Fiddling While Rome – and the World – Burns: An Update on Climate Change

Posted on June 1, 2012 by Jeff Thaler

How can each of us leave the world to our children and grandchildren at least as healthy as when we were born? How can we more quickly move from fossil-driven economies to ones more based on renewable sources, in an increasingly carbon-stressed world? And how can policy makers, at various governmental levels, make changes in how energy projects are evaluated and developed before we use up too much of the atmosphere’s and oceans’ capacities to safely absorb carbon dioxide?

These and similar questions were tackled at two recent conferences in which I participated: a small climate change justice forum at Chicago Law School, and the much larger World Renewable Energy Forum in Denver. In Chicago, participants tackled approaches to bridging the who-pays-how-much gap between developing and developed nations – should it be per capita, or total carbon shares based on past emissions (if so from when), or a polluter-pays approach bridging past and future (next 20 years) CO2 emissions? Some say the US should pay less than China and India, others say more. Ultimately, all agreed that human-induced climate change is the single greatest threat facing human society—not just environmental, but also posing huge economic, public health, and military security costs.

Denver discussions focused on how to quickly increase the amount of renewable energy used for electricity, heat and transportation. My presentation, “U.S. Renewable Law and Policy: Catch Up or The Clock Strikes Midnight”, provided an overview of existing and predicted impacts from the still-increasing carbon dioxide emissions accumulating in our air and oceans; a comparison of the direct and indirect costs of different fossil and renewable energy sources; a summary of the permitting and regulatory hurdles facing renewable energy projects; and a roadmap to level the regulatory playing field to help renewables catch up.
Brief high (or low) lights: In April 2012, the International Energy Administration warned that, under current policies, energy use and CO2 emissions will increase by a third by 2020, and almost double by 2050 – sending global temperatures at least 6⁰C higher. What would the world look like with such an increase?

What are the “true” costs of energy to be factored into pricing?  In 2009, the National Research Council’s “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use” estimated in 2005 dollars (higher now) that non-climate damages from our use of fossil fuels exceed $120 billion, with climate damages possibly being equally as large – and both numbers exclude ecosystem, infrastructure, insurance,  and national security costs.

Those bucks stop with each of us and this generation.

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