Solving the Climate Crisis at a Profit


Common Dreams, reporting on the May 2014 release of the U.S. National Climate Assessment put it bluntly: “We’re Screwed.”

“This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like,” trumpeted Mother Jones magazine in its coverage that glaciers in the West Antarctic ice sheet appear to have become irrevocably destabilized.

The New York Times used sober, but equally alarming language: “A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable.”

“Unstoppable.” That’s enough to take the heart out of an activist.

We’re in a horse race with catastrophe.

In the 33 years since the publication of my first book on climate change, a lot has changed. We could have stopped the catastrophic collapse of the polar ice caps and many other nasty outcomes. Now, it appears, we cannot. Back then, the scientific community was split on whether human impacts were causing climate change. That’s no longer true. The IPCC’s recent working group reports make clear that climate change is “unequivocally” caused by humans and that, unchecked, it poses a grave threat to people and could lead to wars and mass migration.

But much remains the same. We CAN still stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and do so at a profit. And almost no one knows that this is true or how to do it.

I recently sat in the elegant drawing room of New York’s exclusive Lotos Club as an eminent scientist presented the paleo-climatology of just how high the seas were the last time the Earth had 400 parts per million atmospheric concentration of CO2.
The room reacted with inevitable denialism, and the presenter patiently answered why we now know that climate change is real, is human-induced, and just how high the seas will become.

But then came the money question: “What can we do about it?”

At this point the scientist shrugged and said, “I don’t know. That’s not my area of expertise.”

That needs to change. Scientists of all disciplines need to be able to answer that question with as much authority as they present on their primary expertise.

The answers are there. My recent book, The Way Out: Kickstarting Capitalism to Save Our Economic Ass, walks systematically through how to solve the climate crisis at a profit. Recently, the IPCC agreed. The Working Group III’s “Mitigation of Climate Change,” reported that ambitious action is becoming more affordable. Tougher building codes and efficiency standards for cars and trucks can save energy and reduce emissions without harming people’s quality of life. The costs of renewable energy like wind and solar power are falling so fast that its deployment on a large scale is becoming practical.

A report from the Carbon War Room entitled “Raising the Roof: How to Create Climate Wealth Through Efficient Buildings” estimates that the total size of the current energy efficiency in the built environment sector is $87 billion per year today. By 2020, it estimates that it will be $245 billion per year. Improving energy efficiency in the building sector alone would prevent the release of more than a gigaton of CO2 emissions each year. For comparison, we need to cut roughly 17 gigatons of carbon each year. Jigar Shah’s recent Creating Climate Wealth details how to do this using energy efficiency and the available cost-effective renewable energy options to unleash a $10 trillion economy and the greatest prosperity the world has yet known.

The IPCC calls for annual investments in electrical power plants that use fossil fuels to be reduced by about 20 percent in the coming two decades. A 2013 study from CDP shows that U.S. businesses cutting emissions by 3 percent per year would drive savings of up to $190 billion per year by 2020 and be sufficient to curb climate change. European use of coal declined 8 percent in the first half of 2013. Even China, often cited as requiring ever growing use of coal, announced in 2014 that it was cutting the intensity of its use of the most carbon-intensive fuel.

The IPCC report warned that investment in low-carbon energy will need to double from current levels.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that more than 70 percent of new power generation capacity added between 2012 and 2030 will be from renewable technologies. Stanford scientist, Dr. Mark Jacobson, detailed how the world could be 100 percent renewably powered by 2030.

Here’s the challenge to us all: The science is clear. The answers are clear. Scientists now need to join with entrepreneurs to deliver climate solutions. Doing so will also solve the jobs crisis and many of the social challenges facing us. We can build, in Buckminster Fuller’s phrase, a world that works for 100 percent of humanity.

But it’ll only happen if you’re prepared to answer that question I heard in New York: “What can we do?”