07/09/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Climate Change Lobbying Cannot Win Without The Money Talk

Globe and Dollar Sign, Economy and Climate Change Concept
Stacey Newman via Getty Images
Globe and Dollar Sign, Economy and Climate Change Concept

Thanks to NASA's ominous new warning on the perils of climate change, the world is gung-ho for "going green" again. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) slated for December will, presumably, be mankind's last chance to "cut a deal to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of global warming," and thus keep us away from its "truly awful effects." NASA's Steve Nerem claimed on August 27 that, "Data shows sea level is rising faster than it was 50 years ago, and it's very likely to get worse in the future."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also predicted "sea levels could rise as much as 21 feet in the next century" if the world did not cap carbon emissions. Additionally, a combative climate change manifesto, sponsored by Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu among others, has surfaced, and demands a "radical change in the global economy" to save the human civilization.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, green activism has been militantly vocal for decades. Former NASA climatologist James Hansen made global warming a household name in 1988, and we all know Al Gore and his "inconvenient truth" on the impact of greenhouse gasses. The 2005 Kyoto Protocol should have lidded this catastrophe in the making, but for one crucial caveat: India and China did not sign, and America did not ratify the treaty. These countries happen to be the global leaders in carbon emission.

"Extinction-level events wow us, snail-paced doom not so much."

To understand why, let us begin with the way humans think. Extinction-level events wow us, snail-paced doom not so much. Therefore, rogue asteroids are scary and so is nuclear warfare. However, any fallout from climate change that may occur at the turn of the century or beyond is too far off for anyone to care, at least past political photo-ops.

This brings us to the next problem: Capitalism, which is a frontier hurdle in the fight for clean energy. The Industrial Revolution permanently tied economic growth to the acquisition and consumption of fossil-fuels. While wars in the 1500s erupted over spices, most conflicts since the nineteenth century have reared over crude oil or gas. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq is a recent case in point.

There are three facets of Capitalism that make it hard to change tack on global energy. First is the freedom to succeed or fail, which embodies self-interest. Second, entrepreneurs always seek the most efficient path to making a profit, which leads us to the imperative "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." Our definition of "broken" may vary, but here is a concrete fact: Almost half of the world's population, or 3 billion people, live in poverty and a significant chunk inhabits India and China. Reasonably, global warming is a low priority wherever the daily grind circles around three square meals.

"[F]or India or China to sacrifice their current growth purple patch would be highly impractical, if not plain stupid."

A recent Citigroup-funded report suggests that rejigging global economies to run green will cost around $44 trillion. Unfortunately, short of some "world government" approach, developing countries cannot absorb the infrastructural costs required to seriously sidestep into renewable energy. Furthermore, for India or China to sacrifice their current growth purple patch would be highly impractical, if not plain stupid. A resource-rich nation like Norway can, but it has a small population base to contend with.

Let us now move to the corporate side of this equation. Unlike "Big Tobacco," which diversified into smoking alternatives, the global energy giants plan to defend their turf to death. Their huge, transnational investments compel them so. To this end, "Big Oil" uses politicians-for-hire to thwart green activism. In America, for example, the energy lobby helmed by the Koch Brothers spent $141 million last year to keep sympathetic congresspersons in office.

The energy watchdog Oil Change International similarly believes the "influence of the fossil-fuel industry is the major barrier to a clean energy transition." By having a "revolving door" with government agencies, "Big Oil" rewards compliant politicians with cushy post-appointment gigs. Additionally, the Republican-led U.S Congress in May slashed NASA's Earth-Science budget by a whopping 40%, thereby degrading critical research activities. Small wonder, then, that 10 years after Kyoto, renewable energy sources make up a meagre 2.7% of the global energy mix.

"[T]he "going green" argument needs to move beyond heady ideals, and into figuring out the financial math before everyone is truly on board."

Also, no one talks about countries that rely heavily on energy exports, and how they will fare in a post fossil-fuel world. Right now, Russia and large swathes of the Middle East and Latin America depend on oil and gas revenues to keep the lights on. Energy sales account for 68% of Russia's economy, while the Saudi investment firm Alkhabeer Capital reports "the annual budget spending in GCC countries continues to be driven almost entirely by income from the export of hydrocarbons."

Consequently, such nations will not migrate to renewable energy in earnest without assurances of economic help in the transition period. In conclusion, the "going green" argument needs to move beyond heady ideals, and into figuring out the financial math before everyone is truly on board. A climate change version of the Marshall Plan may be necessary. Otherwise, COP21 will end up being another Kyoto: shiny but toothless.

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