The climate change war may already be over
What if the climate change war was over and no one noticed? Lobbyists, scientists and the general public all think it will rage long and hot but maybe not.
We usually focus on two opponents: facts vs. special interests. Science tells us that the world will change dramatically in the decades and centuries to come but lobbyists argue that it’s best to hold on to what we’ve got. A recent study by Drexel University professor Robert Brulle documents almost a billion dollars a year spent by think tanks, foundations and others denying that there’s a problem at all.
However, there are other forces at work and, though I hope I’m wrong, I think the war will end with more of a whimper than a bang because the greatest single driver of policy consensus has evaporated. The energy crisis is over!
Arguably, there never was an energy crisis at all but we’ve been panicking about it for 40 years. That panic drove us to conserve energy and fired our interest in climate change. But, suddenly, with revolutionary new oil and natural gas technology sweeping the globe, it now looks as if we’ll have a comfortable supply of conventional fossil fuels for a good long while and that sense of urgency is quietly seeping away.
Without an energy crisis looming, without fears of supply disruptions and skyrocketing prices, without near-term economic incentives, it’s very hard to maintain a unified front on long-term climate change reduction. The natural entente between economic and environmental interests is fraying and all signs point to a global retreat from climate activism.
Sixteen years ago, scores of nations signed binding commitments to reduce their carbon outputs. Led by developed countries like Japan but resisted by the United States, the Kyoto protocols set the stage for real change. Sadly, that promise has almost entirely evaporated. The most recent round of international negotiations nearly collapsed and was only salvaged by a face-saving agreement inviting each country to make its own plan and to “report back.”
Even Japan has announced a major retreat from its past commitments. Europe’s aggressive carbon trading scheme is in tatters and national cap-and-trade legislation in the United States looks increasingly implausible (even California’s model program seems imperiled). In other words, decades into the climate change era, we’re making no progress whatsoever on large-scale policy change.
Fortunately, there’s good news at home. A glut of natural gas from fracking has turned the electricity market in the United States on its head, creating a bonanza in inexpensive power. Coal, the worst polluting fuel, is rapidly being phased out. Air pollution is down, we’re making more GDP for less energy, and we’re even modestly shrinking our carbon output. A mini boom in domestic manufacturing is following the cheap electricity and most Americans are seeing a noticeable drop in their home heating and cooling bills.
All the while, though, cheap power undermines new renewable technology reaching the market.
Of course, there will still be battles in the post energy-crisis world but they’ll be smaller. The new environmental-economic alliances will be local, regional and industrial, not national or global. For example, real estate and tourism along the Atlantic have a lot to lose from rising floodwaters and coastal inundation. But investors’ energies will likely be focused on fortifying the shore and retaining government-subsidized services and insurance, not on regulating carbon emissions. Internationally, we’ll all agonize as millions are displaced by coastal inundation and superstorms.
But each of these will be its own battle, important to the people, regions and industries affected but off center stage for most voters and politicians. Unless enough of these individual fights merge again into a single concerted push, it’s unlikely that the war over climate change will reenergize any time soon.
Happily, we will see modest, steady improvement in both our overall energy efficiency and carbon output in the developed world. But I’m afraid that this small change will be swamped by massive increases in carbon and methane outputs in the rest of the world and greenhouse emissions will continue to rise for decades. The slow-motion catastrophe will keep building and next century’s changes will be all the more severe.
Maybe I’m wrong and the persuasive power of science and the virtues of foresight, compassion and global awareness can still muster us toward meaningful change. If not, it’s all over but the shouting.
Pranab Das is a professor of physics at Elon University. He can be reached at email@example.com.