evidence on three basic points: one, the earth is warming; two, this warming trend is likely to worsen; and three, human activity is largely to blame.

And so the question is: if we know these three things, why are we not acting on that knowledge?  Why are we not doing more to limit those human activities that are the driving force in climate change—namely, our emissions of greenhouse gases stemming primarily from the burning of fossil fuels?

The answer, very frankly, is because we have allowed ourselves to be swayed by a number of tired excuses—excuses put forward, for the most part, by people and interests who plainly want nothing to happen to address the problem of climate change.  The reason, more often than not, is that they have an economic interest in the status quo. 

The first excuse for inaction usually revolves around the issue of scientific uncertainty.  Even though we know that the earth is warming, that the warming will get worse, and that human activities are largely to blame, the fact that we cannot accurately predict exactly how much warming we will see or how quickly it will happen is used unfailingly as a reason for inaction. 

But I submit to you that uncertainty in the science is not a valid reason to hold off on addressing this problem, given what we do know.  The fact that we are uncertain about exactly how climate change will proceed may actually be a reason to act sooner rather than later.  And I will tell you why:

First, current atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are the highest in more than 400,000 years.  This is an unprecedented situation in human history, and there is a real potential that the resulting damages will not be incremental or linear, but sudden and potentially catastrophic.  Acting now is the only rational choice under these circumstances. 

· A second reason to act now is that the risk of irreversible environmental impacts far outweighs the lesser risk of unnecessary investment in reducing or mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

· Third, it is going to take time to figure out how best to meet this challenge--both the technology and the policy responses.  We must begin learning by doing now.

· Fourth, the longer we wait to act, the more likely it is that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions will continue, and that we will be imposing unconscionable burdens and impossible tasks on future generations.

· Fifth, there is an obvious lagtime between the development of policies and incentives that will spur action and the results.  So even if we do not wait, we will be waiting. 

· And, last but not least, we can get started now with a range of actions and policies that have very low or even no costs to the economy.

This brings me to the second tired excuse that is used to argue for inaction in the face of climate change: the costs will be too high.  This argument ignores the fact that if we do this right—and if we start sooner rather than later—we can minimize those costs.  And, more important, we can minimize the very real economic costs of doing nothing.

Next week, the Pew Center will be releasing a report that weighs the potential costs of climate change in relation to the potential benefits.  Yes, in the short term, there may be scattered economic benefits in sectors such as agriculture resulting from higher temperatures and more rainfall.  However, our research shows that these benefits begin to diminish and eventually reverse as temperatures continue to rise.  In other words, the potential economic damage from climate change far outweighs any short-term economic gain.

What kind of economic damage are we talking about?  In 2002, the United Nations Environment Program released a report done in collaboration with some of the world's largest banks, insurers and investment companies. The report found that losses resulting from natural disasters appear to be doubling every 10 years and, if this trend continues, will amount to nearly $150 billion over the coming decade.

Over the last two years alone, we have seen horrific wildfires in the western United States and devastating flooding in central Europe and China. These are the kinds of events scientists predict will occur more frequently or with more intensity in response to climate change.  Of course, it is impossible to conclusively link any one of these disasters to the broader warming trend, but we may be getting an idea of what’s to come.  And we cannot allow those who argue that addressing this problem will cost too much to ignore the potentially devastating costs of allowing climate change to proceed unchecked.

What’s more, the costs of acting to address climate change can be kept at a manageable level—if we use economic instruments wherever possible; if we act thoughtfully and in phases, so that we allow for capital stock turnover and the development of new technologies; and if we provide certainty for the private sector to make wise investments and create new climate-friendly businesses. 

Responding to climate change does not have to wreak economic havoc.  A recent MIT study assessing the costs of the Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act found that a modest, national emissions trading system would cost less than $20 per household per year.  In addition, a significant number of companies are showing that they can meet ambitious targets for reducing their emissions—targets of 10 percent, 25 percent, even 65 percent below 1990 levels—at minimal or no cost.  I repeat: at minimal or no cost.   Some companies are even saving money.  For example recently announced that it had achieved its target of a 10-percent reduction in emissions eight years ahead of schedule—and at a savings of roughly $600 million due to more efficient energy use and streamlined production processes.

