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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

What Did You Do In the Teens, Grandma?

Posted in Climate Change, Green Building, Legislation, Sustainable Business

It’s a new year and a new decade, and that gives us an opportunity to think about not only where we’ve been, but also where we hope to go in the decade ahead. The decade of the teens, 2010-2019, may indeed be a pivotal time that determines whether our grandchildren can enjoy the quality of life and the opportunities that my generation has been blessed with. To enable that quality of life to continue, there must be fundamental changes in the way we consume energy and the nature of the energy we consume. Those changes won’t be fully accomplished in the coming decade, but if we don’t use this decade to get that process of change well underway, it may be too late to make the changes without having to also adapt to painful changes in the world’s climate.

In 1969 I took a college course called “The Entropy Trap.” The core idea of the course was to trace how modern society tends to take concentrated resources and disperse them widely, thereby losing the ability to utilize them further. For instance, in those days before recycling, we mined concentrated deposits of iron ore, sent it out to manufacturing plants, then to consumers, and eventually it ended up in junk yards and landfills, where it was no longer concentrated enough to utilize again. One of the examples we studied was the carbon concentrated in fossil fuels as a result of hundreds of millions of years of geological processes, which since the 1890s, had been rapidly pumped from the ground, burned and dispersed into the atmosphere. At the time no one seems to have thought about how dispersing that much carbon into the atmosphere might change the functioning of the atmosphere. One of the statements I remember most from the course though was that by 2010, enough of the total supply of fossil fuels would have been consumed so that the world would experience wide spikes in prices as demand periodically outstripped supply, and by 2040, the supply of readily obtainable and clean fossil fuels would have been essentially consumed. At the time, that seemed way too far into the future to think very hard about. Today it feels like the 2010 prediction was about two years late. Now prices may rise enough so that squeezing oil from oil shale will become viable and keep us in petroleum for a few extra decades, but today, at 60, I realize that I may well see that time in 2040 when cheap and clean fossil fuels are a memory. And we now know that dispersing the carbon stored by the earth over millions of years back into the atmosphere is causing changes to the climate of a profound nature.

The decade of the 2000s will not be viewed as a decade of major achievement in addressing either climate change or the entropy trap. It was primarily focused on debating whether there was even an issue, and on asserting the need to maintain the status quo in our economy because of fears that change will hurt in the short term. In an increasingly polarized political environment, issues were posed as black and white – either you were “for” a strong economy or you were willing to sacrifice the economy for the environment. With the issues posed in black and white, there was not much progress in finding the ideas that will allow us to have both.

The reality is that if we are to achieve a world we want for our grandchildren, the decades of the teens must be a lot more nuanced than that. Of course we must maintain (or regain) a vibrant economy, but we must also begin to seriously alter its energy base. That calls for considerable leadership by the business community. If we wait for our elected officials to figure out how we can have both a strong economy and energy transformation, then we are likely to find ourselves enjoying a few more years of the status quo, but facing the worst case scenario in what is now becoming the rest of our lifetimes.

So, as the new decade starts, let’s make some new decade’s resolutions. Let’s resolve to:

1. Figure out for each of our businesses what investments we would need to make to remain healthy in a world where fossil fuel prices jump by 50 or 100% in constant dollars, and make a plan to make those investments before it happens. That may mean changing the source of energy you use, improving efficiency, or figuring out how to reduce energy consumption. If energy prices don’t jump, you will still have the benefit of lower costs because of greater efficiency or less consumption, and if they do jump, investments made now will put you ahead of the challenge.

2. Look for and be prepared to invest in transformational technologies – technologies that don’t just marginally improve energy efficiency but create orders of magnitude change to reduce fossil fuel consumption. A client, Seattle Steam, just reduced the fossil fuel emissions necessary to heat more than 100 downtown Seattle buildings by 50%. That’s the kind of change that makes a difference in a hurry.

3. Speak out when climate change legislation is being considered to insist that the question is not “whether” we should reduce carbon emissions, but “how” to do so in a timely manner that allows business to adjust and maintains a strong economy. Refuse to put up with allowing the issue to be polarized or reduced to sound bites. This is a tough issue, but it must be addressed, and business can help lead our politicians towards a workable result.

4. Recognize that long term investments may have short term costs but they have long term payoffs. There will be some sacrifice in the short term to make the investments that are needed. But companies that do not make long-term investments because there is “never a time” when it isn’t hard to do so tend to end up in the dustbin of history.

5. Resist the urge to think that because nothing any one person or company can do can fix the climate issue, nothing an individual or company does matters so we each might as well proceed on the status quo. The reality is that there is no quick fix here and there is nothing that one individual can do that viewed by itself will seem more than a drop in the ocean. But the ocean is made up of drops. The ability of the larger society to make the transformation that must be made depends on a lot of individual efforts, as well as larger decisions beyond any one person’s ability to influence. If you and your company do your part, you can be part of the larger solution if the rest of the economy does its part. If the rest of the economy comes up short, at least you will have something to say when your grandchildren want to know what you did.