Solutions to Global Warming: A National Conversation We Desperately Need to Have

By David Sassoon

Earth is running a fever. We have measured it. We know the cause: the carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that we are pumping into the atmosphere. We also know if nothing changes, Earth's fever will continue to rise and things will get much worse. And yet there is a cure; in fact, there is an array of real and executable remedies, and there are many physicians poised to tackle this most consequential challenge of our time.

When our bodily temperature rises two or three degrees, we quickly call the doctor, who diagnoses the illness and prescribes a remedy, and through obedience and some luck, we recover. In America, Washington has yet to call the doctor to tend to its contribution to Earth's accelerating deterioration, even though the size of our contagion is disproportionately large. There are medical teams at work in local pockets of advanced response, but the rest of the world is watching expectantly for a larger solution.

Earth as we know it remains in ever-growing danger, its fate now more than ever in our hands. It is poor bedside manner to belabor the details of worst-case prognosis, even if everyone is well versed in the doomsday litanies of climate change. It does not encourage recovery. What is needed is a more appropriate demeanor: the manner of healthy optimism that accompanies the promise of a cure.

This is why we have put global warming on our cover: to highlight the solutions, to describe how we can prod America to action collectively, and to draw others to this vital effort.

From our vantage point as a philanthropy that has been supporting work on climate change for more than 20 years, it is clear to us that the scientific certainty of global warming is no longer worth debating.1 The naysayers have been revealed to be few, well paid, and partisan-self-serving ideologues on a premeditated mission to distract us from properly tending to the burning issue of our time.2 From now on let's just supply them with a toga and a fiddle and pack them off to Rome. We have no time to waste in shouldering the burden of responsibility that falls on our shoulders.

It is a very large burden. The population of the United States accounts for less than 5% of global population yet is responsible for almost 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Among the top 75 leading emitters in the world, 34 are in the United States. The unabated greenhouse gas infection of the American atmosphere is a crime of continuing gross neglect. It could also become an unforgivable act of sabotage. Continued inaction would undermine the good-faith efforts other nations are making to reverse the progress of the warming disease. Without America, the rest of the world has no chance.

The U.S. government's leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gives us only 10 years of breathing room. Stabilize carbon dioxide emissions within the next 10 years, he warns, or Earth will be another planet.3

Hansen and his scientist-colleagues around the world have advised us that we must stabilize the level of carbon in the atmosphere at no more than 500 to 550 parts per million, but recent developments are leading them to consider whether 450 ppm might be the tolerable upper limit of global-warming pollution. When the industrial era began, the level was roughly 275 parts per million. Now, after steadily burning coal, oil, and gas-especially over the past 150 years-we have raised the level of carbon in the atmosphere to about 380 parts per million, and there's no end in sight. Consider merely: a billion cars on the road by 2030, a doubling of global energy consumption, a few billion more people.

Carbon is accumulating far faster than ever before, so stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions means nothing less than re-creating the global energy economy on a sustainable basis and planning a conscious and deliberate exit from this carboniferous era of fossil fuels. In quantifiable terms, it means that by 2050 we must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% to 80%, even as we grow the global economy and provide for the rising expectations of billions of more people. Nothing less than a staggering feat of economic reengineering is required.

The good news is that we know how to do it.

Evidence: two of America's greatest allies.

The United Kingdom reports that it has grown its economy by 40% since 1990 and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 14%. It has also set a target to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050 and has projected that the cost of meeting the target would be 0.5% of gross domestic product-equivalent to a six-month slowdown of growth over the next 44 years. That sounds like it's well worth it.

Germany has similar results to report: 19% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and the creation of 450,000 new jobs in the alternative energy sector. It has also committed to a long-term goal-40% greenhouse gas reduction by 2020. What is especially worth noting is that both nations have already outstripped the minimum and relatively meager requirements of the Kyoto protocols and have made commitments far beyond 2012, when the current phase of the Kyoto accord is set to expire.

The warming of the climate is no longer merely, or primarily, an environmental issue. It is a global issue that touches every conceivable facet of human existence.

Other examples abound, even in the developing world. Brazil is reaping the benefits of a biofuels program that enables the country to now meet a quarter of its gasoline needs by using alcohol derived from sugarcane. The program supports 700,000 jobs and has saved the Brazilian economy $50 billion in foreign oil expenditures. Even in China, the economic juggernaut that by 2020 will be spewing more greenhouse gases than any other nation, the government has set its sights on reducing emissions. In 2004 it enacted automobile fuel economy standards that are tougher than America's. It has also set a national goal to generate 5% of its energy from renewable sources by the end of this decade, 15% by 2020.

We do have experience in America with this kind of success and vision, though not on a national scale. California provides the best example. By itself it is the world's seventh- largest economy. It is also one of the world's most energy efficient, having already saved consumers more than $50 billion in energy expenditures and projected to save them another $57 billion by 2011. Its clean energy sector now employs 170,000 people-double the number working in the entire U.S. coal industry.

