With regard to global warming, what is most needed now are forms of action that do not initially require Federal help. The reasons are at least two: (a) there is not yet a strong social consensus for making the transition to a renewable energy system, given that fossil fuels have built our civilization and are used, daily, sometime s up close, by all of us, and (b) many politicians receive generous “campaign contributions” from fossil fuel interests and are controlled by an ideology that assumes that a “free market” will cure all ills.
Here’s an analogy from 1983 when the Cold War reached one of its especially dangerous phases. The Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, suspected that a U.S.-led surprise attack on his country, would be concealed behind a NATO exercise called “Able Archer.” How close did he come to launching a preemptive nuclear strike on the West?
We’ll never know, but surely the episode was witnessed by Mikhail Gorbachev, who became ruler in 1985 and, perhaps concluding that the situation of mutual nuclear threats was not as stable as it had seemed, sought a rapprochement .
As directors of a California foundation, my partner Don Carlson and I had the honor of supporting a movement called “citizen diplomacy.” In effect, this movement invented a form of action for U.S. and then Soviet citizens to travel to the other country, go beyond Cold War stereotypes, and help both sides move toward a less threatening stance.
In its early stages, citizen diplomacy required no government action, at least on the U.S. side. (Gorbachev facilitated action by Soviet citizens.) Can this episode serve as one suggestive model for dealing with the emission of greenhouse gases? Apart from leadership, citizen diplomacy required only private travel and a sense of adventure. Are there any actions that can be taken now to start a process that would lead to effective global action about global warming?
What is required are forms of action that go beyond uncoordinated and unheralded individual steps to cut down personal use of practices that emit greenhouse gases. Sure, driving less, taking fewer airplane trips, wasting less food, insulating houses, turning off lights, wearing sweaters indoors: it all helps. But here we are seeking ways not so a small minority of individuals can feel virtuous, but so a vocal consensus can form and pressure elected officials to represent this consensus, rather than the short-term interests of fossil fuel purveyors and their corporate allies.
We have had scientific warnings about global warming at least since the late 1980s; actually earlier. We have had hopes raised by international conferences. We have been given some elaborate plans. We’ve been told how crucial it is, with regard to fossil fuel reserves, to “keep it in the ground,” to oppose oil pipelines, to engage in non-violent demonstrations, and to divest from firms that cause global warming. These have been necessary and in some cases ingenious and brave steps.
Now we need to invent new forms of action. These forms could focus not only on dangers of global warming but also on benefits of making the transition to renewable energy and care of nature. This will be a transition as great as the industrial revolution, a transition from the use of “ancient sunlight” in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, to the use of green energy such as current sunlight in the form of photons, wind, and so forth.
Of course this transition will be “disruptive,” as the industrial revolution was. But it will at least slow down and reduce the ill effects of global warming, and prepare us to deal with effects already inevitable. And it could yield benefits apart from avoiding very big trouble, in part by serving as a model of global cooperation.
We immediately encounter the complexity trap. For example, even if vehicles were powered not by gasoline but by electric motors, where would the power come from? If the cars were charged with power generated by using coal or natural gas, as now, we’d simply be displacing the problem from tailpipe exhaust to the central power station smokestack.
Incentive to get around by using electricity requires (a) a source of green power, (b) recharging stations that allow use of cars for long trips, commuting, and recreation, (c) the private replacement of gasoline engines or cars powered by them with cars powered by electricity. A fleet of vehicles may take about a decade to replace almost totally.
So what citizen steps would help?
Would it be possible to start with the generation of green electricity? What incentives do present utilities have to do so? They are accustomed to using fossil fuels, which voters concentrated in some places help to provide.
One possibility is to sponsor green electric power coops, which could distribute their product over the grid, the way individual home owners in some jurisdictions can make their meters run backwards by supplying unused power from rooftop solar panels. For example, a green coop might own a set of wind turbines. All that would be required is a rule that utilities have to accept, and pay a fair amount for, green energy in preference to energy generated by fossil fuel.
The coops would be owned by people who benefit from the power sold, and who become part of the green transition, within a reasonable time, in their personal life-style.
Clearly, central utilities might oppose giving preference to green power from coops, but they would be free to build sources of green power themselves. This would speed the transition, at the cost of continuing to reward rich investors in the utilities. But the transition should not be burdened with the task of dealing with gross economic inequality. In any case, the competition from green energy coops would meanwhile benefit less wealthy investors.
Personal computers would allow us, with the proper app, to become aware of how much global warming gas is emitted to support our current life-styles. This would include factors under our direct control such as driving, heating and cooling our residence, cooking, running the frig and other appliances, charging devices, grooming the yard, flying, plus emissions embodied in food, furnishings, clothing, and so forth. There are other factors arising, for example,, from our place of employment, civic infrastructure, and other facilities we use.
A third idea to play with: some jurisdictions or foundations may sponsor the equivalent of the traditional agricultural “demonstration plots.” These plots used new techniques of growing, and without risk to surrounding farmers, demonstrated increased yield, less vulnerability to pests, less need for fertilizer, lower water use, or some other benefit. Techniques that worked were quickly adopted.
A demonstration of green power could energize a set of lights or some visible community process, as an advertisement for what a wind turbine can accomplish. Or powering an apartment building in a city.
Many other techniques are possible. The task now is to get started on visible positive steps.