Executive Director, CALC
After a long, sleepy bus ride from Cambridge, we came to a final stop in Manhattan, near Central Park, to join the largest climate march in history. Over 300,000 people from all walks of life were gathered in the streets, and I could not wait to join them. As we waded into the crowd, looking for and finding friends, while keeping track of the friends we brought, I tried to memorialize the amazing sights and sounds around me.
There were giant floats, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex, made of car parts and motor oil bottles for the vertebra, propelled by bicycles. The Koch brothers were represented by a pair of wise talking, suit wearing fellows on a bicycle modified to look like a limousine. People were dressed up in various costumes including Bugs Bunny, Mimes, and a small dragon.
The collection of slogans on signs was enough to last a lifetime:
“Keep the oil in the soil, and the coal in the hole!” screamed one.
“I couldn’t afford to buy a politician, so I made this sign,” lamented another.
“There is no Planet B!” warned a third.
The street bands were pumping, the tubas blaring, the snare drums syncopating over the base, all accompanied by the wood-on-plastic rhythms of the makeshift percussion section. When we marched near a band, I did’t feel fatigue in my legs, and all my body wanted to do was dance.
The energy was positive, and upbeat, a celebration of awareness, of being right about our future and having endured unbearable opprobrium for it. It was a protest march, yes, against all those who would do nothing about climate change. But mostly it was a street party, an affirmation of being alive and wanting to keep it that way.
We passed iconic sites along the way, including the Trump Tower, and Bank of America. These venerated icons of greed and excess that have ruled our fates for decades now appeared empty and desolate, lost in a rising tide of people increasingly aware of the terrible future these buildings portend. On Monday, protesters tried to flood Wall Street, the capital of excess and greed.
Some political leaders joined us in the streets, their terrific titles a testament to the futility of our collective efforts thus far. We’ve known about climate change for decades, yet those with the power to do something about it did almost nothing. Until now.
It is of course dangerous to write history before it happens. This march could go down as just another wasted effort, its only positive outcome being extra overtime pay for New York City trash collectors. But as a climate activist for over two decades, something tells me this was different. There was an energy at Sunday’s march, and at Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit, that was a strange mix of urgency and desperation, a collective sense of potential doom and growing opportunity, a renewed sense of purpose for ourselves and our world.
I’m no starry-eyed dreamer. Actually I am, but I’m also an MIT trained engineer, and I’m well aware of the complexities, nuances and challenges of addressing the global climate crisis. Fossil fuel consumption is so deeply embedded into our economic system that extracting it will take many decades. And fossil fuels are not our only problem. Land use, agriculture and population growth make for a potent mix that will continue to fuel climate altering greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. And we still don’t understand the role of methane hydrates…
So we don’t have all the answers, but then again, we never do, and that is no excuse for continued inaction. When the US entered World War II, we were by no means assured of victory! When abolitionists began their quest to free us from the abomination of slavery, they faced odds far worse than our own. Opposition was fierce, and the US fought a horrific civil war against itself to achieve emancipation, which was by no means an inevitable outcome at the time.
Climate change is more diffuse than any of these historical examples, with no clear “bad guys” to target, the Koch brothers and their ilk notwithstanding. While it is true that the fossil industry is supplying the primary fuel for the fire that is global warming, we are all complicit, if not always willing, participants in generating the demand that drives their industry. When it comes to doing their job of drilling, mining, or fracking, they can honestly say that they are only doing what we have thus far demanded of them. And that is why this week has been such a hopeful one for me. Because we are finally, collectively starting to ask for a different approach!
On Tuesday, I entered Manhattan again, this time by train, to attend the UN Climate Summit called by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. I’d traded my shorts and activist T-shirt of the People’s Climate march for a business suite and a small but bright red lapel pin in the shape of a stop sign that says “climate change.” Invited to attend the private sector forum in the afternoon, I was deeply aware of the privilege of being there in person to witness this historic occasion.
Globally the climate justice conversation has been stuck for years on the question of fairness. Is it fair to the developing world to constrict their growth because of climate change caused to date primarily by the emissions of the developed world? Phrased that way, the obvious answer is of course a resounding “NO!” But the developed world retorts, not unreasonably, that the past should be buried if we hope to survive as a species. The air in that balloon of course is quickly deflated by the hypocrisy of our own inaction to date, and so we have remained firmly stuck to the ground, weighed down by our inability to cut through these thick ropes of disagreement. Until now.
What changed for me, this week, and I hope, for many, was the powerful combination of people in the streets demanding change, and leaders at the UN taking out their pocket knives and hacking away at the thickest ropes of discord.
