There’s Still Hope for the Planet By David Leonhardt

New York Times, July 21, 2012

You don’t have to be a climate scientist these days to know that the climate has problems. You just have to step outside.

The United States is now enduring its warmest year on record, and the 13 warmest years for the entire planet have all occurred since 1998, according to data that stretches back to 1880.  No one day’s weather can be tied to global warming, of course, but more than a decade’s worth of changing weather surely can be, scientists say. Meanwhile, the country often seems to be moving further away from doing something about climate change, with the issue having all but fallen out of the national debate.

Behind the scenes, however, a somewhat different story is starting to emerge — one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet. The world’s largest economies may now be in the process of creating a climate-change response that does not depend on the politically painful process of raising the price of dirty energy. The response is not guaranteed to work, given the scale of the problem. But the early successes have been notable.

Over the last several years, the governments of the United States, Europe and China have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on clean-energy research and deployment. And despite some high-profile flops, like ethanol and Solyndra, the investments seem to be succeeding more than they are failing.

The price of solar and wind power have both fallen sharply in the last few years. This country’s largest wind farm, sprawling across eastern Oregon, is scheduled to open next month. Already, the world uses vastly more alternative energy than experts predicted only a decade ago.

Even natural gas, a hotly debated topic among climate experts, helps make the point. Thanks in part to earlier government investments, energy companies have been able to extract much more natural gas than once seemed possible. The use of natural gas to generate electricity — far from perfectly clean but less carbon-intensive than coal use — has jumped 25 percent since 2008, while prices have fallen more than 80 percent. Natural gas now generates as much electricity as coal in the United States, which would have been unthinkable not long ago.

The successes make it possible at least to fathom a transition to clean energy that does not involve putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that requires licenses for emissions. It was exactly such a program, supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign, that died in Congress in 2010 and is now opposed by almost all Congressional Republicans and some coal-state and oil-state Democrats.

To describe the two approaches is to underline their political differences. A cap-and-trade program sets out to make the energy we use more expensive. An investment program aims to make alternative energy less expensive.

Most scientists and economists, to be sure, think the best chance for success involves both strategies: if dirty energy remains as cheap as it is today, clean energy will have a much longer road to travel. And even an investment-only strategy is not guaranteed to continue. The clean-energy spending in Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus package has largely expired, while several older programs are scheduled to lapse as early as Dec. 31. In the current political and fiscal atmosphere, their renewal is far from assured.

Still, the clean-energy push has been successful enough to leave many climate advocates believing it is the single best hope for preventing even hotter summers, more droughts and bigger brush fires. “Carbon pricing is going to have an uphill climb in the U.S. for the foreseeable future,” says Robert N. Stavins, a Harvard economist who is a leading advocate for such pricing, “so it does make sense to think about other things.”

Those others things, in the simplest terms, are policies intended to help find a breakthrough technology that can power the economy without heating the planet. “Our best hope,” says Benjamin H. Strauss, a scientist who is the chief operating officer of Climate Central, a research group, “is some kind of disruptive technology that takes off on its own, the way the Internet and the fax took off.”

Governments have played a crucial role in financing many of the most important technological inventions of the past century. That’s no coincidence: Basic research is often unprofitable. It involves too much failure, and an inventor typically captures only a tiny slice of the profits that flow from a discovery.

Although government officials make mistakes when choosing among nascent technologies, one success can outweigh many failures. Washington-financed research has made possible semiconductors, radar, the Internet, the radio, the jet engine and many medical advances, including penicillin. The two countries that have made the most progress in reducing carbon emissions, France and Sweden, have done so largely by supporting nuclear and hydropower, notes Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif.

The story of shale gas, a form of natural gas, is typical, in that it depends on both private-sector ingenuity and public-sector support. Halliburton first figured out how to recover natural gas from limestone deposits at a field in Kansas in 1947. But its technique proved ineffective in extracting gas from shale rock. For decades, geologists remained skeptical that the enormous amounts of gas in shale formation could ever be extracted.

“You’re using our retirement money on something that’s no good,” Dan Steward, a geologist at Mitchell Energy, the company that eventually succeeded, recalled hearing from colleagues. Mitchell Energy, however, kept attacking the problem, with help from both government funds and computer mapping that came from a federal laboratory.

Solar and wind power today fall into a category that natural gas once did: for all their promise, they cannot compete on a mass scale with existing energy sources. Wind electricity costs between 15 percent and 25 percent more than standard electricity. Solar power often costs more than twice as much.

Federal subsidies can help close the gap. More important, they can finance research that may lead to a technological leap that brings down their costs.

In relative terms, the sums for clean-energy research that many scientists and economists support are not huge. A politically diverse group of experts recently set a target of $25 billion a year in federal spending on research and development (some of which could come from phasing out ineffective programs). That amount is slightly below the budget of the National Institutes of Health and only 3 percent as large as the Social Security budget. Other experts put the ideal figure closer to $50 billion.

At the recent peak, in 2009, all federal spending on clean energy — including money for research and subsidies for households and businesses — amounted to $44 billion.  This year, Washington will spend about $16 billion. The scheduled expiration of a tax credit for wind, originally signed by the first President George Bush in 1992, would help reduce the total to $14 billion next year, and current law has it continuing to fall in 2014.

The combination of these expirations, which Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution calls a major, little-appreciated policy shift, and the latest temperature readings have not exactly left climate scientists brimming with cheer. This summer’s drought has affected as much of the country as the Dust Bowl drought. Large patches of Colorado have burned. Atlanta has recorded its hottest day in history this year. Dallas endured 40 straight days above 100 degrees last July and August — and this year so far has been even hotter than last year.

On the other hand, the weather has made the climate harder to ignore. And when you look closer, there are some reasons for hope — tentative, but full of potential — hiding beneath the surface.

David Leonhardt is the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/sunday-review/a-ray-of-hope-on-climate-change.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120722

Healing or Stealing? Commencement Address by Paul Hawken

Commencement Address, University of Portland 2009.

Excerpt

…you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating….Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades…
what I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world…Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world…No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation,
human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power….
Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know…at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved…for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history…
At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it…
One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich…
We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable…Our innate nature is
to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past…
This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened…You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequeathed to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

Full text

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there.

Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.


http://www.up.edu/commencement/default.aspx?cid=9456

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author. Starting at age 20, he dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. His practice has included starting and running ecological businesses, writing and teaching about the impact of commerce on living systems, and consulting with governments and corporations on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy. http://www.paulhawken.com/