In This Review

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
By David Wallace-Wells
384 pp, Tim Duggan Books, 2019
Purchase
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
By Bill McKibben
304 pp, Henry Holt, 2019
Purchase
The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth
The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth
By Jeremy Rifkin
256 pp, St. Martin’s Press, 2019
Purchase

Climate change is often described as a “wicked problem,” meaning that it resists easy definition and defies conventional solutions. It transcends political boundaries and cannot be solved by a single country, but international governance is a weak substitute. It is a collective-action problem that demands a collective solution, but it has instead led to a great deal of finger-pointing. Its effects—rising seas, intense storms, desertification, and so on—are felt most acutely in developing countries, far away from the industrialized nations that are most responsible for the problem. And government attempts to address such negative externalities (as economists call these nonmonetized costs for third parties) by forcing producers to shoulder the burden caused by their carbon emissions have fallen flat. In short, humanity uses the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for pollutants, and deeply vested interests resist changing that. 

Climate change also confounds customary human timescales. The worst effects of today’s emissions won’t be felt for generations, which makes morally unsustainable behavior easier to rationalize. And the harm done by humans induces natural systems to compound their sins: the rising temperatures are melting the Arctic’s permafrost, which in turn unleashes further monstrous quantities of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, speeding warming. Meanwhile, thanks to the loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean, that once shiny ice mirror, which used to bounce solar energy back into space, is now transforming into a dark heat absorber, itself leading to rising temperatures. Rampaging fires in Australia—driven in large part by higher temperatures and droughts—have taken forests that absorbed carbon dioxide for hundreds of years and converted them into huge sources of it. 

Because the global community has dawdled in decarbonizing its energy systems, it has spent most of the “carbon budget”—the quota of carbon emissions, for all of civilization over all time, that must not be exceeded if warming is to be kept below a certain temperature target. Carbon stays in the atmosphere for millennia, so once emissions hit the budget for, say, 1.5 degrees Celsius warming (the goal set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement), there is no reversing the damage. All that can be hoped for is the prevention of further harm. 

A BLEAK PICTURE

This is the grim portrait that emerges from catastrophist writing about climate change, a genre that has exploded in recent years and that is perhaps best exemplified by The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, and Falter, by Bill McKibben. Wallace-Wells is a columnist and editor at New York magazine, and he has a knack for translating scientific literature into examples that are a hit in the gut. Wallace-Wells pulls no punches: “Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century,” he writes. 

It is easy to quibble with Wallace-Wells’s book. The projections he notes—200 million climate refugees by 2050, for example—are often at the extreme end of what the science suggests. But the big picture is right: human civilization is heading toward mind-bending devastation, at incredible speed. Wallace-Wells pulls this out of the scientific literature and makes it crystal clear.

Wallace-Wells is in some ways walking in McKibben’s footsteps. McKibben has been issuing dire warnings about climate change for decades. Once a lonely voice, he now leads a chorus. McKibben also presents a series of worst-case scenarios based on scientific projections: the death of all ocean life by 2100; a 21 percent drop in human cognitive abilities, also by 2100. 

A house damaged by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, October 2017
Joseph Rodriguez / EHRP / REDUX

McKibben’s book takes aim at a familiar cast of climate villains. He argues that U.S. presidents have failed on climate change, including Barack Obama, who “zigged and zagged” on climate goals and increased the country’s reliance on natural gas. He excoriates Exxon, whose executives knew about the threat from climate change but suppressed the facts and later lied about them, according to journalists at InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times. Less familiar targets include Silicon Valley tycoons, who McKibben says are skeptical of democracy and promote technological hubris, and genetic engineering, which exacerbates inequality, according to McKibben.

McKibben is a great writer, and his charges, although a bit hyperbolic, are generally sound. But it turns out that those complaints are mostly throat clearing, as McKibben readies himself to take aim at his biggest (but also least specific) target: neoliberalism. In McKibben’s view, neoliberal deregulatory policies have led to perverse concentrations of wealth and have delegitimized the state, leaving people without the tools to take on big, common problems such as climate change. The answer, he says, is in community organizing and nonviolent demonstrations of the kind that he advocates through 350.org, a global environmental group that he helped found in 2007.  

Mobilizing people will no doubt help build communities and influence public debate, but it can’t lead to major change on its own: no matter how morally and ethically appealing McKibben’s agenda may be, one cannot draw a straight line from protests and boycotts to mothballed coal plants or superefficient vehicles. McKibben offers strong moral instruction, sharp writing, and a trenchant critique of neoliberalism. But he doesn’t put forward a politically viable strategy to convert mobilization into legislative and regulatory change.

One might hope that such a strategy would form the core of a “Green New Deal,” a label that has been applied to a wide range of proposals in the past two years. Unfortunately, whereas climate’s Paul Reveres lean on worst-case scenarios, the activists pushing for a Green New Deal often traffic in unfounded optimism. Among these is Jeremy Rifkin, an environmental activist and social theorist. In The Green New Deal, Rifkin tries to unpack and flesh out the ubiquitous but vague phrase that lends the book its title. To Rifkin, “the smart green infrastructure shift into a zero-carbon Third Industrial Revolution economy . . . is the very centerpiece of a Green New Deal.”

