With all the excitement caused by having a Republican front-runner for president of the United States unmask himself as a fascist fruitcake, you might have missed the happier news.
So let’s try to focus on what just happened in Paris. Not the thugs who murdered 130 people, but those who came to the City of Light in the wake of that massacre determined to keep the planet human-friendly. Rarely have the warring human impulses for good and evil stood in such high contrast as they recently did in Paris.
The welcome news is that after decades of denial and delay, we’ve succeeded in giving ourselves a slim chance of avoiding the worst effects of unnaturally rapid, human-caused global warming. It’s surely not as good a chance as we had in the 1980s when scientists first grasped what was happening. But still.
Leaders of nearly every nation finally say they understand that running the planet on fossil fuels poses a destabilizing danger to their societies and pledged to try to avert multi-pronged, unmanageable global catastrophe. Huge! Without those pledges, we had no hope of avoiding social and ecological disaster. Even with those pledges, we may fail.
Critics properly worry that aside from five-year intervals for reporting and verification, the Paris agreement lacks enforceable, defined goals and penalties (except shame) for laggards who don’t voluntarily reduce enough of their fossil fuel emissions.
After decades of failure, the voluntary approach is what it took to get every nation on board and moving in the right direction. It’s a classic case of not allowing the search for the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
Here’s the problem: Every day human activities release heat equal to the amount that would be released by exploding 400,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, the New York Times reports. Yes, every day.
Really, people. How dumb is that? Hello?
Money for fixes
The Earth overall, including the seas, is now 1.7 degrees F. warmer on average than it was in 1880. The Paris accord aims to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 3.6 degrees F. over what it was in the pre-industrial age, but we’ve already used up 1.7 degrees F. of that. Worse yet, the newly made pledges for national reductions aren’t nearly enough to meet the 3.6 degrees F. goal. Alas, we’re still heading for a 6.3-degree F. temperature rise.
There’s plenty of reason to doubt that the 3.6 degrees F. goal is achievable. Chief among them is that more than 80 percent of global energy use comes from fossil fuels, the prime culprit in producing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that drive most human-caused global warming.
Clearly, we have to fix the world’s energy problem.
And here’s why I’m now more optimistic that it can be fixed: suddenly there’s money to be made by fixing it.
The 20 wealthiest nations pledged to double the amount spent on clean energy research and development. Our state’s own Bill Gates will donate $1 billion to jump-start energy research. He’s rounded up other billionaires to contribute another $1 billion, with more expected from them and other investors. The World Bank estimates it will cost $100 billion a year to get us off fossil fuels.
The day we eliminate tax subsidies for fossil fuels and shift them to clean energy development, you’ll know we’re serious. Even Exxon now admits fossil fuel emissions are harmful. It actually asked the government to take action, such as imposing a revenue-neutral tax on carbon emissions. Taxing carbon emissions would help change the insidious math that keeps fossil fuels viable.
Safe to say, whoever makes the breakthrough to clean energy stands to earn vast profits — and deep gratitude.
Is there time?
About gratitude. We may have another 25 to 30 years of the increasingly unruly, but familiar, climate we now know, scientists say. If — big if — the Paris approach succeeds, it’s your grandchildren who will owe President Obama a big thanks for spearheading the effort to avert the worst of calamities inherent in rapid climate disruption.
Willful climate illiteracy by Republicans caused Obama to seek an accord that doesn’t require ratification by Congress. Faced with Republican lawmakers who’ve made their stand on the wrong side of science and humanity, Obama did a work-around. He cajoled the Chinese — now the world’s biggest CO2 emitter — into a surprising agreement to reduce emissions.
Then there’s India, where millions of impoverished people await electricity. I’m betting that any day now, someone will discover that India has lots of sunlight. Ditto Africa.
Obama is up against Kentucky’s coal ambassador, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith, the anti-science head of the House science committee. Smith accused National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists of falsifying climate data to support Obama in Paris and demanded their research-related e-mails.
Happily, NOAA boss Kathryn Sullivan isn’t the type to wilt under improper pressure. The first female astronaut to walk in space, she helped launch the Hubble telescope. “I have not and will not allow anyone to manipulate science or coerce the scientists who work for me,” she tartly informed Smith.
And what about those leading Republican lights in the presidential race — Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson? No problem. They simply deny that humans cause climate change.
Guess gratitude isn’t their thing.
Solveig Torvik has reported on climate change since the 1980s. She lives in Winthrop.