The state has also committed itself to the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal in the world: 80% by 2050. What will be the economic impact of meeting this goal? California's Environmental Protection Agency convened a multiagency Climate Action Team (CAT) to study the question. The team was able to outline a big first step-46 different strategies for reducing emissions 30% by 2020. They found the goal to be achievable and that the suite of needed measures could be implemented without detriment to the state economy. In fact, benefits are projected to outweigh the costs-by 83,000 additional jobs and $4 billion in additional income, on top of the reduced emissions.4

The CAT report is worth studying. It provides a good model of collaborative thinking and planning, informed by the optimism of the hope for a cure to global warming. There are many other programs that offer solutions at every level of government, for every size of business, for every household, every individual.

When Salt Lake City hosted the winter Olympic Games in 2001, it unilaterally adopted the Kyoto target of a 7% reduction in emissions by 2012. Thanks to a basket of measures worth emulating, it has already met that goal and saved millions of taxpayer dollars in the process. More than 200 other U.S. cities last year signed on to reaching the same target and are now in the process of adopting local solutions tailored to their own needs. Upwards of a dozen governors, too, are either implementing or developing state climate action plans. They are working together in regional initiatives, including one among eight states in the Northeast that is capping emissions from utilities and setting up a carbon trading market. By monetizing emissions, these states are allowing market mechanisms to drive the greatest amount of emissions reductions at the lowest possible cost.

Well-managed companies are also reaping billions of dollars in cost savings on fuel consumption and have substantially reduced their greenhouse gas emissions-some by as much as 70%.5 They are all proving wrong the common predictions of economic doom that have prevented action on emissions reductions for too long,6 and they continue to innovate with new technologies and new strategies that anticipate a low carbon future.

Other constituencies are starting to comprehend the relevance of global warming to their interests and concerns and are starting to organize their collective force.

Evangelical Christians who ascribe to an abiding duty to "steward the Earth" have issued a call to action, with a reminder that climate change will hit the poor the hardest.

Farmers have organized a campaign to supply farm-based alternative fuels so that the nation can meet the goal of sourcing 25% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.

The young people on our campuses-perhaps the first generation that will suffer severe and consistent climate impacts if nothing is done-are pressuring their universities, their communities, and their elected officials for changes to business as usual.

Shareholders are asking companies they own to disclose information on greenhouse gas emissions. They want to evaluate the carbon risk exposure of their investments, force action by company boards, and change the calculus of fiduciary duty that governs the influential flow of capital.

Entrepreneurs who are pioneering alternative energy solutions-long conveniently relegated to a barely subsidized niche-are the new darlings of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. They hold the keys to the innovations that will pave the way in the long term to an alternative energy future.

The warming of the climate is no longer merely, or primarily, an environmental issue. It is an energy issue; a business issue; an investor issue; a moral issue; a security issue; an agricultural issue; a coastal issue; a religious issue; an urban issue; in short, a global issue that touches every conceivable facet of human existence. It is a matter of universal concern that cuts across party lines, religious affiliations, class divisions, and demographic distinctions. Therein lies our current opportunity.

We are deploying our philanthropic resources to help all of these constituencies understand the relevance of global warming, articulate their needs, and devise their own solutions. It is an exercise in civic engagement that will strengthen democratic practice, security, and sustainable development. Through this work over the next thousand days, we can prepare ourselves as a nation to develop the best policy solutions we can possibly devise, and we can make ourselves ready to deploy them at the first opportunity. There is too much at stake to leave matters in the hands of political professionals, special interests, and ideologues. We still have a chance to rejoin the community of nations and shoulder our fair burden of responsibility; secure our economy upon a sustainable model of growth; lead emerging economies by example and through the export of our technology, management, and capital; enjoy greater energy security; and secure continued hope for future generations.

With each passing month, we see new evidence that Earth's fever is getting worse-fast. Hansen also recently noticed another alarming symptom in a satellite study. Greenland is losing 200 cubic kilometers of ice a year. It isn't just the quantity that is causing this attending physician to be newly concerned; it is how the ice is disappearing. The massive ice sheet is not melting just at its edges like an ice cube in a soft drink. It is eroding from the inside out.

Greenland's melt-waters fall into deep, uncharted crevasses and then collect and flow in undetectable rivers that eat away at the continent of ice from underneath. Eventually, huge territories of top-heavy ice collapse, slide into the ocean, and float away forever. Hansen says the entire Greenland ice sheet could reach a point of no return with explosive rapidity and trigger sea-level rises of as much as 25 meters. Much of Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, and coastal communities everywhere would be underwater. It is why he warns us: Earth will be another planet.

We do not sufficiently appreciate how it is within our power to monumentally disrupt the delicate systems that govern this planet. We also have not taken seriously how eminently it is within our reach to reengineer our material existence on sustainable terms. It's high time to collectively apply the cure.

This feature is from the 2005 Annual Review.