The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves
For the first Earth Day in 1970, the famed illustrator Walt Kelly paraphrased Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry when his Pogo character looked across a field of debris and uttered the now iconic phrase. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Pogo’s words ring as true today as they did fifty years ago. Pardon my French, but—why?
How is it when the scientific evidence is clear, and the technologies needed to respond to global warming are in hand that the US and every other nation on Earth are in the same pickle as Pogo and Porkypine 51 years later?
More to the point—who’s responsible for this and what can be done about it? Spoiler alert—you may not like the answer.
The United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa has framed climate activists’ dilemma in a few sentences. At a recent gathering of energy and environment ministers from G-20 nations. she rhetorically asked—
What more can numbers show us that we cannot already see? What more can statistics say about the flooding, the wildfires, the droughts and hurricanes, and other deadly events?
More a lament than a question, Espinosa went on to say—
Numbers and statistics are invaluable, but what the world requires now, more than anything else, is climate action. (Emphasis added)
Is Secretary Espinosa right to imply that no serious action is being taken? Is Greta Thunberg on solid ground when she says it’s all blah, blah this, and blah blah that?
What about the COP26 meeting in Glasgow now into its second week? Isn’t it doing what needs to be done?
After all, the US and other G-20 nations are responding to the crisis in many positive and constructive ways both as the signatories to the Paris Climate Accord and individually within their own borders and regions. Already in Glasgow, over 100 countries, including Brazil, have promised to stop deforestation. There’ve been billions of dollars pledged for developing and small island nations, and every effort is being made to finalize the rules for a global carbon trading market.
You can hardly call these accomplishments blah, blah. Can you?
It is critical not to lose sight of where things started. Blindness risks repeating past mistakes. Without such critical context, it becomes challenging to measure movement—forward or back. Culture change is a journey, not a jump.
Throughout my decades in the field, I’ve seen solar and other clean power technologies come out of the garage and onto the stock exchanges. Tesla’s trillion-dollar valuation puts it at or near the top of all the companies on the US stock exchanges. The company is worth almost eight times GM and nearly 13 times Ford.
I served as counsel to a US delegate to the 1992 Rio Conference. The differences in dialogue and technology between then and now are stark.
In 2021 we have the knowledge and tested technologies to respond to the crisis. That hasn’t always been the case. The 1992 climate summit was aspirational. Everyone hoped solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies that we were peddling could power the nation—or at least substantial portions of it.
Today, it’s a reality with the promise of more technologies to come. According to Della Vigna, a London-based analyst at Goldman Sachs Group—
This year will mark the first time in history that renewable power will be the largest area of energy investment.
COP26 is about commitment and possibility. Isn’t that what we want? Aren’t we succeeding?
In the case of climate change, it’s fair to say success is relative, depending on the measure used. Isn’t it?
Thirty years passed Rio clean energy alternatives are competing successfully in the mainstream economy. It would have been hard then to imagine—realistically—that GM and Ford, and other car companies would be announcing the internal combustion engine’s demise.
Is this success? At one level, it is. However, if you’re asking is this being done in a timely fashion, then the answer isn’t really yes. Is it?
What did they know, and when did they know it? It’s when timeliness is introduced into the conversation that blame takes center stage. Doesn’t it?
Once issues like health impacts, fairness, equity, and justice are brought into the discussion blame, is laid, and a toll looks to be extracted. By whom and from whom?
Harms have been done, and they are continuing to happen. In response to too little being done by governments and businesses, big oil companies are being hauled into court by the activist community—including state and local governments and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
In the US, the plaintiff climate champions are generally following two main legal avenues of pursuit. One is the well-traveled pathway used in the cigarette cases of the late 1990s.
Plaintiffs in these proceedings claim to have suffered an actual and verifiable harm, e.g., cancer, that could have been avoided had the defendants acted appropriately on the health impact information their own researchers were giving them. To assign blame and assess damages equitably, a court needs the answers to what a defendant knew and when it knew it. Doesn’t it?
The second legal approach looks to establish a healthy and sustainable environment as a constitutionally protected right, much like free speech or the due process of law. In the US, these cases are generally filed in federal court.
