Axios, in its April 23rd edition wraps up President Biden’s climate summit with the following headline: “The Biden Climate Doctrine Emerges at Summit.” This sequence is, at best, anti-democratic. The President should get in touch with the American people before making pledges to other heads of state.
Ben Geman and Andrew Freeman wrote the Axios piece and noted, “Congress barely surfaces in the detailed new pledge to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030. Squint and you’ll find references, for instance, to “incentives,” which is code for tax policy — but overall it largely avoids acknowledging reliance on lawmakers.”
James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, was more pointed. In an interview with Vox.com, he accused his Party of practicing “faculty politics” when it came to climate change. He said there was no emotion in the campaign, “We don’t have it because with faculty politics what you do is appeal to reason. You don’t need the sloganeering and sound bites. That’s for simple people. All you need are those timetables and temperature charts, and from that, everyone will just get it.”
We all know, that is those of a certain age, that the weather is different now than it was in our youth. Many simply conclude that is the weather being the weather.
Yet, we now face a discernable pattern and a plausible scientific explanation for a heating globe. I expect most of us, noting a traceable pattern of weather in our own lives, pay some attention to those who translate physics into more understandable conclusions. But then many of the conclusions are theories and weather has a nasty habit of throwing curve balls.
Weather patterns have become threatening enough that they attracted the ultimate Nerd/Businessman Bill Gates, who recently wrote a book called “How to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe”. Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft is a very rich man and, to the benefit of mankind, a very good philanthropist.
Jumping over pages of analysis Gates notes the incontrovertible, which is to say, precisely measured greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that, like a greenhouse, trap heat. He further notes that the science is clear: greenhouse gasses persist century over century; he likens those gases to water in a bathtub.
“The climate is like a bathtub that’s slowly filling up with water. Even if we slow the flow of water to a trickle, the tub will eventually fill up and water will come spilling out onto the floor.”
If this analogy was easily translated into human activity, we would keep buying bigger bathtubs or siphoning our bathtub water to an atmospheric reservoir. But, we can’t reengineer the atmosphere in any permanent way.
I recently read Gates’ book and would recommend it. He does a good job translating the physics and associated computer modeling into the understandable. And, in my view, he doesn’t sow confusion as so many of the extrapolators do who push the theoretical into the territory of the certain and then light a rhetorical fuse—screaming headlines.
Gates, ever the nerd, has been eager to fully understand the climate phenomenon but with humility notes: “The climate is mind-blowingly complex, and there’s a lot we don’t understand about things like how clouds affect warming…………….” He goes on however; to tick off things we do know. “The earth is warming, it’s warming because of human activity, and the impact is bad and will get much worse.” He believes, as the title denotes, that it could mean catastrophe for our grandchildren and beyond.
My conclusion about all this is I cannot independently analyze my way to a conclusion. I must rely on somebody else and preferably a lot of somebody else’s. Dramatic policy changes require at least majoritarian consensus and that results from a number of points of view coalescing around solutions.
Turning to a just released book by Steven Koonin, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters”, the Wall Street Journal writer Homan Jenkins commented: “Mr. Koonin argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false.” Mr Koonin was President Obama’s Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy.
Jenkins continues: “Mr. Koonin hopes that “a graceful out for everybody” will be to see the impulse for global climate regulation “morph into much more impactful local environmental action: smog, plastic, green jobs. Forget the global aspect of this.”
I have spent a lifetime doing things the hard way because I didn’t think I could afford to hire someone who could do it quick and right. So when it comes to climate change and, knowing my limitations, I look for independent-minded intermediaries that help us translate complexity. And I look for relatable experiences and circumstances.
For example, each day serves up humanity trying to avoid or elude nature. Recent headlines: a huge ship runs aground in a narrow canal (Suez Canal) and a wastewater pond in Florida leaking toxic water. Environmental threats or disasters that are human made or assisted are weekly events.
The reality: Consumerism pushes and pushes and we have been indoctrinated to not worry about the cost side. Common sense tells us there is no free lunch. So let me turn to the cost side.
In skating and gymnastics, athletes get better scores if they can master the most difficult techniques. Zero net greenhouse emissions as a 2050 goal, is beyond difficult. And the costs are estimated in the trillions. Yet even the scientists who are skeptical of the hot rhetoric point to the need for appreciable and measurable reductions. Organizations that do not set goals are rarely better than mediocre.
There are thousands of organizations—some public, most private—that work every day to make the environment better. Many are acting to reduce greenhouse gases even though that is not their principal mission.
Oil companies are investing in alternate energy sources to diversify their businesses. Innovation is serving as an incubator for new businesses that offer innovative methods of carbon reduction. Utility companies are beginning to buy solar-powered electricity from homeowners.
Additionally and importantly, thousands of individuals and non-profit organizations are working to support nature in its tug-of-war with development at any cost. A wide range of organizations either protect trees or plant them; mangrove reforestation is especially important. On their way to enhancing habitat for birds, Ducks Unlimited and Audubon reduce greenhouse emissions. We need to capture the energy of these movements to do more to reduce greenhouse gases.
The regulatory side of the equation is much more likely to embrace command and control. Incentives, the carrot if you prefer, have a much better track record.
Gates, understandably, places great emphasis on research and development (R&D). Incentives to decarbonize through private actions and sweeping innovation should certainly be a centerpiece of American leadership.
If the climate change initiatives are to work, there will have to be an acceptable international organization to coordinate and monitor results. When I was in Washington I worked with the International Telecommunications Union as frequencies and satellites do not honor sovereign borders; nor do greenhouse gases. America needs to be part of a similar initiative on greenhouse gas emissions. America needs to lead in shaping the international effort. But, it is impossible to lead internationally if the American people don’t have your back.
So let me retreat briefly to James Carville’s criticism. If actions to stall and then attenuate a warming climate are to work, then the international “we” are going to have to spend more for transport, food, building materials and numerous other items until scale and innovation begin to reduce costs. This is not a result that can be manipulated by clever Executive Orders.
Debates precede decisive actions and debates that turn on scientific findings are not easy. Claims are thrown around like javelins by people who would be paralyzed if required to go beyond their talking points.
There is nothing wrong with being skeptical about climate change assertions unless it smothers curiosity. Buy a copy of the Gates book; it is a good primer, an easily understood analysis, and a relatively quick read. Not a bad place to begin to sort out the claims and counterclaims and then join in what is a very important national debate.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.