China and the US, in the form of President Obama himself, announced that they would take action on climate change. President Obama said China and the US should lead on the issue, a nice change of tone that signals cooperation rather than disagreement.
During the afternoon, industry leaders from oil, freight, transport and many other sectors pledged to green their operations and reduce their emissions, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes obvious business sense! The raw cost of renewable energy has become so low that only fools and fossil fuel interests would continue to invest in pollution. Political leaders pledged to contribute to a global fund for technology transfer and R&D. And private citizens swapped stories of solar panels and LED lights that power and light up their increasingly more efficient homes.
So the world appears to be coming to its senses, and the powers that be, with the unfortunate exception of the United States Congress, are getting ready to act. The chances of a binding agreement on climate change in Paris in 2015 suddenly look increasingly bright, now that we are getting a handle on a significant piece of the solution: the blade that can cut the thickest ropes of climate discord may be a globally agreed, locally administered price on carbon!
The case for this approach was very strongly presented during the panel on “The Economic Case for Climate Action,” featuring former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and economists Jeffrey Sachs from the US, Leena Srivastava from India and Xu Jintao from China.
Jeffrey Sachs, long a voice of wisdom and reason in this debate, put it starkly, clearly and beautifully when he said that deep decarbonization and a price on carbon will actually lead to economic growth rather than hamper it.
Xu Jintao was very clear on the matter: people in China are realizing the health benefits of reducing pollution. China is in favor of pricing carbon emissions.
Again, let us be clear that a price on carbon by itself does not solve the problem. We know that. Jeffrey Sachs knows, and said that. But what it can and will do is provide a guide, as he eloquently put it, for our strategies towards a comprehensive solution. In China, according to Xu Jingtao, the main problem is a lack of financial resources at the local government level. So they plan to use carbon taxes as a revenue source for local government. That, said Sachs, is brilliant!
Of course this same approach would fail in the US, where too many citizens are convinced that the last thing their governments need is more money. So the carbon tax in America will have to be “revenue neutral” (or at least mostly so). In India, according to Leena Srivastava, the problem is unequal access to energy resources. There, a carbon tax would likely be used to directly subsidize access to energy for the poorest, though she expressed fear that government corruption would get in the way.
And this is the beauty of a global price on carbon that is locally administered. If we all agree on what it costs us to emit greenhouse gases, per ton of CO2 equivalent, then we can implement the policies and strategies in our own countries, states and municipalities that make the most sense to avoid that cost. Some jurisdictions may decide not to collect the carbon fee at all, but still benefit by avoiding the cost of emissions through renewable energy and energy efficiency techniques, thereby generating an economic advantage for themselves. We have to only point at the example of Sweden, as the moderator, Angel Gurría, did, where the government taxes carbon pollution at $150/ton. Their economy has never been better.
An intriguing idea from a member of the audience was a retroactive carbon tax on cumulative emissions up to 1990. This would instantly address the historical unfairness via a kind of restitution for past emissions. It occurred to me that the funds could be used for shared R&D, reforestation and adaptation for those countries most impacted by climate change. Payments could be spread out over a long time, e.g. 50 years, to lessen the economic burden, keeping in mind however that all countries will benefit from rapid funding of these type of initiatives.
Again, let’s be clear that we must address the other drivers of climate change: population growth, land use and agriculture. If all we do is switch to renewable energy as the fuel for our plunder, we will still devastate the planet’s ability to sustain human life, and that is not a useful outcome. While some are now resorting to a new form of climate denial, the “it’s just part of the cycle of extinction and speciation,” version, those of us who wish to survive and thrive on this world know that such sentiments lead us exactly nowhere. We’re all individually destined to die, yet we spend enormous amounts of time, money and energy keeping our bodies alive, because that is what living things do. We are bred to survive, and those who disagree are welcome to go extinct.
As Jeffrey Sachs reminded us in his closing remarks, we (meaning particularly the US and the west) have over a century’s worth of experience with intense, publicly funded science and engineering projects. If we can find the Higgs boson, and if we can find the money to pay for that search, then surely, he said, we can fund the successful development of better battery technologies in order to better electrify our transportation systems, for example. I couldn’t agree more.
When we invented the internet, nobody knew for sure that it would mint so many billionaires. But when it comes to solving climate change, we know now, for a fact, that it will be in our economic best interest to do so. Which means that only the deeply self-interested, the narcissistically apathetic and the terribly misinformed will continue to oppose action. And I’m very confident, after these last few days in New York, that the rest of us can and will defeat them.