After the Paris Climate Change Conference, Now the Hard Part

Large cracks in rock hard earth of water hole during dry season drought.
Large cracks in rock hard earth of water hole during dry season drought.

The climate accords reached in Paris this weekend are a start, but only a start and they are late, very late. Sure the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but we have wasted so much time learning to walk that the journey extends beyond a thousand miles and is fraught with difficulties and challenges that will surely test whatever resolve and good will is contained in the agreements reached. There is so much work to be done and so much time has been lost it is absolutely critical that we go beyond the commitments made in Paris and attack the much larger and more important issue: namely, a concerted and strategic assault on a fossil-fuel centric economic paradigm that still holds the world hostage.

Before his death last year, the great film director, screenwriter and actor Paul Masursky gave me one of the highest compliments I can imagine by referring to me as an optimist. While cynics may connote the term with naiveté I am convinced that it is a necessary condition for solving problems, particularly problems that affect large numbers of people. Over the past two decades I have devoted my public policy pursuits towards environmental issues, tackling issues including protection of dwindling fisheries resources, global warming and climate change, and opposition to fracking. As a father of two children in their early 20s I have been particularly energized to do all I can to stop if not reverse the enormous climatic damage we are leaving them with. So to a large extent this is personal, but it must be personal to all of us as it affects all of the world's children.

During the course of my environmental work I have delivered over 100 presentations worldwide on the need to reign in the catastrophic impacts of ever worsening climate change, and always been mindful to identify practical solutions and remedies to mitigate an issue that threatens the human species. Thus, it is not in my nature to criticize positive steps such as the ones taken this weekend in Paris to not only educate but actually elucidate constructive remedies to address the issue of climate change. It is particularly important to stay positive in light of the incredibly nonsensical positions taken by climate deniers who unfortunately occupy key positions of power within the public policy apparatus in Congress. Climate deniers are the most dangerous creatures on the planet and have the potential to inflict far more damage than any other threats to mankind.

So while it is certainly encouraging to recognize the "historic" efforts announced in Paris we must also be careful not to overplay their actual significance. Yes, there is an overwhelming consensus that we MUST address the issue. But in actuality we have squandered precious time in seriously addressing a problem that has been scientifically documented for decades. Yes, it is important to set goals, but it is far more difficult to enforce meaningful management regimes that will comport with those goals. Yes, it is important to limit future greenhouse gas emissions, but because we have wasted so much precious time it is not enough and the difficult challenges facing us require that we actually remove carbon already present not just limit future deposits.

What is absolutely necessary is a recognition that continued reliance on fossil fuels as the driving engine of the world economic paradigm must cease. Transitional strategies at this point leave us with a certainty that adaptation to certain dangers is inevitable as the time for mitigation alone has passed us by. We must end public subsidies of fossil fuels, we must significantly enhance public subsidies for renewable energy, we must signal to the world that we, the United States, will take an active and aggressive stance with respect to limiting our exports of dangerous technologies like fracking and signal that substituting natural gas for oil and coal is not a satisfactory tradeoff.

In a larger sense we must abandon our obsession with the gimmickry of calculating costs and benefits with little or no appreciation for the external costs such as environmental degradation, public health consequences, degraded water supplies, poisonous air quality, and a severely degraded quality of life in general. We must truly and accurately assess the true costs and benefits of so-called "cheap" energy and accept the rather conventional conservative wisdom that there really are no free lunches.

So we can rejoice in the actions taken in Paris but we must also keep in mind that unless we are truly serious with respect to the impacts upon our children and grandchildren we are really only deceiving them and increasing the cynicism and frustrations that so many have with the leaders and institutions that are charged with protecting the public interest. That may be the most pernicious cost of all as we simply must arrest the devastating political polarization that is ripping the nation apart. Today we can celebrate, tomorrow we must start the serious job of actually converting the words into actions.