Global warming is no longer a future possibility but a present reality. It is already happening. Ninety eight percent of climatologists worldwide concur. Furthermore, they concur that human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause. It’s in the numbers. The evidence is overwhelming.
Yet, many people continue to deny that it exists, or that if it does, that it is attributable to human activity. Some I have talked with insist the climate research is biased, serving the interests of leftist green heads, (to what ends is unclear) and therefore its conclusions are tainted. If you are one of these folks, and you insist on staying that way, I suggest you stop reading here, and stick your head back in the sand. But be sure to slather plenty of sun-block on your backside.
Just as the reality of global warming is in the numbers, so is the way forward in slowing it down, eventually stopping it and hopefully reversing it.
But the numbers are not Celsius or Fahrenheit. They are dollars. They are the balance sheets of energy producers. As things stand right now, the deck is stacked in the wrong direction. The fossil fuel industries hold all the aces. As Bill McKibben of 350.org reports, we have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to bum. This coal and gas and oil is still in the ground, but it’s already economically aboveground. It’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. Those reserves arc their primary asset.
The value of those reserves is calculated to be about $27 trillion. If you told Exxon or Shell that in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. So we can see the dilemma. If, as the scientists are saying, you have to leave 80% of those reserves in the ground to save the planet’s climate, you cut the energy producers’ profits by $20 trillion. So we can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet or a relatively healthy planet but now that we know the numbers, it looks like we can’t have both.
But it’s even more complicated. It’s not only the oil companies, but the rest of us that face major disruption either way. Our entire economy, our social order, runs on fossil fuel. A lot of what we do every day depends on relatively cheap energy. We will resist change, along with the oil companies. But the alternative is infinitely more daunting. The adaptations we will be forced to make in the face of an increasingly hot environment make the adjustments we face by turning to other energy sources seem like a Sunday School picnic. So how do we move forward?
It’s pretty simple, really. Much of the profits of the fossil fuel industry stems from a single historical accident, says McKibben. Alone among businesses the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Every other business enterprise has to pay to dispose of its waste. If we put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming. The economic playing field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources, “fee and-dividend” scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people would actually come out ahead. And the companies producing alternative sources of energy would thrive. I suspect Exxon, Shell, Peabody and the rest would be in the forefront of producing non-polluting energy. They would have gone where the money is, as they always have.
What it will take to make this happen, of course, isn’t sitting around waiting for the government to do the right thing. The odds are stacked in the other direction. It is going to take a very determined electorate to get the message across to members of Congress that staying in office depends on acting responsibly because the citizens won’t accept less. It will take a lot of organizing and demonstrating, Mckibben’s 350.org is a good place to get connected. It is a global movement.
Yes, the problem is global. We’re only one country. What about the rest? For starters, Europe is way ahead of us on this one already. Also, we are the biggest per-capita polluter on the planet by far. If we lead the way, others will follow, as we demonstrate an economy that not only survives, but thrives as a responsible global citizen.