The Human Species Faces Climate Change

Date: 15 Jul 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Human Species Faces Climate Change

by David Morris

July 15, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

Humans are different from other animals. We alone possess a conscience. We alone are capable of abstract thinking. We alone can envision and shape the future. At the end of the 20th century those unique capacities are being tested as the species faces the specter of global warming. How will we react?

An overwhelming majority of scientists now agree that if humans continue to burn increasing quantities of carbon fuels, we most certainly will observe disasters like those President Clinton highlighted in his Earth Summit speech: 9,000 square miles of Florida, Louisiana and other coastal areas under water; 6 million people displaced in Bangladesh; the disappearance of island nations like the Maldives; the spread of infectious diseases; the disruption of agriculture; increasingly severe droughts and floods.

After eloquently and forcefully describing the problem, Clinton announced he will not act until he can “first convince the American people and the Congress”. Persuading the American public may not be all that hard. After all, what will it take to stop overloading Mother Nature? Higher efficiency and more reliance on cleaner fuels. And what does that lead to? Manufacturing enterprises with the lowest operating costs in the world. Households that generate electricity from rooftop solar arrays. Farmers who harvest an additional “crop”, the winds that blow over their fields. City streets inhabited by quiet and pollution free electric vehicles.

That is a future the American people surely can rally behind.

Convincing Congress is another matter. Consider its dismal experience with tobacco. Forty years after the first clear evidence of tobacco’s role in causing cancer, Congress finally required the product label, “smoking may be hazardous to your health”. To this day Congress refuses to impose cigarette taxes sufficient to reduce consumption.

A half dozen Congressmen from tobacco states have prevented that body from dealing with an unequivocably clear and present danger. What hope can we have that it will boldly act when the forces against change are vastly more powerful and the issue is much less intuitive?

The pro-status-quo Global Climate Coalition constitutes the most powerful array of private power the world has ever seen. Its members control resources far greater than that of virtually any nation. Therefore it should come as no surprise that even before the Congressional debate begins, 60 Senators have formally announced their refusal to support any U.S. action until the poorest and least fossil fuel using countries agree to an equal reduction in their consumption.

This is a remarkably contemptuous position. Americans are 4 percent of the world’s population but account for 20 percent of its greenhouse gases. The average American is responsible for dumping 5 tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere. The average resident of East India is responsible for 0.2 tons per year.

With a bought Congress, where can we turn? To the state and local level. For it is there that the average citizen can make a difference. Citizen action has already brought results.

California’s Sacramento Municipally Utility District(SMUD), responding to its customer-owners, is installing solar electric plants on the roofs of 5,000 homes. Clinton set a goal of l million solar powered homes by 2010. If 200 cities imitated Sacramento we could achieve that goal by the year 2002.

Minnesota is building a wind and ethanol industry as fast as Sacramento is building a solar cell industry. Almost 10 percent of Minnesota’s transportation fuels now come from homegrown crops, not imported oil. This year the Minnesota legislature debated a far reaching proposal to restructure its tax system by imposing stiff taxes on pollution while lowering taxes on property and work.

A strategy to avoid global warming is appealing because it relies on investments, not handouts. Cities, counties and states have the capacity to enable these kinds of investments. After all, in the next three years, communities around the country may spend $8 billion to build sports arenas that have no demonstrable economic return. Imagine that this money instead was used to fund a series of efficiency banks to finance the transition to a cleaner, more self-reliant and more responsible economy.

States and nations that reduce pollution will economically benefit. That is the message of several recent studies. Some sectors will be hurt. They will need assistance in making the transition. Why can’t coal miners become tree farmers, oil workers operate biorefineries, and utility engineers design and install solar arrays and high efficiency power plants?

The climate crisis should challenge the conscience and excite the imagination of homo sapiens. Is this species up to that challenge?

David Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.