April 20, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Democracy, Diversity and Earth Day

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I grew up in Ithaca, graduated from Cornell 34 years ago, and return this weekend to participate in the Ivy Policy Conference which concludes on Sunday, the 48th Earth Day.  That confluence of personal, educational, professional and societal milestones gives one pause to consider just how much I personally, and we collectively, have learned about the health of the planet, and about our ability — and most importantly our interest — to help it.

The dire situation that the planet is in peril is not in question.  Human caused climate change is a fact (sorry, fake news enthusiasts), and it is causing increasingly costly impacts on everything from agriculture, to forest health, to human health.  That is not to say greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is the only environmental crisis: plastic pollution killing marine species; dumping water and air toxics in predominantly poor and minority areas; our addiction to pesticides; and our seemingly obsessive fixation on consumerism, are but a few of the other challenges we face.  But for an incredibly creative species on a small and fragile planet, climate change brings into focus perhaps our greatest weakness: the challenge of long-term strategic planning in an absurdly fast-paced society.

After too many decades of discussion about the challenges of just detecting climate change, came the realization that action was needed, and that (surprise!) collective action is hard.  What became clear is that by mid-Century, emissions must fall by 80 percent and ideally even more.

We tried the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 as a top-down effort to slow the rate of pollution, and it failed.  In 2014 a new approach emerged. First, the US and China — who together account for over a third of both global energy use and greenhouse gas pollution — took a truly creative new direction.

Instead of bringing a policy proposal to the full UN-sponsored convention for endless debate, China and the US agreed together to cut emissions: the US would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one third by 2025 and China would peak emissions by 2030.  Peak? Surely that is meaningless, given that the peak could be 10 percent or even 100 percent higher than emissions today. As it stands, China is now projected to peak emissions before 2030, and for all its many problems, is now determining how and when to phase out fossil-fuel burning cars.  The US, after a slow start, was making remarkable progress until the Trump election in 2016.  Now, the US is the only country that is not signatory to the historic 2015 Paris Climate Conference, that put the 80 percent emissions cuts and a 2 degree Celsius cap on temperature rise into effect as a global treaty.

What to do next, particularly for engaged students at an Ivy-league policy conference, and for engaged citizens worldwide?

Fortunately, the fundamentals of a clean(er) economy are now all around us, and so truly useful (and often profitable) steps to a sustainable economy and planet are readily available.

First, know your numbers.  Carbon footprint calculators like the one my students and I built at the request of then California Governor Schwarzenegger are easy to find, and use.

Second, taking the climate-smart and health actions recommended by these calculators is no longer hard or expensive: invest in energy efficiency; purchase or lease solar energy for rooftops you or your family, sorority, or fraternity or co-op, own, lease, or control, and switch to electric vehicles (either as purchases, leases or via car-sharing platforms.

Third, recognize that as divided as is the US politically, all parties need and promote job growth.  That is great, because as my research and that of many other groups shows, energy efficiency and renewable energy generate significantly more and better, jobs than does the dirty energy economy.  This fact is one great piece of ammunition in conversations with current and hopeful elected officials and business leaders.

Fourth, take heart in the observation a rising tide of diverse, often environmentally educated and committed candidates for public office have emerged for the 2018 midterm elections.  That means that in most places, valuing the environment at home can be reflected in available candidates.

Fifth, recognize that environmental racism — both dumping pollution on poor and minority communities and denying them the opportunity to fully and equitably take part in the clean energy revolution — hurts everyone.  New, progressive campaigns and policies are needed to make ‘going green’ a social movement, not just a privilege for the affluent.

Sixth, sadly, we have to recognize that these actions alone, while vital, won’t be enough.  A healthy climate benefits us all, but collective action is difficult to maintain. The anti-Apartheid movement and more recently the #MeToo movement took committed young people willing to buck the slow-moving system.  We need that again today.


Daniel Kammen ’84 is a Professor and Chair of the Energy and Resources Group, and a faculty member of both the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.