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Trump cannot reverse hopeful climate change trends

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 23, 2017
  • Published January 23, 2017

I feel more hopeful about climate change than at any time since I started writing books, reports and articles on the subject 16 years ago.

The cultural center of gravity has shifted. The economics line up. President Trump cannot stop what is happening.

The world will still endure painful and chaotic environmental and social changes. We already started that movie. Workable technology does not exist to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

But we're not necessarily on a trajectory to a Mad Max world. Apocalyptic future scenarios don't become likely unless we fail to transform our energy system by 2050. Compared to just a few years ago, the chances look far better that humanity will make that deadline.

The basic problem struck me in 2002, while working on my book "The Whale and the Supercomputer." I was lecturing about the media to dozens of scientists at an Arctic field camp to study climate change.

The bright young scientists demanded, incredulously, why humanity hadn't already committed to a crash program of reducing carbon emissions.

Good question.

I got an answer from a public policy expert named Ron Brunner of the University of Colorado. He said change almost never happens that way.

Scientists believed they were producing a map to help policymakers drive space ship Earth, Brunner said. They had labeled a hazard ahead as climate change and expected leaders to turn the steering wheel in the space ship — meaning everyone would stop using fossil fuels.

But no leader has that much power. Dictators are deposed when they demand sacrifice against the perceived best interests of their citizens. Democratic leaders know not to try.

A social movement had to come first, with belief in the problem and the desire to solve it.

How could climate-protecting social values develop? My next book, "The Fate of Nature," looked at different Alaska cultures and their different ways of making decisions about living in nature.

I thought the key lay in spreading positive cultural norms. We could teach a new generation to value human connection more and materialism less, favoring community over individual power.

While spreading the message of that book, I met a lot of skeptical audiences, but a decade later the idea doesn't seem so far-fetched. Many members of the millennial generation do hold values for a less wasteful society.

The Pew Research Center found in October that 79 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, with a similar number saying serious impacts are likely. Even more support renewable energy.

That cultural change echoed in Washington last week as Trump's Cabinet nominees told confirmation committees they believe climate change is caused by human activity. Even former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, soon to be secretary of energy, said he had been wrong to deny it.

I'm glad of the new acceptance but I no longer think a climate response will require much sacrifice.

In 2012, former Gov. Tony Knowles approached me with a climate change project taking the perspective of the energy industry. He thought the problem could be solved using clever technology and policy.

Knowles, who got started in Oklahoma and in the oil industry, had been working with George Kaiser, a billionaire in energy and banking and one of the nation's top philanthropists. Their National Energy Policy Institute, at the University of Tulsa, would devise an energy plan that would work with minimal pain.

Knowles hired me to write a report based on work he had obtained from a group of the country's most renowned economists, energy experts and social scientists.

The study combined a set of policies that would move the U.S. dramatically toward emitting less carbon using off-the-shelf technology. The plan mostly tweaked current laws, using incentives to push industry and the public toward lower emissions.

My favorite policy in the portfolio was a fuel tax paid back in a lump sum to every citizen (inspired by the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend). The government wouldn't keep any of the money. The average driver would break even with an income tax rebate at the end of the year. If you saved gas, you would make a profit.

The study showed that policy would significantly reduce carbon emissions, pushing drivers to more efficient vehicles, and would also benefit the economy, because consumer behavior with income tax rebates has greater positive impact than the negative impact of added fuel cost.

The final report showed our collection of policies would reduce carbon significantly with negligible economic cost.

But we ran into a problem. Top economists hired to review the work couldn't find anything wrong but they wouldn't put their names on it because the results were too positive. We ended up making our results worse to be credible to conventional wisdom.

Knowles brought the report to Washington, D.C., and presented it to government officials and the media. No one covered it. Reporters said the ideas stood no chance in Congress, so why report on them?

The institute closed its doors and the report is no longer available online.

The experience was frustrating but proved to me that climate change mitigation won't require a huge sacrifice. In fact, it's an excellent money-making opportunity.

The snowball is rolling. Renewable energy prices are plummeting, beating fossil fuels in many applications.

China announced earlier this month it will invest an astounding $360 billion on renewable energy in the next three years. China has fulfilled its earlier renewable goals on time or early, driving reductions in cost.

China intends to dominate this industry, but America has Elon Musk's Tesla, building the largest factory in the world to produce lithium batteries for cars and homes. The construction project is so large it has drawn workers from Anchorage.

Meanwhile, despite a growing economy and increasing population, America's energy use went down last year for the third year in a row. Energy efficiency efforts by states, local governments, companies and families are having an impact.

Even if Trump cancels President Obama's climate change policies, he cannot cancel world market forces or Americans' behavior. We are on our way to addressing climate change.

Reach Charles at wohlforth.com

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