Lack Of Government Action Could Make Our Planet Uninhabitable From Climate Change Posted on Oct 24, 2017
As cleantech and renewable energy markets fight for market share, climate change and extreme weather events surge ahead. Climate change, our most pressing problem with the potential to wipe out all life on earth, is becoming more evident every day. While cleantech and renewable energy companies offer a solution to climate change they not only must overcome startup models with tied up capital that are expensive to scale, but also billion dollar competitors using public deception playbooks decades old. However, it is the later that is stalling the transition to a 100% renewable energy economy.
The public deception playbooks being used by cleantech’s competitors are identical to the ones used by the tobacco, chemical and other industries in the past.* The scientists, scientific advisers and think tanks behind these playbooks are in many cases even the same people. It is these groups and their strategies that resulted in decades passing before the campaigns of deception were exposed admitting that the industries agree that tobacco causes lung cancer, coal smoke causes acid rain and CFCs cause the ozone hole.*
During the past century, the process of rectifying global-scale, industry-caused harms has followed the same pattern. Each time, while scientists were doing fundamental research they stumbled on a global-scale harm linked to human activity and industry. These scientific discoveries were publicized by the press and analyzed by federal or state agencies to determine what should be done. Then, the industry identified as the culprit for the harm hired scientists and funded studies to cast doubt on the original scientific discoveries. This resulted in decades of back and forth until the problem became so evident in enough studies and scientists convinced the right governing body to finally overcome the industries’ propaganda of doubt and to take action to rectify the harm identified decades earlier.
We are in the middle of a public deception campaign on climate change. Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are due to human activities. Most climatologists agree that another 0.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature, representing a global average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) of 450 parts per million (ppm), could set in motion unprecedented changes in global climate and a significant increase in the severity of natural disasters—and as such could represent a dreaded point of no return. This led to the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit the raise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels. Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (the leading greenhouse gas) is approximately 398 parts per million (ppm).
Scientists have found that the current CO2 levels, combined with methane (rising toward 1,900 parts per billion) and nitric oxide (around 310ppb), are already amplifying the feedbacks of global warming. Beyond a tipping point these feedback loops would lead to further climate change even if human greenhouse gas emissions are drastically curtailed. Warmer oceans, melting ice, drying vegetation in parts of the continents, would lead to sea level rise, fires, methane release all of which would further increase warming creating the dreaded feedback loop that could spiral out of control. This could commit the Earth to extreme rises of temperature over thousands of years, with consequences consistent with the large mass extinctions.
Despite this consensus on climate change and its devastating effects, the fossil fuel industry’s public deception campaign is stalling meaningful government action to stop the move towards this point of no return. Their campaign is creating doubt about climate change’s threats in the minds of many people. Of Americans’, only 68% believe global warming is caused by human activities, 45% worry a great deal about global warming and 42% believe global warming will play a serious threat in their lifetime.
Whereas the cleantech industry began as a hippie culture, it is no longer a “hippie” industry that depends on pot customers and off-grid living. The majority of people working in cleantech do not associate themselves with the image of an “environmentalist” and typically do not list environmental reasons for why they work in the industry. The desire to not want to be seen as working for passionate, altruistic reasons could be hurting cleantech companies. The environmental roots underlying cleantech are what may help the industry to achieve the monumental amount of growth needed to reverse the trend towards the point of no return in the global climate.
As eloquently stated by the chairman of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality during the CFC rule making proceedings: “the criminal defendant’s presumption of innocence is not appropriate for regulatory decisions under uncertainty.”** This means we have to take precautionary actions when the harms that can be done are uncertain or unknown. While the worst wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather related disasters are occurring around the world, they are both catastrophes for people and also opportunities for cleantech to use as examples when advocating for their businesses at political and regulatory levels.
Regulations, policies and tax breaks in favor of cleantech are not a handout to cleantech and renewable energy companies. They are smart political decisions by government to avoid an ever increasing amount of disaster relief funds. Given the enormous public costs already being expended to combat the effects of climate change, regulations and policies that drastically curtail fossil fuel and other non-cleantech industries save taxpayers’ money. Otherwise, the government will continue to pay increasing amounts to combat the feedbacks of global warming, such as warming and acidifying oceans, melting ice, drying vegetation, fires and methane release.
Cleantech and renewable energy companies could use a page out of fossil fuel’s playbook. By working hand in hand with scientists and scientific advisors, cleantech could have the most successful playbook out there. The science on climate change is clear, and cleantech should be funding and utilizing it to scale to the rate required to stop climate change.
* Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010).
**Rusell Peterson as quoted in Edward A. Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer (2003), p. 39.