Climate in crisis

August 22, 2004|By Ross Gelbspan

THE DESTRUCTIVE potential of our increasingly inflamed atmosphere was recently highlighted by both a Hollywood blockbuster (The Day After Tomorrow) and by the Pentagon, which earlier this year identified climate change as a national security threat.

Unfortunately, what is missing from these justified alarms is the extraordinary -- and unprecedented -- positive consequences that would result from addressing this problem head on. A real solution to the climate crisis has the potential to begin to mend a profoundly fractured world.

The science is unambiguous. To allow the climate to restabilize requires humanity worldwide to cut its use of coal and oil by at least 70 percent in a very brief time. That is the collective finding of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations in the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

In other words, nature is telling us that, to keep this planet hospitable for a complex, highly organized civilization, we need a crash program to rewire the world with non-carbon energy sources -- solar, wind, bio-mass and hydrogen energy technologies.

Absent a rapid global energy transition, we will only see the acceleration and intensification of current trends. The most obvious indication lies in a succession of extreme weather events all over the world:

Last summer, a brutal heat wave in Europe killed more than 30,000 people.

This spring, record-setting monsoons in India and Bangladesh killed about 2,000 people and left more than 30 million homeless.

In May, a single storm dropped more than 5 feet of rain in 36 hours on southern Haiti.

More violent weather, however, is only the most visible consequence of a warmer atmosphere. Most of the earth's glaciers are retreating at accelerating rates. Large pieces of the Antarctic and Arctic ice shelves are collapsing as water temperatures rise. Infectious diseases are spreading as warming accelerates the breeding of insects and expands their range.

The cause of all these changes lies in the build-up in the atmosphere of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from our burning of coal, oil and natural gas. For 10,000 years, our atmosphere had the same amount of CO2, about 280 parts per million. Since the world began to industrialize in the mid-19th century, that figure has risen to 379 parts per million.

Economically, inaction on the climate is projected to be disastrous. Two years ago, Munich Reinsurance, the world's largest reinsurer, projected that the costs of climate change could reach $300 billion a year in the next few decades. In 2000, the largest property insurer in Britain concluded that, unchecked, the impacts of climate change could bankrupt the global economy by 2065.

What is needed is a package of policy measures to propel the world away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy economy. Such a transition would create huge numbers of new jobs, especially in developing countries. Ultimately, it would expand trade by raising living standards in poor countries without compromising ours.

Economists note that every dollar invested in energy in poor countries creates far more wealth and jobs than the same dollar invested in any other economic sector. So a properly structured energy transition would begin to address the economic desperation that gives rise to much anti-U.S. sentiment.

Industrial countries might consider redirecting government subsidies away from coal and oil exploration and toward renewable technologies. Today, those subsidies exceed $20 billion a year in the United States and about $200 billion a year in industrial countries overall.

The solution also requires a large fund to provide clean energy to developing countries. Virtually all poor countries would love to go solar; virtually none can afford it.

The solution also requires a regulatory mechanism to harmonize the energy transition among countries. One strategy involves the adoption, within the framework of the Kyoto protocol, of a progressively more stringent carbon fuel efficiency standard in which every country, beginning at its current baseline, increases its carbon fuel efficiency by 5 percent each year. For example, a country would produce the same amount of goods next year with 5 percent less carbon fuel or 5 percent more with the same amount of coal and oil.

For the first few years, countries would meet the 5 percent annual goal strictly through efficiencies -- by getting the waste out of their current energy systems. When those efficiencies were exhausted, countries would meet the goal by deploying more and more renewable sources, most of which are 100 percent efficient according to a fossil fuel standard.

That, in turn, would create the economies of scale and mass markets for renewables that would lower their price and make them economically competitive with coal and oil.

One would hope such a sweeping and rapid energy transition would not only stave off the most disruptive impacts of an increasingly unstable climate. It could also lay the groundwork for a much wealthier, more equitable, more secure and more peaceful world.

Ross Gelbspan, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is the author of Boiling Point (Basic Books).

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