It will take a coordinated effort of responsible innovation, smart policy and living well with less to fight the war against climate chaos.
Part Three of a three-part series from CSRwire, “Health Hazards of Climate Change.”
By CSRwire Talkback Managing Editor Francesca Rheannon
Climate change has been called the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Part One of this series covered some of the greatest hazards, including death and injury from extreme weather, hunger, spread of disease carrying pests, water-borne and heat-related illnesses, asthma and lack of medicines due to species loss.
Part Two added the unintended consequences of the rush to replace fossil fuels with technologies that carry high risks to health and safety, like nuclear power and corn ethanol. At the end of that post I asked, “So, what’s a climate hawk to do? We need to consider a sobering truth: there is no ‘free’ energy.”
Even after the disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi, many clean energy advocates are saying we need to continue to build nuclear power capacity. Marc Gunther bemoaned in a recent column:
The fires, explosions, radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will lead to greater scrutiny - and higher costs - for new nuclear plants. That will make it harder to develop low carbon energy to replace fossil fuels and avert potentially catastrophic climate change… Over the past few years…I’ve grown more…inclined to support nuclear power as a low-carbon solution, particularly given that all forms of energy production create risks and require tradeoffs. But the nuclear options look a whole lot less attractive today than it did a week ago. And that’s a problem.
But do we really need to make a Faustian bargain with nuclear energy? Do we need to accept almost any tradeoffs to tackle climate change - nuclear disasters, mass starvation (ethanol), widespread contamination of our water supplies with deadly chemicals (hydrofracking for gas) and even such potentially catastrophic “solutions” like geoengineering?
Only if we lack imagination, courage and the willingness to pull together for the common good. The more dangerous alternatives have, tragically, been the first we’ve turned to, because they have powerful private players behind them that think they will make big profits out of the climate emergency we all face. (Caveat Tepco.) The problem is how the emerging energy technologies market is structured, subordinating long-term common need to short-term private greed. But in the long-term, simple survival means the common interest is the salient one, whether you are the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland or a farmer in Bangladesh.
We don’t need to make Faustian bargains for our future. There are safer, more responsible strategies. Here are seven possibilities:
1. Smart Subsidies: The free market doesn’t reign in energy, nor should it. It can’t price carbon correctly because it leaves out the costs we all bear collectively, like environmental destruction and damage to our health. Since the free market can’t price carbon correctly by itself, government policies need to help the market by rewarding technologies that lessen the cost to society and our environment and punishing those that increase it: R&D subsidies to responsible new technology; clean energy and efficiency rebates to consumers; heavy taxes on profits of fossil fuel companies; and an end to subsidies and loan guarantees to dicey modalities like nuclear, ethanol and gas.
2. Smart Standards: We need to develop common sense standards for new technology so we don’t go halfway down the road to hell paved by our good intentions. The precautionary principle has been adopted by the EU to ensure new chemicals don’t get introduced into industrial processes before they are proven safe. It wouldn’t have taken all that much time for scientists and eco-economists to figure out that corn ethanol violates the precautionary principle. All the billions of dollars wasted on that dead end could have given us a jumpstart on safer forms of biofuels, from algae to switchgrass - and ones yet discovered.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has developed these “Bioenergy Principles” to guide R&D and investment in alternative fuels. A national renewable energy standard would also be smart, enabling innovative technologies to be developed with a national market in mind and improved predictability for investors.
3. Smart Efficiency: Some criticize efficiency efforts, pointing out that while vehicle efficiency has increased, overall vehicle emissions have stayed the same, because people are driving more. Increasing use as efficiency goes up is called the Jevons effect; it’s real, but doesn’t apply everywhere and can be minimized. For example, making buildings more energy efficient will decrease total emissions because people won’t jack up the heat or AC beyond the level of comfort. Engineering solutions like smart lighting that goes off when no one is in a room makes efficiency easy, as does architecture that increases available daylight.
Even transportation can sidestep the Jevons effect - if mass transit is made more attractive than driving, as it is in many European cities or the older, dense cities of the US Northeast. Make trains affordable, available, with good connections and clear and frequent scheduling and many will give up driving with relief. Smart traffic lights can decrease fuel use and ease driving for those who must use cars. Discouraging sprawl and encouraging urban density will help too.
4. Smart Transition: We need to get serious about shortening the transition time away from fossil fuels to clean, responsible renewables. But we can also lighten the impact of fossil fuel production by adopting more stringent standards for pollution control and efficiency. Cars - even gasoline engines - can be much more fuel-efficient than current standards mandate. Coal plants can scrub their emissions better than they do now. Companies will scream and moan about costs, but, as the case of vinyl chloride shows, when they finally have to knuckle down and do the right thing, they will probably find a healthier bottom line. And a government mandate would level the playing field between companies and encourage a smart approach. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed out, “Addressing all four major pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and CO2) at once allows utilities to take an integrated approach to pollution control, reducing industry costs and greatly increasing the public health benefits.”
The war against climate chaos isn’t just about technology and efficiency. It’s also about hearts and minds.
5. Smart Patriotism: The war metaphor is apt: just like the Allies did during World War II, citizens need to pitch in together so our children will have a chance. We need to make it unpatriotic to waste energy; we need to engage communities with Clean Energy Challenges, tree planting and climate resilience projects, and community wind developments; the list is endless. We need to redefine security to conform more to the real threats - wars over climate and dwindling resources - so we can take money from bloated defense budgets and use it to change the climate calculus to lessen the threat.
6. Smart Engagement: Many European cities use their trash to generate energy, but I heard a radio report on WNYC in New York that discounted that possibility for the city - a city which is now burning tons of carbon (and cash) to truck its mountains of trash away. The report said residents would never accept trash-to-energy installations. Well, maybe community education and engagement, along with incentives in the form of lower energy costs - and disincentives to continue business as usual - might change some hearts and minds. It’s worth a try. We need to educate and engage citizens in being part of the solution, not the problem.
7. Smart Consumption: And that bring us to the final strategy. Let’s redefine the good life to value quality over quantity; the commons we share over the stuff we hoard (or heedlessly discard); the things that are free and priceless, like health, community, compassion, conviviality and a shared investment in our human future.
It’s up to us.
About Francesca Rheannon
Francesca is CSRwire’s Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.
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