The State of the Debate on Climate Change: Reasons for Optimism

Indian woman cooks with efficient cook stove / Global Education

Terry Tamminen, CEO of 7th Generation advisors, polled about two thousand climate scientists at the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., asking them to raise their hands if they were optimistic or negative about the prospects of our ability to halt climate change. The optimists won, but only very slightly. In a session that explored the reasons for optimism, experts from the government, non-profit, and private sectors discussed some positive developments in the global fight against climate change.

Clay Nesler, Johnson Controls International, said one lesson learned from the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was that all the world’s business leaders “want to do something about climate change.” They are looking for “new innovations in business models, financing. It’s not just about technology.”

Under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. federal government is “beginning to up its game,” said Nesler, but city governments are further out ahead still. The positive involvement of the government at all levels is critical because they “set the standards and create demand.” Nesler gave a shout-out to Boston’s government for its ground-breaking building performance disclosure program. Now, Boston’s large and medium buildings must make annual reports of their water and energy usage. He said it’s crazy that people “buy buildings without knowing whether they are efficient or not.” This is a prime example of an “innovative policy” needed to move the private sector to action.

“In the early 2000s, I was almost fired for talking about climate change,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, speaking of his days as director of environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control. Jackson, who is now a professor at University of California Los Angeles, said things have changed since then, given health advocates are increasingly leading the charge on climate action.

As an example, he pointed to California’s climate legislation (AB 32), and how the efforts to overturn it (Prop 23) were in turn defeated in part through the involvement of the medical and public health communities. “There was a huge shift in public opinion against Prop 23 as the health community pointed out the negative air impacts of climate change. CO2 is really another form of air pollution.” He said, everyone, including poor voters, were more “worried about their future health,” than any of the supposed negative economic impacts of the bill. Now that the climate legislation is law in California, Jackson said some 25 percent of the revenue earned from its cap and trade system is going to poor communities. “They bear the biggest burden of climate impacts.” The lesson: in the broader debate about climate change, “we really need health people stepping up.”

Boston is successfully acting on climate change because its better communicating the dangers, said Brian Swett, chief environment officer, City of Boston. “We are translating science speak into sidewalk speak to drive behavioral change.” For example, he said “natural hazard preparedness” works much better when communicating with the lay person than “climate change adaptation.”

The city is starting to measure how much carbon it puts out through its innovative building performance disclosure program. “We’re making the system competitive. People keep score.” The city is taking all this performance data and doing something about it, too. It’s now partnering with private sector developers to implement measures that will cut emissions by 25 percent by 2020. He said this first 25 percent cut in emissions is relatively easy to achieve in a “top-down” fashion, but the next leg, reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, will only be achieved through “bottom-up behavioral change.” The city plans a new awareness campaign to seed the ground-up efforts.

Lastly, a perspective from the developing world: “South Asia is a recipient of climate change created elsewhere,” said Priya Shyamsundar, South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, but, increasingly, the area is also a contributor. She said there are solutions to climate change in place like India, but they are complex — and must integrate adaptation with mitigation. She said studying the behavior of locals is important when examining global efforts to limit climate change. For example, while the United Nations’s REDD program, which pays money to developing countries to leave trees standing, is a global mechanism, its success is dependent on how it interacts with local communities. We are now studying “what communities will give up to keep their forests. We are piloting, learning by doing.”

She also pointed to global efforts to reduce the use of wood-burning cook stoves, which create black carbon and kill millions of women and children each year by dirtying indoor air. Her organization is challenging ingrained local behavior that prevents the uptake of healthier filters and more efficient stoves. “Why are these filters not accepted?” She said one has to look at a woman’s power in a family. If it’s low, she is less likely to get a filter. She said studies of behavior can lead to more effective messaging, and perhaps lead to broader societal change, like the amazing growth of cell phone use by poor farmers, who can now get text updates of weather data.

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