Let’s Not Braise the Planet
Let’s Not Braise the Planet – NYTimes.com
|According to a report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month, we are not running out of fossil fuels anytime soon. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution we’ve used around 1.2 trillion barrels of oil; the report estimates that with current technology we can produce roughly five times that much. With future technologies, it may well be that the suffering sky is the limit.
This reduces the issue of conversion to clean energy to one of ethics and intent. Our ability to turn around the rate of carbon emissions and slow the engine that can conflagrate the world is certain. But do we have the will?
The chief economist at the International Energy Agency recommends leaving two-thirds of all fossil fuels in the ground. Makes sense to me, but if you’re an oil executive scarcely being charged for the global damage your industry causes (an effective annual subsidy, says the International Monetary Fund, of nearly $2 trillion, money that would be better spent subsidizing nonpolluting energy sources), responsible to your shareholders and making a fortune, would you start erecting windmills? Here’s the answer: According to Rolling Stone, just this spring, BP put its $3.1 billion United States wind farm operation up for sale. Last year, ConocoPhillips divested itself of its alternative-energy activities. Shell, with its “Let’s Go” campaign to “broaden the world’s energy mix,” spends less than 2 percent of its expenditures on “alternatives.”Mining oil, gas and coal is making some people rich while braising the planet for all of us. It’s difficult to think ahead, especially with climate change deniers sowing doubt and unfounded fears of unemployment, but we owe quick and decisive action on greenhouse gas reduction not only to ourselves but to billions of people not yet born. “People give less weight to the future, but that’s a brain bug,” the philosopher Peter Singer told me. “We should have equal concern for everyone wherever and whenever they live.”
There’s reason for optimism thanks to renewable energy standards in most states, California’s groundbreaking cap-and-trade law and President Obama’s directive to the Environmental Protection Agency last week. But this isn’t nearly enough, and you have to hope that the president is now fully engaged in progressive energy policy and isn’t merely preparing us for disappointment should he approve of Keystone XL.
Three things worth noting: Most politicians prefer adaptation to mitigation — that is, they’d rather build houses on stilts than reduce emissions; energy independence is in no way synonymous with “clean” energy; and the oft-stated notion that “since gas burns cleaner than coal and oil, we should be moving toward gas” puts us on the highway to hell.
Make no mistake: when it comes to climate change gas isn’t “clean,” because undetermined amounts of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — leak into the atmosphere from natural gas production.
The answer is zero emission energy. Even moderate changes can help, but cuts in the use of fossil fuels must be much deeper than the president is directing, and this may not happen unless we rid Congress of friends of Big Energy. (By one count the House’s 125 climate-change deniers have taken $30 million in contributions from energy companies.)
Investments in zero-carbon energy are relatively inexpensive and good for the economy, and the cost of business as usual is higher than the cost of even expensive carbon pricing. But it’s tough — pointless? — to make these arguments to the energy companies and their Congressional lackeys, who will fight as they have been effectively paid to do.
Unless we quickly put a steep and real price on all carbon emissions, our inaction will doom our not-too-distant descendants. “Really,” says Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, “we need a comprehensive approach to reduce carbon pollution from all sources. What form that takes — caps, taxes, or standards — is far less important than how soon we get it in place.”
Americans and Western Europeans have been the primary beneficiaries of the lifestyle that accelerated climate change, and, of course are among the primary emitters of greenhouse gases. For the first 200-plus years of the fossil fuel age, we could claim ignorance of its lasting harm; we cannot do that now.
With knowledge comes responsibility, and with that responsibility must come action. As the earth’s stewards, our individual changes are important, but this is a bigger deal than replacing light bulbs or riding a bike. Let’s make working to turn emissions around a litmus test for every politician who asks for our vote.
Imagine a democracy across space, time and class, where legislative bodies represented not only those living in the world’s low-lying areas but their great-grandchildren — and ours. Or imagine that our elected representatives were proxies for those people. Imagine those representatives determining our current energy policy. Is there any doubt that things would change more rapidly?
A version of this article appeared in print on 07/02/2013, on page A25 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Let’s Not Braise The Planet.