As a child I built little dams along ditches that channeled runoff from rain and then watched as the water built up behind my sticks and stones until it pushed through. Later I became aware of impervious levees along the Mississippi River—home water. The water flow often resulted in flooding downstream. Nature as an enemy is a losing war.
And so it is with climate. Atmospheric science informed by extensive research dating back centuries demonstrates that greenhouse gasses build up in a manner that interrupts natural systems. Humans can do a lot, but nature is one of those irrepressible forces. Our climate is now wheezing and there are no quick fix pills.
Human’s desire for comfort is another of those irrepressible forces. The comfort force will prevail at the ballot box unless people are moved by clarity and given time to adjust.
Global politics compounds the risks, plans and actions. Every political leader whether democrat or autocrat will be looking over his/her shoulders. People have patterns of living derived from what is largely a fossil fuels economy. Asking people to reshape their lives to comply with the Paris Climate Accord or any other multilateral guidance is a high-risk venture. Most politicians are risk-averse.
Political leaders and their affinity groups need to lead in practical ways. First, we need a plan that stages our withdrawal from the economy as we know it today. And the planners have to be insightful to gain and hold a political majority. Attempts to re-engineer functioning systems that, for an agreeable price, heat, cool, propel, make and the like overnight, will result in failure. Climate change deniers will find an unwitting ally if the activists make temperature more important than people.
Staging a greener future also calls for resilience planning. Unfortunately many climate activists regard resilience planning as giving aid to the enemy. The real calamity will occur if we fail to stage our reduction of greenhouse gasses, adding to the toxicity of politics. Even the autocratic China has recently revived coal output and usage.
Since much of the climate change agenda is being pushed by those who regard nuclear power as unacceptable, an important tool is removed. It is like saying “you can get by without a wrench, just use a pair of pliers.” Those who block 21st Century nuclear power are mired in 20th Century thought.
After Germany pulled back from nuclear power, coal replaced it, note: “Germany until March 2011 obtained one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy, using 17 reactors. The figure is now about 10% from six reactors, while 35-40% of electricity comes from coal, the majority of that from lignite.” Consumers give little thought to energy sources, but they give a lot of thought to interruptions and price increases.
A look across the spectrum of audacious political goals demonstrates that there is a favorable tipping point in human attitudes when citizens become a part of the solution. Yet, today’s climate change plans are largely concentrated on trillion dollar investments and world conferences in faraway places. Back home, where the proverbial grass roots sprout, environmental actions on a number of fronts are impressive. America’s climate agenda leaders need to do a much better job translating climate threats into local plans and actions.
Finally, a thought on resilience planning. If we can’t mitigate sources of damage to humans and their objects (rising tides, for example) then the humans that have chosen to live in harm’s way should bear most of the costs. Insurance is the market instrument for risk evaluation and pricing. The more risk assumed by the public the less resilience. But where there is collective risk, the appropriate authorities should be required to have the equivalent of a depreciation reserve to meet damages and required changes.
One more thing about markets. Incentives to mitigate climate risks through innovation should be a primary goal. It is timely to recall that Thomas Malthus predicted in 1798 that population growth would outstrip food production causing humans to be forced back into subsistence living. Extraordinary gains in knowledge led to innovations in “agriculture, energy, water use, manufacturing, disease control, information management, transport, communications,” that caused food production to meet the growth of population and then some.
Climate change is real and comes with consequential threats. But, we need leaders who understand that human nature’s preference for comfort is also real. At some point technocratic plans will have to yield to democratic decisions.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.