The worst effects of today’s emissions won’t be felt for generations, which makes morally unsustainable behavior easier to rationalize.

Rifkin argues that a huge amount of fossil fuel infrastructure—coal mines, oil wells, pipelines—will be “stranded” by a coming revolution in clean energy. He’s not wrong, but he is positively Panglossian about when and how that will happen. In Rifkin’s view, everything will be transformed by the Internet of Things, which will converge digitized sectors of the green economy and stimulate “the next Industrial Revolution.” An example of those future changes, Rifkin argues, is that car-sharing services will eliminate 80 percent of the world’s cars, and the remaining 20 percent will be fully autonomous and powered by clean energy. Using extrapolation to assume every nascent technology will peg the needle on its performance meter and then calling that the future seems naive. The world is complex, and such techno-optimism ignores some basic limitations of human life. 

People need food, places to sleep, and clothes to wear. They like to buy things and travel, and providing all this is the source of most carbon emissions. And unlike the technologies that Rifkin celebrates, those kinds of basic goods don’t develop according to Moore’s law, which (broadly interpreted) observes that computing performance tends to double every two years. Simply put, contemporary human life requires massive amounts of energy. It will take time and major infusions of money, labor, and materials to replace the dirty energy sources humans use now with cleaner ones. 

Rifkin acknowledges the role of highways, buildings, farms, bridges, cars, and so forth and properly notes that these are prime candidates for rebuilding, for both economic and climate reasons. But he dispenses with them briefly, without explaining how that kind of investment might become politically viable, and the book as a whole fails in its intent of laying out a realistic green strategy. 

THE VIRTUES OF PRAGMATISM

A good climate strategy requires a detailed understanding of both means and ends. When it comes to combating climate change, mobilization alone isn’t a strategy, and neither is an “all of the above” approach to technological development.

There is no alternative, in the end, to examining the huge physical systems that emit carbon and going after them, targeting big and fast solutions first—for climate change is a numbers game. The world each year emits over 50 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—a measure that encompasses carbon dioxide, the most prominent greenhouse gas, and also other greenhouse gases that drive global warming, such as methane. To avoid the worst-case scenarios presented by Wallace-Wells and McKibben, that figure must fall close to zero by midcentury. 

About 75 to 80 percent of carbon dioxide equivalent comes from the fossil fuels burned in just 20 countries by four major sources: power plants, vehicles, buildings, and factories. Viewed this way, although climate change is a global problem, it is primarily rooted in a relatively narrow band: four economic sectors—electric power, transportation, construction, and manufacturing—in 20 countries. Now consider that those sectors have a finite number of decision-makers: the executives who run oil companies, utilities, automakers, major construction firms, and big manufacturing companies and, emphatically, the government regulators who oversee them.

Ultimately, those are the people who can make real change—yet they are often ignored by climate activists. Buildings emit nearly a third of U.S. carbon dioxide, and a great building code can cut energy use in new construction by 80 percent. In the United States, an organization called the International Code Council develops building standards. More than 100,000 city and state officials are eligible to vote on proposed changes, but only around 1,000 do so. An important code improvement that would have made new buildings more efficient was recently narrowly defeated, more by apathy than anything else, condemning a generation of buildings to unnecessary energy waste. This represents a failure in climate strategy: the issue went unnoticed but will burden the world with many decades of unnecessary emissions. 

Even social movements with fuzzy aims can sometimes make a difference.

Meanwhile, thousands were protesting the Keystone pipeline, which was far less important. While activists were protesting that pipeline—which, built or not, would have little or no impact on oil consumption—they were missing at the forum that sets building standards across the United States. It turns out that the targets of much climate activism are not the decision-makers: the United Nations does not regulate power plants, shareholders do not set fuel-efficiency standards, and the U.S. Congress does not set building energy codes. 

It is true that even social movements with fuzzy aims can sometimes make a difference. But if the most motivated citizens and experts are absent at the important but often obscure forums where substantive climate-related decisions are made, that is a big problem. 

After correctly identifying the genuine decision-makers in each sector, the next step is to figure out how they operate and how to apply pressure on them. What is their statutory power? How did they get their jobs? What are the boundaries of their power? What processes guide their decisions? Who has influence over them? These are elementary questions that one needs to answer in order to make a difference on any policy issue. They are, in fact, the map to a serious solution.

A REALISTIC STRATEGY

In all four critical sectors—electric power, transportation, construction, and manufacturing—the most realistic goal is to change policy in a way that diverts existing energy cash flows from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. This is generally easier than creating new sums of money by raising taxes or engaging in deficit spending—so don’t count dollars; count carbon. For example, a policymaker can require that every year energy companies increase the fraction of electricity they produce from renewable energy sources, so that the revenues from consumers’ monthly utility bills go, increasingly, away from coal and to wind and solar power. Thirty states have adopted these measures; most of them need more aggressive targets, and the laggards need to get onboard. This is climate policy at scale.