So while I would not argue that addressing climate change over the next 50 years is free, I do believe that with care and pragmatism, we can do what we need to without breaking the bank. Cost should not be a reason not to act.

A third excuse that we have allowed to stifle action against climate change is that the United States should not be asked to bear the economic costs of reducing our emissions while other countries, notably China and India, get a quote-unquote “free ride.”  In other words, why should we have to do all this hard work if other people do not?

This argument is weak enough when you consider that we can reduce our emissions in economically feasible ways.  It’s weaker still when you recognize that the United States already is lagging behind in the global technology race, with big implications for U.S. jobs.  Our dallying over climate policy is ceding to Europe and Japan – which have already agreed to emission caps – the lead in developing climate-friendly technologies.  And I say we should worry less about China and India attracting the polluting technologies of the last century, and worry more that we won’t be selling them the technologies of the 21st century. 

The fact that developed countries should act first to reduce their emissions is enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which the United States is a party to, thanks to the signature of our first President  Bush: George H.W.).  Why did the United States agree to this?  Because developed countries are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and therefore should reduce their emissions first.  And, because developed countries are far wealthier than developing countries, we have the means to take action now.  

This is not to say, of course, that developing countries should have no responsibilities.  Just as the United States and other developed nations will need to become more carbon-friendly as we turn over our capital stock, so must developing countries develop in more carbon-friendly ways.  But to expect, or even to wish, that developing countries should face emission limits at the same time and on a similar scale as we do is folly. 

We have now touched on three main excuses for doing nothing: the science is uncertain; the economic costs of addressing this issue are too high; and developed nations should not be asked bear this burden first.  All of these excuses are used to delay action on this issue.  In pushing for such a delay, people often resort to a fourth excuse that underlies all of the others: we can solve this problem if and when we really have to.  But until then, leave us alone.  This is what I call the “silver-bullet defense.” 

Americans, by nature, are an optimistic people who have a deeply held faith in their ability to apply their down-home ingenuity to solve every problem that comes along.  We live in a world of wrinkle-erasing botox injections, iron-free shirts and cellular phones with cameras built-in.  We’ve got to be able to come up with an equally wondrous technology to solve this problem of global warming.  Just give us time. 

There are two problems with this argument.  First, we don’t have time.  You cannot launch an industrial revolution overnight—and that is exactly what we need: another industrial revolution.  Second, climate change is too big a challenge for any one solution.  It is going to take a wide-ranging portfolio of technologies, from energy-efficiency technologies and hydrogen to carbon sequestration, renewable fuels, coalbed methane, biofuels, nanotechnology and biotechnology.  Developing these technologies and getting them to market is going to take a lot of hard work.  We cannot just snap our fingers and make it happen.

We need to replace our existing energy system.  Businesses, however, continue to receive mixed signals from policy-makers about whether or not we are serious about getting on with the challenge of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels.  What’s more, the federal government spends even less than the private sector on energy-related RD&D, which is particularly disappointing when you consider the importance of energy to our economy, our security and our  environment. 

We can do better than this.  We need to encourage, perhaps even require, the development of the full complement of technologies—some of which we may not even know about yet—that will begin to deliver real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the same way that we need a broad portfolio of technologies, we will need an array of policy solutions as well. 

Among the most important of these is an economy-wide cap-and-trade system.  This is a policy that sets targets for greenhouse gas emissions and then allows companies the flexibility to trade emission credits in order to achieve their targets in the most economic manner.  This is the approach taken in the Climate Stewardship Act introduced last year by Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain.  Their bill garnered the support of 43 U.S. senators and prompted the first serious debate in Congress about exactly what we need to be doing to respond to the problem of climate change.  (A companion measure was introduced in the House of Representatives just last month.) 

