Trying to consume this much bad news on climate change in such a short period is like drinking from a firehose.

When I returned from my extended Thanksgiving vacation a few days ago, I felt like the Lloyd Bridges air traffic controller character in the movie, Airplane, who was trying to quit several outrageous vices while simultaneous trying to land an increasingly crippled plane in a tense environment.  I guess I picked the wrong week to take a break from watching climate news.

 

The Trump administration was hoping there were millions of people absent, like me, when they chose to release a scientific report issued by 13 federal agencies presenting stark warnings about the consequences of climate change if significant action isn't undertaken, including reducing the size of the American economy by as much as 10 percent.

And if it's true the past is a prelude; one only had to read the headlines from early last week to realize that if we hear the alarm bells, we are doing our best to ignore them as the U.N. released a report confirming humanity's reliance on fossil fuels isn't letting up.

Even after the 2015 Paris agreement signed by almost every nation on the planet, the amount of CO2 emitted by humans in 2017 increased again after leveling off in 2015 and 2016. The report said that with the 53.5 billion tons of CO2 emitted last year, we would now have to reduce our emissions by 55% by 2030 to limit global warming to the generally agreed upon 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent the worst climate change disruptions.

Putting your face in front of a firehose is dangerous; leaving it there is stupid. 

If this was a Tom and Jerry cartoon plot, Jerry just took a hammer larger than himself and smashed Jerry's foot, who would scream, jump up and down and get angry. I guess we have a lot to learn from cartoons because I don't see an outcry around the globe after being smacked over the head with this one-two punch. The question is why we are so nonplussed? History suggests the answer is that the status quo is more comfortable than the hard work of change, and the fight against climate change will be no different.

  • America sat out of both World War 1 and World War 2 until it directly impacted our people, even though fascism was on the march and a direct threat to our democracy.
  • The Apollo Project launched as a response to the threat of the old Soviet Union dominating space.
  • Our government did little to regulate banks until the stock market collapse and the Great Depression.

I could go on and on, but the point is, our nation, like most around the world, only muster the courage to respond to a crisis when forced or when the losses of life, property or riches are so significant that social upheaval or national security is at stake. And the reality is even to this day, governments around the world are choosing the status quo of climbing emissions to a more sustainable world.

Want proof? Over 40 countries, including India, China Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and the U.S. still provide subsidies for fossil fuel consumption, which totals $320 billion globally. Clean energy is never going to be able to become the new normal until these subsidies are phased out, and people pay the real price of carbon-emitting energy. Unfortunately, few politicians want to be the ones to tell their constituents that home heating and transportation fuel is going to cost more--at least not until the unlikely event of those same constituents demanding it.

It's not enough that the public (even Republicans) are finally coming around to the reality that climate change is real, and it's a threat. Just as it's no longer debated that second-hand smoke is bad for your health, which is why you can no longer smoke in restaurants, bars, and public facilities, second-hand coal smoke is terrible for your health too, and likewise should be banned or at least heavily taxed to discourage it. Given that construct, clean energy becomes the natural default and cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

I recognize many in the environmental community believe we can win this debate eventually with happy talk of clean energy jobs and cleaner skies, and I partly agree with them. There has to be a forward-looking option, but a policy debate is binary, and success requires forcing people to re-examine their behavior, which is no small hill to climb as endless research about confirmation bias has shown.

Like with smoking, we need to create a pure good vs. evil narrative. Smokers feel guilty about smoking. They know its bad because we've done everything possible to stigmatize the behavior. The federal government even got out of the business of guaranteeing a high price for the tobacco crop and funded a 10-year program to help farmers get out of the business of growing tobacco.

Granted, some Americans still smoke, but two-thirds of tobacco revenue is now generated from exports because the stigma of smoking in the U.S. is so high.

The same narrative around diet is unfolding similarly. People aren't going to eat more fruits and vegetables because it's good for them. They are going to eat healthier because eating massive amounts of sugar and processed foods are bad for your health. It's an either/or choice. Now because sugary drinks and candy are widely understood to be part of a poor diet, many consumers feel a twinge of guilt when eating and drinking it, which is why the growth rates in the beverage industry are moving towards drinks with less sugar and why Pepsi and Coke now sell their own branded bottled water. It's also why the industry is in full panic mode about cities and states taxing their products.

Like second-hand smoke is linked to higher cancer rates, and sugary and processed foods to diabetes and heart disease, we have to make people feel a negative emotion for the carbon they emit on a very personal level.

Start with the health damages done to people who live downwind of power plants and refineries; couple it with the military cemeteries full of young men and women who've died on behalf of YOUR consumption. Make fossil fuel consumption unpatriotic.

Add in a dash of how much extra you pay per gallon of gas thanks to the billions of dollars in tax giveaways, rising health care premium from asthma cases, and tie it in a bow with shareholder protests and lawsuits from attorneys general, who use the discovery process to unleash a steady drumbeat of acts of greed and villainy. Tarnish the names and faces of every oil and coal company in the country to the point people drive by the closest gas station because the brand is so toxic.

This week's carbon villain is the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. "Hey, Mr. & Mrs. USA, did you know you are buying gas from him?" The political right has always been good at ginning up fake controversies to distract or benefit their interests. (How about those dangerous Central American migrants applying for asylum?) If we need to turn up the hose from a sprinkle to spray, so be it.

At the very least, members of Congress will be shamed into ending subsidies for fossil fuels, allowing renewable energy sources to compete on a more level playing field. An even better result is using billions in settlement money from the oil companies to drive the kind of clean energy investment we need, much like tobacco company settlement money has been used to fund anti-smoking campaigns.

With only 12 years to change the trajectory of the climate curve as stated in the  UN IPCC report, we can't wait for consumers to eat their carbon fruits and vegetables.

What does the firehose metaphor have to do with all of this? It occurred to me the firehose was also a potent change agent in the 1960s. As much as anything else, the sight of white law officers turning firehoses on peaceful black protesters in Alabama night after night on the TV news had a profound impact on Americans, opening their eyes and opening the door for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. And while it hasn't solved all of the issues surrounding race in America, it has moved us in the right direction. After being on the receiving end of the firehose of bad news this week, I'm likewise ready to see our debate on tackling climate change open some eyes as well.

 

CleanTech Focus