Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sunny Side Up

As I've mentioned, the COP 21 Paris climate conference officially happens in early December, but the essential work of the conference is happening right now. Last week's negotiations in Bonn were one manifestation of that; another is the extensive commentary that is appearing, both about the UNFCCC process and the many other facets of the issue, even here in the US, where consciousness has lagged far behind most of the rest of the world.

One extraordinary instance of this is the essay by commentator Jonathan Chait in the current issue of New York magazine (from which I've borrowed this rather stunning image from photographer Ralph Smith). Chait efficiently sums up the key indices of the problem, the history of the global process to address it, and in particular, some recent instances of 'issue fatigue' that make it hard to sustain a public discourse about it. But his real point is to address that mood of avoidance or despair that has immobilized many a concerned person--hence his title: "The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You've Ever Read." I would encourage anyone to read the whole piece, but here are a few points that struck me:

  • First, Chait schematizes the challenge to address climate change as a dialectic between governmental mandates on an international scale, and technological innovation of a free-form, mostly private sector and rather decentralized nature (an interplay between "edict and invention," as he puts it). Government mandates won't help unless they can be realized with efficient, not hopelessly expensive technical means. But those innovations will have trouble flourishing without support from the public sector--and protection from the destructive efforts of powerful existing energy corporations, a point Chait perhaps under-emphasizes. (A timely instance: the oil interests in California just yesterday killed a legislative bill that would have mandated reductions in gasoline consumption, and thus opened a huge market opportunity for electric cars and other transit alternatives.)
  • Second, he documents the wildly accelerating efficiency of solar energy in particular but also wind and other non-carbon alternatives, applying the logic of Moore's Law (which postulated the amazing progression of computer chip capacity) to these technologies. The sunshine in his title is more than a metaphor, and the possibilities for rapid solar conversion--if one had the investment capital and the political will--are there for all to see.
  • There is, though, a particularly concerning dark cloud that could blow over this cheerful scenario and block the sun's healing power: the Republican Party, the only major party in the world, as he notes, that is still locked in delusional denial and insanely anti-scientific dogma. Unfortunately, that party controls the legislative branch of the world's most powerful nation, largest economy, and second largest source of greenhouse gas. The threat of Republican obstruction, and the nightmare of a denialist President taking office in 2017 and undoing all the executive actions taken so far, is a major impediment to the rest of the world. It may already have doomed the possibility of legally binding agreements in Paris, and undermines whatever trust the other nations might have in the UNFCCC process--and trust is the essential currency of this unprecedented effort to address an existential problem by international consensus. 
Chait lays this out for us with articulate logic, which is why I think it is one of the most useful articles on any  subject I have seen in quite a while. Follow the link, above, and read it.

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