The Urgency of Now–Why We Need to Stop Fighting about Climate Change and Get Serious about Energy Transition

Written by Hari Osofsky

The United Nations Framework Convention Convention on Climate Change has begun its annual conference of the parties in Durban. From the start, the news is depressing, and as Lesley McAlister noted in her blog, has a bit of a deja vu quality, and not in a good way. The Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, indicated that we’re on track for 6 degrees of warming by 2100 if we don’t change our energy use patterns. Meanwhile, Canada, which is failing to meet its Kyoto Protocol commitments, has announced it won’t sign on for another commitment period. While there are many nuanced negotiations going on regarding many important issues, which small groups of people fully understand, the progress on some of these topics since last year’s Cancun negotiations does not address the fundamental problem: we are nowhere any kind of big picture solution to this problem. This is why the soon-to-be-released casebook I’m writing with Lesley McAlister ends with major climate change and geo-engineering as it’s two primary scenarios, and asks our students to try to get us to an alternative future.

I started a talk a week ago saying that I wish I were a climate skeptic and having a good friend say that she doesn’t understand how we can keep going working on this incredibly depressing issue. It’s hard to know what to do when consensus science says that we’re creating a catastrophic problem and when there’s just not political will to act fast enough. The reason I have projects on both suburbs and geo-engineering emerges from the schizophrenia that this moment brings. I’m trying to come up with creative ways to impact the big picture as top down approaches fail (known by academics as pluralist or polycentric governance models) while trying to make sure we have legal mechanisms thought through as we begin to approach geo-engineering more seriously. And for the record, I have very grave doubts that, even with our best scientists thinking it through, geo-engineering (technological efforts to reverse warming effects or get carbon out of the system) is likely to go well. And all this is under the Obama Administration–many leading Republican candidates want to eliminate the meager progress this country has made and one of them may win if our economy doesn’t improve more soon.

So, assuming there are plenty of people out there who are not radical climate skeptics but simply feel overwhelmed by this issue, what can you personally do to be constructive as people from around the world try to be constructive in Durban? First, we need to push as fast as we can in our local communities–and many of us live in small cities where we can make a difference (the central cities in the Twin Cities, for example, represent just a quarter of the metro’s population)–to get our governments and people to start at least making the easy choices. There’s still lots of low hanging fruit. By transitioning to cleaner energy through energy efficiency measures and increasing renewables, cities can often save themselves a lot of money. And green energy is not necessarily more expensive, by the way. One of the most hopeful moments for me this semester was when my students and I went to visit the regional transmission organization here and heard a system operator say that they try to put as much wind onto the system as possible, not because its environmentally better, but because it’s the cheapest source of energy in the system.

Second, we need to try to change the discourse and we can all make a difference in this. It’s time to stop wasting enormous amounts of energy fighting, and work together. As is not uncommon in times of great economic distress, we have two populist movements in this country, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Although very different politically, they both represent deep dissatisfaction with the status quo in this country. Meanwhile, we have an often vitriolic political discourse, especially as we march towards another presidential election, that leads to people wasting enormous time and energy fighting rather than working together constructively. We can each individually change this by reaching across the aisle and partnering. Energy transition, which really needs to happen, is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. Many of the suburban sustainability efforts in the Twin Cities metro that I’ve looked at are taking place in communities that lean Republican. Whatever you think of climate change, helping your community transition to cheaper, cleaner energy makes sense. These measures are not enough as our representatives sit in Durban likely failing to address climate change adequately, but they’re something we can do right now, where we live, and make a difference.

Hari Osofsky

Cross-posted on Environmental Law Profs Blog and Intlawgrrls.