Similar cases are being pursued elsewhere in the world, including in the Netherlands, India, and Peru. The Dutch case (Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands) ended with the court telling the government to increase its climate efforts in line with the Paris Agreement. Are similar verdicts possible in the US?
The groups most vilified by environmental defenders and clean energy advocates are Republicans, especially Trumplicans, governments, particularly those ruled by Republicans, and fossil fuel companies. Although I agree with the finger pointers in the main, justifiable exceptions could be defended, particularly once you get down to the granular level. Not all Republicans are evil, nor are all Democrats saintly.
Enter Cassius and Pogo stage right. The climate community rarely points to is itself when trying to understand why things are not further along. To be clear, I’m not looking to lay the blame on a particular organization or group.
The problem I see is systemic to the larger climate community populated by multiple actors pursuing many mixed and, at times, conflicting objectives.
We’ve gotten where we are, with many different organizations chasing their individual interest(s) in a more or less vertical fashion. When collaboration does occur, it is generally between organizations within the same sector or where the sectors overlap, at least temporarily.
For example, solar, wind, natural gas, and nuclear power producers view tax and investment credits supporting low greenhouse gas emitting energy sources favorably and worth collaboration. As long as the goal is generic, i.e., doesn’t differentiate between technologies, the collaborative remains intact.
Once the goal differentiates between technologies, excluding some, giving greater weight to others, the game changes. Collaborators can become competitors circling the same prize.
The fallout can happen for any number of reasons. Take, for example, the negotiations now going on over Biden’s Build Back Better Act (budget reconciliation). Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) have succeeded in cutting the proposed amount of the package from $3.5 trillion to around $1.75 trillion.
President Biden is faced with the prospect of having to re-think what is and isn’t to be included in the bill. What’s a president to do? To simplify the options for discussion purposes, he can either keep the same mix of technologies—shrinking each share proportionally—or he can decide to shrink the number of eligible technologies.
Before he decides, he reaches out to the stakeholder technologies and asks--what should I do? The solar, wind, and natural gas folks see an advantage in ganging up on nuclear. Although a clean energy source in terms of emissions produced from generating power, nuclear has a lot of enemies—including many progressive groups.
Now say the available appropriations are cut again. The process is repeated—the White House reaches out to the remaining members in the original collaborative. Will the next technology thrown overboard be natural gas? Many environmental groups already have difficulty accepting natural gas—green or blue—as a bridge to 100 percent renewables with battery storage.
Whether Biden chooses to abandon natural gas or reduce the remaining technologies proportionally would depend upon a number of considerations. Can the White House withstand the push-back from allies and principals that comprise the natural industry? What would Senator Manchin, a coal-state conservative, say about knocking out natural gas after all the noise he’s making over the federal government assisting any transition to a net-zero economy?
Are there alternatives to helping natural gas in other places, e.g., stepping up the demand for natural gas in overseas markets through marketing and incentives paid for from the State Department’s budget? As circumstances dictate, these same questions will be asked about solar, wind, and battery industry interests.
What I’m describing is the legislative process. I’m not judging it—not that my judging it would have any real purpose. As a multi-sum game turns into a zero-sum game, you have to expect the jettisoning process.
The binary choice here is, do I play the game or not? What you can’t do is to stand outside the system, wagging your finger, holding a sign that says Bad Government if your objective is transitioning the US to a low-carbon economy.
Can you change the system and the economy at the same time? I believe not. Those are two gigantic cultures. It’s challenging enough to change one of them. In support of that conclusion, I offer decades of experience as an environmental and clean energy advocate, often having to fight those fights from positions of political weakness that are only made worse by vertical thinking.
A wholesale change of the political system while attempting to move the nation to a just, low-carbon, and sustainable economy is a bridge too far. All is hardly lost. There are economies of scale that have yet to be realized within the climate community.
However, realizing these economies requires better integration of the messages, objectives, and information across the many climate champion groups from the local to the national level and even the international level. In short, what’s required is horizontal as well as vertical thinking.
It may take a bit to integrate better all the moving parts—or, as a friend and colleague says the community needs to slow down to go faster. Will a better alignment and integration be worth it?
Think of it this way. To change the power, you must be the power.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.