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Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing

By       Message Bill McKibben       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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From Rolling Stone

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The technology exists to combat climate change -- what will it take to get our leaders to act?


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There are plenty of tipping points like this: The Amazon, for instance, appears to be drying out and starting to burn as temperatures rise and drought deepens, and without a giant rainforest in South America, the world would function very differently. In the North Atlantic, says Mann, "we're ahead of schedule with the slowdown and potential collapse" of the giant conveyor belt that circulates warm water toward the North Pole, keeping Western Europe temperate. Its tipping points like these that make climate change such a distinct problem: If we don't act quickly, and on a global scale, then the problem will literally become insoluble. We'll simply move into a dramatically different climate regime, and on to a planet abruptly and disastrously altered from the one that underwrote the rise of human civilization. "Every bit of additional warming at this point is perilous," says Mann.

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Another way of saying this: By 2075 the world will be powered by solar panels and windmills -- free energy is a hard business proposition to beat. But on current trajectories, they'll light up a busted planet. The decisions we make in 2075 won't matter; indeed, the decisions we make in 2025 will matter much less than the ones we make in the next few years. The leverage is now.

Trump, oddly, is not the central problem here, or at least not the only problem. Yes, he's abrogated the Paris agreements; true, he's doing his best to revive the coal mines of Kentucky; of course it's insane that he thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax.

But we weren't moving fast enough to catch up with physics before Trump. In fact, it's even possible that Trump -- by jumping the climate shark so spectacularly -- may run...some small risk of disrupting the fossil-fuel industry's careful strategy....That strategy, we now know, began in the late 1970s. The oil giants, led by Exxon, knew about climate change before almost anyone else. One of Exxon's chief scientists told senior management in 1978 that the temperature would rise at least four degrees Fahrenheit and that it would be a disaster. Management believed the findings -- as the Los Angeles Times reported, companies like Exxon and Shell began redesigning drill rigs and pipelines to cope with the sea-level rise and tundra thaw.

Yet, year after year, the industry used the review process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stress "uncertainty," which became Big Oil's byword. In 1997, just as the Kyoto climate treaty was being negotiated, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond told the World Petroleum Congress meeting in Beijing, "It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now."

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In other words: Delay. Go slowly. Do nothing dramatic. As the company put it in a secret 1998 memo helping establish one of the innumerable front groups that spread climate disinformation, "Victory will be achieved when average citizens 'understand' (recognize) uncertainties in climate science," and when "recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'"

And it's not just the oil companies. As America's electric utilities began to understand that solar and wind power could undercut their traditional business, they began engaging in the same kind of behavior. In Arizona, whose sole reason for existence is the sun, the local utility helped rig elections for the state's public-utility commission, which in turn allowed utilities to impose ruinous costs on homeowners who wanted to put solar panels on their roofs.

As The New York Times reported in July, the booming U.S. market for new residential solar has come to "a shuddering stop" after "a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners to install solar panels." It's not that they think they can keep solar panels at bay forever -- every utility website, like every fossil-fuel industry annual report, has pictures of solar panels and spinning windmills. But as industry analyst Nancy LaPlaca says, "Keeping the current business model just another year is always key for utilities that have a monopoly and want to keep that going."

The planetary futurist Alex Steffen calls this tactic "predatory delay, the deliberate slowing of needed change to prolong a profitable but unsustainable status quo that will be paid by other people eventually." It's not confined to the moneybags at the oil companies and the utilities -- he's written extensively about the otherwise-liberal urbanites in his home state of California. "A lot of cities are happy to talk about providing their power cleanly, but reducing cars, densifying, spending on bike paths, raising building standards -- those things are all so contentious they're not even discussed."

Ditto the folks who block windmills out of fear of chopping birds, thus helping lock in the next great mass extinction. Much of the labor movement has grown more outspoken on climate change. They know that a dollar invested in renewable energy generates three times as many jobs as one wasted on fossil fuel, but the union that builds pipelines has fought so tenaciously to avoid change that the AFL-CIO came out for building the Dakota Access Pipeline, even after guards sicced German shepherds on native protesters. In careful language that might have been written by a team at Exxon, the union said it supported new pipelines "as part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change."

"Comprehensive," "balanced," "measured" are the high cards in this rhetorical deck. "Realistic" is the ace in the hole.

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There's a reason this kind of appeal is so persuasive. In almost every other political fight, a balanced and measured and "realistic" answer makes sense. I think billionaires should be taxed at 90 percent, and you think they contribute so much to society that they should pay no tax at all. We meet somewhere in the middle, and come back each election cycle to argue it again, depending on how the economy is doing or where the deficit lies.

Humans and their societies do work best with gradual transitions -- it gives everyone some time to adapt. But climate change, sadly, isn't a classic contest between two groups of people. It's a negotiation between people on the one hand and physics on the other. And physics doesn't do compromise. Precisely because we've waited so long to take any significant action, physics now demands we move much faster than we want to. Political realism and what you might call "reality realism" are in stark opposition. That's our dilemma.

You could draw it on a graph. The planet's greenhouse-gas emissions are still rising, though more slowly -- let's say we manage to top out by 2020. In that case, to meet the planet's goal of holding temperature increases under two degrees Celsius, we have to cut emissions 4.6 percent annually till they go to zero. If we wait till 2025, we have to cut them seven percent annually. If we wait till 2030 -- well, it's not even worth putting on the chart. I have to sometimes restrain myself from pointing out how easy it would have been if we'd acted back in the late 1980s, when I was first writing about this -- a gradual half a percent a year. A glide path, not a desperate rappel down a deadly cliff.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
 

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