At a time when action to address climate change is essential, advocates need to stop repeatedly describing the problem and declaring what should happen without providing a feasible and effective path toward a solution. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That has been the nature of climate change advocacy.
Personal action is nice, but make no mistake: Collective action is what is needed. I drive a hybrid car, recycle, have a vegetable garden and live in a super insulated home with the latest in energy-efficient lights and appliances. It will never be enough. Greenhouse gas reductions will come from adopting modern technology, not wearing sweaters.
A similar principle is true for the United States and Jackson Hole. We should lead by our example with cost-effective measures, but no matter what we do it will not matter unless India and China take similar steps. The United States emits only 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that share is declining as pollution from the developing world increases. We could implement the Green New Deal tomorrow, but the earth would continue to rapidly warm.
The Green New Deal is but the latest in a series of grand plans that have no chance of implementation. The Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris summits all came up with ambitious goals, none of which have been reached.
We have missed opportunities to get started with incremental measures that reduce emissions and save money. In 2012 the International Energy Agency reported that if world governments adopted cost-effective off-the-shelf technologies, greenhouse gases would peak within a decade and decline from there. Ten years ago, the McKinsey Company identified ways to cut U.S. energy use by 23 percent, saving $680 billion over a decade. These are not far-fetched goals. Many companies and institutions, including our own town and county governments, have already done this.
Unfortunately, those of us who call for incremental progress like this face the opprobrium of some of the environmental community. In reality, what is more pro-environment? Proposing implementable actions that actually reduce emissions or actions that have no chance of passing or reducing emissions? Too often the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.
Imagine where we might be today if 30 years ago we had started a small carbon tax or prioritized and implemented programs that actually reduced pollution and saved money.
President Barack Obama mandated increases in vehicle and light bulb efficiency. These programs were making significant cuts in pollution while saving billions of dollars. Tragically, President Donald Trump is working to eliminate these programs that both reduce pollution and save money. In this context, dead-on-arrival proposals like the Green New Deal, no matter how compelling the vision, do not contribute to progress.
Every major environmental law that has passed Congress included votes from both Republicans and Democrats. Yes, this is difficult today. Yet, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, along with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, just led a conservation effort that resulted in a 92-8 vote in the Senate, 363-62 in the House and an uncharacteristically quiet president’s signature. The John D. Dingell Conservation, Management and Recreation Act established new national parks, added over 1.3 million acres of Wilderness designation to public lands, permanently authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protected neotropical migratory birds and much else.
Exhortation has not resulted in the needed action on climate change. Repeated articulations on what “should” happen, while functionally correct, are strategically irrelevant. We need a bipartisan plan. Proposals cannot just describe aspirations. They need to tell us how legislation is going to be passed by Congress, and how it is going to be made into law and implemented on the ground.
This is a life-on-earth-as-we-know-it issue. Leadership action by local government is key to getting started.