But a cap-and-trade policy alone is not enough.  We also need an aggressive R&D program, government standards and codes, public infrastructure investments, public/private partnerships, and government procurement programs—and I am sure there are policies we haven’t even thought of yet.  However, despite needing all these policies, we still seem to be waiting for an easy, catch-all answer that will get us out of this mess, just as we are waiting for a technology silver bullet to make the problem go away overnight.  And waiting itself becomes yet another excuse for doing nothing. 

But in doing nothing, we are making a choice.  We are choosing to ignore what we know to be true—namely, that the earth is warming, that this warming is getting worse, and that human activity is largely to blame.  We are choosing to leave as our bequest to future generations a world that will, in all likelihood, be very different from the world we live in today.  We are choosing to saddle our children and our children’s children with an array of problems that may well be beyond their ability to solve.

This is not a case, in other words, where inaction can be explained in terms of benign neglect—“we just didn’t know.”  Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, have reached an all-time high, according to a report last month from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  By putting off serious action, we are essentially making a conscious decision to make the problem worse.  And for that, there is really no excuse. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.  There are indeed many smart and inexpensive steps we can take beginning right now to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and start developing the low-carbon energy technologies of the future. 

How can we start?  Here are a few ideas—things we can do to lay the groundwork for reduced emissions, increased energy efficiency and improved energy security in the years ahead:

· Number One: We can require companies to track and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.  If it is true that what is measured is managed, then this is an essential step if we ever want to move forward with any kind of program for reducing emissions. 

· Number Two: We can use a standard-setting process to set practical but progressive goals to improve the efficiency of our vehicles and our appliances.

· Number Three: We can make strategic public investments in promising technologies.
· Number Four: We can provide incentives for farmers and foresters to adopt practices that take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soil, crops and trees.

· Number Five: We can step up efforts to determine whether we can safely and permanently sequester carbon in geologic formations deep underground at a reasonable cost.

· And Number Six: As I mentioned already, we can build an economy-wide system that sets modest but mandatory targets for reducing emissions and uses market approaches like emissions trading to meet them at the lowest possible cost.

That’s just a random assortment of things we can do right now.  And none of these activities—not one—would pose any kind of serious threat to U.S. economic performance.  Indeed, by creating the conditions for a new industrial revolution that encourages the development and deployment of low-carbon energy technologies, we can create new opportunities, new jobs, and new wealth. 

The key as we move forward is to set a clear, long-term goal of where we want to be on this issue, and then to figure out the short- and medium-term steps that will get us there.  At the Pew Center, we call it the “10-50 Solution.”  By 10-50, we mean that we believe this is a 50 year issue and we should be thinking ahead and envisioning what our society and our economy will need to look like if we are to significantly reduce our emissions. 

That’s the “50” part.  Then, in order to make it manageable, we break it down into 10 year increments.  And we identify the policies and strategies we can start pursuing in the next ten years and the decades to come so we can achieve our long-range goal.

That’s the “10” part.

The 10-50 approach takes a long-term view because we know it will take time to achieve the result that we need -- a low carbon economy.
At the same time, the 10-50 approach enables us to identify the practical steps we can take in the short-term and in the decades to come so we can achieve steady progress. 

If we do this right, one step at a time with a long term goal -  it will be like Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes who said,  'Know what's weird?  Day by day, nothing seems to change, but pretty soon…everything's different'.

In closing, let me say again that I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be here today.  And I ask all of you to join with me and the Pew Center in saying that the time is past for making excuses about why we should not or cannot take serious action to address the problem of global climate change.  With an approach based on sound science, straight talk, and a commitment to working together to protect the climate while sustaining economic growth, we can achieve real progress on this issue.  And we must. 

Columbia University is 250 years old this year.  Let’s work together to ensure that, 250 years from now, there will be a symposium at this great university on what happened at the dawn of the 21st century to finally get a handle on this enormous problem. 

Thank you very much.