Advice for political leaders on how to deal with climate change
I’d like to propose a few new rules our political leaders might keep in mind as they figure out their role in addressing global climate change.
- The first rule in treating the patient is to do no harm. As discussed previously, we must stop building conventional coal plants, inefficient buildings, gas-guzzling vehicles, and other carbon-intensive projects that lock us into heavy greenhouse-gas emissions for decades to come.
- Politics may be the art of compromise, but the atmosphere isn’t negotiating. We don’t have much wiggle room to stabilize the climate. Public policy must be based on hard science, not back-room deals. If politicians are afraid of lobbyists, deniers, and swift-boaters, they must take refuge in what the vast majority of climate scientists are telling us. No one said leadership would be easy. Better yet, we voters can reward good policy and make sound science sound politics.
- We need problem-solving, not problem-switching. Liquid fuels from coal help the oil import problem, but are lousy for the climate. Nuclear power is a lot cleaner than coal power, but leaves us with wastes, great new targets for terrorism, and the possibility that nuclear materials will fall into the wrong hands. All energy technologies have some drawbacks. But before we start trading one serious set of problems for others, let’s exhaust the potential of the relatively problem-free choices such as efficiency and many renewables.
- There is no silver bullet. The danger is that Congress will pass a weak carbon policy and consider the job done. It’s not that easy. Climate change is a large-scale problem that requires a portfolio of creative and comprehensive solutions — national, regional, and local. Neither a carbon tax nor a cap-and-trade system is sufficient by itself.
- Pick solutions that multitask. Climate change isn’t the only problem on our plate. There are the related problems of peak oil, the fact that our gas dollars fund terrorism, the need for greater homeland security, and rising health care costs. Let’s focus on the solutions that solve several problems at once — for example, alternative transportation fuels that reduce oil imports, slow our transfer of wealth to the Persian Gulf, require fewer refineries that can be shut down by terrorists and natural disasters, and prevent tailpipe emissions that aren’t good for our health.
- Nature has limits. Deal with it. The feeling of limitless resources, limitless space, and limitless freedom is part of the American DNA. But when nature pushes back hard, as it is doing now, we have found its limits. When a child burns her hand on a hot stove, she discovers a truth. That’s where we are now.
- If we insist on ruining the planet, we must stop calling ourselves the most intelligent species. I don’t mean to be a tree-hugger here, but when the world’s leading scientists forecast that anthropogenic climate change may wipe out a third of the world’s species, including many beneficial to us, we’ve discovered who is upsetting the natural order. It’s us.
- The essence of stewardship is this: The greatest generation is yet to be born, if we give it the chance. It’s way too late to pass the torch. From time to time, I’ve heard leaders say our children will have to solve the climate problem. But we aging baby-boomers are the current leaders of society’s change agents — government agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporations, universities, churches, and the like. Greenhouse-gas emissions must be slowed, stopped, and reversed, starting now — or else it will be too late for our children to stop catastrophic climate change. It’s up to us to leave our children a manageable problem, not an irreversible one. Shame on us if we don’t.
If you have suggestions for more new rules, please post them.