Indeed, of the four important sectors, electric power is the easiest to deal with, because it is now cheaper to build wind and solar power plants from scratch than it is to fuel and maintain most existing coal power plants. Nuclear power could play a big role, but right now its costs are significantly higher than the price of fossil fuels, and so new technologies would need to be developed to bring those costs down. 

It is worth noting that market forces alone won’t create incentives for utility companies to green their operations, because utilities are physical monopolies—there is only one set of wires to any given house—and their expenditures and power choices are regulated by public commissions. Utilities are dependent on the decisions of regulators—who could require them, for example, to cut their use of carbon-emitting sources in half by 2030 and to totally decarbonize by 2045. Dozens of states and countries have adopted variants of this approach, because it works. The decision-makers in this case are state governors, state legislatures, and utility regulatory commissions. They can choose to remake the grid so that it is free of climate-warming emissions—and today there are favorable economic and technological conditions for that choice. Accelerating this action would be a great choice for climate policy and citizen activism.

In the transportation sector, the best bet would be for auto regulators to set a very high fuel-efficiency standard for passenger vehicles, light trucks, and SUVs and then offer car manufacturers “supercredits” for each electric vehicle they sell—meaning, for example, that if they want to sell an SUV that does not meet the standard, they must also sell an electric vehicle. The utility and transportation strategies would work in tandem, as an electric vehicle powered by a zero-carbon grid would be a zero-carbon car. What is the pressure point? Weirdly, U.S. regulatory authority for the fuel consumption of vehicles is handled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whereas the regulation of tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions is delegated to the Environmental Protection Agency. The carbon dioxide that gets emitted is driven by the amount of fuel burned, so this amounts to double, but inconsistent, regulation. The consequence is that political or legal pressure must be applied to both. 

In the absence of federal standards, a dozen states have banded together to get the job done, which is suboptimal, but they have enough market share to bend the curve toward cleaner vehicles. These commitments, too, need more citizen support, and governors who work to reduce auto pollution deserve applause.

Market forces alone won’t create incentives for companies to green their operations.

Compared with power grids and motor vehicles, new buildings are easy to make superefficient. The key is to update building codes to include energy-efficiency requirements. Such codes already demand structural soundness, wiring safety, earthquake readiness, and fireproofing, so why not take care of the global commons by also including tight energy standards? The physical task is not hard: good insulation, great windows, superefficient appliances, and advanced heating and cooling. It all pays for itself in reduced energy costs, but those rational economics are stymied by the fact that those who design and build buildings never pay the utility bill. So a public standard—a building code—is required.

Building codes are typically a state’s jurisdiction—although they are sometimes set by counties or cities. Most states adopt an international standard, which, as described above, gets ironed out by technocrats and experts in obscure forums. Today, astonishingly, the devising of a new code takes close to a decade—so most codes are behind in new technology—and adoption is spotty: a few states exceed the reference standard, but most lag badly in adopting it, and some have no thermal code at all, to account for the cooling and heating energy needs of buildings. These policy decisions are almost wholly ignored by climate activists. 

The most difficult to transform of the four sectors is manufacturing. Industrial facilities are complex and vary widely, so there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. The best approach would combine three elements. First, for complex, heterogeneous, price-sensitive sectors such as industry, a carbon tax is a fine policy. But taxes are unpopular, so many jurisdictions have substituted a carbon cap, with permits auctioned off or handed out for free. This is a good way to set a price on carbon. Carbon taxes and caps are generally the business of national legislatures, but in the laboratory of democracy that is the United States, the states, again, have taken the lead. Nine states in the Northeast have joined forces to cap electricity emissions, and California has a comprehensive cap. Both systems’ permits are trading at a low price, indicating that carbon reductions are cheaper than predicted—so regulators should tighten the caps, and achieve more reductions. The decision-makers to target to get more taxes or caps are European governments, both in key countries and in Brussels, along with U.S. states that take climate change seriously. 

Beyond pricing carbon, to deal with industrial emissions, the world needs much more generous R & D budgets. In the United States, less public money is spent on clean energy research and development than Americans spend on potato chips. The United States has the world’s best national labs and research universities, but they are underused. Any number of nonpartisan studies, by the likes of the National Academy of Sciences and the independent American Energy Innovation Council, have called for tripling clean energy R & D, from roughly $2.5 billion to $7.5 billion. This is a modest number in light of the potential. There is little political resistance to this idea but, sadly, only modest support; it is considered a secondary issue. University presidents and national lab directors, working together to influence their respective senators and representatives, could get this done. 

Finally, governments at all levels should adopt “buy clean” policies, committing themselves to purchase their cement, steel, glass, and other materials only from suppliers whose emissions put them in the top quartile of their respective industries in terms of environmental performance. California has started doing this, and producers have noticed. 

This kind of targeted, realistic strategy, which focuses on the most consequential decisions and is backed by a deep understanding of who makes the key choices, might not be as exciting as calls for revolutionary change. But it would work.

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  • HAL HARVEY is CEO of Energy Innovation and a co-author, with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, of Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy.
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