Scientific information about climate change often breeds political despair among well-informed people. The task of preventing planetary environmental disaster frequently seems hopeless. Unfortunately despair undermines constructive action, and constructive action is imperative if there is any chance of averting planetary disaster. But is despair about climate change rationally justified?
I am not a crackpot optimist. If asked to estimate the probability of avoiding planetary disaster, I would say something like 1 in 4 (i.e. 3 to 1 odds against escaping disaster). This highly subjective estimate is not encouraging but, with truly colossal stakes involved, a 1 in 4 probability still compels concerted action. And the environmental outlook is not entirely bleak.
The foremost requirement for escaping planetary disaster is abolishing the consumption of fossil fuels. For many years, experts thought eliminating fossil fuels would drastically reduce the material welfare of most human beings. This is not true. It is now well established that renewable energy sources — wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, low-emissions bioenergy — can deliver enough power to meet the legitimate needs of all human beings and to improve the well-being of at least 90 percent. Indeed, renewable resources can enable increased global energy consumption while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, the transition to renewable energy sources need not entail a net loss of jobs. On the contrary, the transition process could increase aggregate employment while sustaining benign economic growth (see “Greening the Global Economy” by Robert Pollin, 2015). Scientific advances in the storage and transmission of energy already eliminate most technological barriers towards a sustainable economy, and further progress will surmount those that remain (see “Energy Revolution: The Physics and Promise of Efficient Technology” by Mara Prentiss, 2015). Prentiss contends that solar energy alone can satisfy all of U.S. energy demands using only 0.4 percent of the country’s land mass. Wind power alone can meet all U.S. energy requirements using about 15 percent of our country’s landmass, but most wind turbines could be located on existing farmland.
Environmental economists estimate that transition to a green global economy requires investing about 2 percent of global GDP in renewable resources and efficient technology. Such accelerated environmental investment must continue for at least 20 years. The United States and other rich countries would generate higher investment percentages, and substantial funding would be transferred to less-affluent nations. But even in the USA, requisite investment levels would not approach those mobilized for military purposes during World War II. And changes in mass consumption would also be small compared to those of 1941-45. These climate-saving investment revolutions will deplete both fossil fuel corporations and military establishments, and these institutions will surely resist the revolutions fiercely. While fossil fuel corporations and military establishments are certainly powerful, a mobilized and determined mass movement can defeat them both.
The arguments above should help counter climate change despair. They indicate that an affluent sustainable economy is technically feasible and does not require enduring material sacrifices. Moving to a sustainable economy would soon benefit the overwhelming majority of humanity (indeed virtually everyone), which clearly enhances its political feasibility.
We in the United States have a very special responsibility. Our country is both the largest single contributor to global warming and also the most recalcitrant about taking significant remedial action. Foreign visitors are often dumbfounded by the consumption excesses and environmental irresponsibility displayed by some Americans. The odds on averting climatic disaster may not be particularly favorable, but we in USA cannot bask in the grim luxury of an enervating despair. We owe it to the rest of humanity and to unborn generations to do our very damnedest!
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.