People around the world see climate change as a major threat, and Americans are becoming increasingly concerned. Yet the World Meteorological Association writes that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere "reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide." Clearly, we are not doing enough about this problem. However, it is not for lack of available solutions.
A 2014 report by the Global Commission on Economy and Climate (GCEC) concludes that "countries at all levels of income now have the opportunity to build lasting economic growth at the same time as reducing the immense risks of climate change." The report states that the necessary fixes may be effectively free. When the ancillary benefits of greener policies are taken into account, the fixes may wind up saving us money. The report points out that the longer we delay taking action, the more it will cost us to address the climate problem.
Opportunities for addressing greenhouse gases lie within our reach. The potential environmental benefits of these opportunities are linked to other benefits, such as an improved economic climate, better human health, and remediation of other environmental problems. Green technology keeps improving. However, our policies are stuck and work against wider implementation of green technology.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the primary sources of global greenhouse gas emissions are energy supply for electricity and heat (26 percent); industry (19 percent); land use, land-use change, and forestry (17 percent); agriculture (14 percent); transportation (13 percent); residential and commercial buildings (8 percent); and water and wastewater (3 percent). To begin to address the climate problem, citizens should press for effective policy changes like these ones:
1. Eliminate subsidies for combustion-based energy. This action would affect most of the greenhouse gas sources. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that energy subsidies for petroleum products, electricity, natural gas, and coal amount to $1.9 trillion per year worldwide -- the equivalent of 2.5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), or 8 percent of government revenues. The IMF predicts that eliminating energy subsidies would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 13 percent by discouraging excess energy use and encouraging investment in renewable energy. Proven clean energy technologies are ready, right now, for wide implementation. According to the GCEC report, "Renewable energy sources have emerged with stunning and unexpected speed as large-scale, and increasingly economically viable, alternatives to fossil fuels." By eliminating combustion-based energy subsidies, we can reap many ancillary benefits. These include increased economic growth -- due to the freeing up 2.5 percent of GDP for productive use; increased energy security -- we'll never run out of sunlight or wind; improved environmental quality -- reduced air pollution, and lessened environmental degradation caused by coal mining and oil exploration and production; and improved health. Health costs from poor air quality, for which combustion-based energy is largely responsible, account for more than 4 percent of GDP.
2. Provide access to modern contraception. Newsweek magazine reports that in 2012, the estimated number of unintended pregnancies was 80 million and world population growth was 80 million. "In other words, if women all over the world had the ability to prevent the pregnancies they don't want, the world's population would stabilize." Newsweek estimates that the reduction in unwanted pregnancies would translate into an 8 percent to 15 percent reduction in global carbon emissions. Potential ancillary benefits of stabilizing the birth rate include improved health and quality of life, not to mention economic growth due to women's greater participation in paid work. A stable human population would also result in reduced habitat destruction, species extinction, and pollution. In the developing world, 222 million women want contraceptives but can't get them; meeting this need would have prevented 54 million unwanted pregnancies, 26 million abortions, 79,000 deaths of mothers, and 1.1 million infant deaths in 2012 alone. Cost is not an obstacle --the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that every $1 spent on family planning saves $6 on health care, immunization, education, and other services.
3. Remove subsidies for logging. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and storing it in wood and soil. Deforestation is a double-whammy: carbon dioxide is released when trees are cut down, and we also lose future carbon capture capacity. Forests in the United States sequester 10 percent of the total annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and uncut forests store more carbon than do forests that are logged. Trees help us in many other ways. They clean the air and water, moderate the water cycle, provide the earth's heat shield, house and feed animals, nourish our souls, and provide other services we are only beginning to understand. Even though the GCEC report recommends halting deforestation, nearly every country in the world subsidizes its timber industry. One way they do this is by allowing private entities to log national forests. Another way is through tax and credit incentives. In the U.S., the Forest Service routinely produces and sells timber that isn't worth the direct harvesting and marketing costs. The elimination of logging subsidies would save taxpayers' their money as well as their forests.
4. Get rid of agricultural subsidies. The U.S. paid out $292 billion in agricultural subsidies from 1995 through 2012, mostly to large, petroleum-intensive, industrial-scale farms. In doing so, they rewarded greenhouse gas emitters at the expense of climate-friendlier organic farms. The United Nations reports that carbon dioxide emissions from organic agriculture are 48 percent to 66 percent lower than those generated by industrial agriculture and that agriculture could become carbon neutral in two decades by moving to organic practices worldwide. Organic farming can successfully feed the human population and address the climate problem while providing numerous other benefits. These include preventing soil erosion and water contamination, protecting wildlife, and improving consumer and farm worker health. By eliminating subsidies for industrial-scale farms, we would create a level playing field for farmers. Author and organic farmer Joel Salatin writes, "We don't want subsidies for anybody, including ourselves."
Implementing the above changes would go a long way toward solving the climate crisis while at the same time addressing other dire problems. What are we waiting for? Energy expert Daniel Kammen wrote in 2011, while working for the World Bank, "At long last, scientists, governments, and significant elements of the business community are in agreement that we can build a low-carbon, sustainable, global energy economy.... The constraint in making this a reality is not technology, land area, or resources, but willpower."
America enjoys a leadership position in the world. Americans should take the lead in replacing climate-damaging policies with climate-friendly ones. After all, we have emitted more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country.
We might hope that our elected officials -- on their own initiative -- would create sound policies that serve citizens' interests. But too often this does not happen. The fact that the tobacco industry was among the top 20 recipients of U.S. agricultural subsidies between 1995 and 2012 -- when politicians and the public knew full well about tobacco's destructive impacts -- pretty much says it all. Many American politicians drag their feet, wring their hands, or make excuses for inaction instead of getting to work to take on our climate problems.
Therefore, citizens -- as usual -- must drive the policy changes that can heal our environment. Politicians will follow if they understand that they will lose their constituents' votes otherwise. We have an environmental problem. Let's tell our politicians to stop waffling and get to work on it.
Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.