The Environment

The Year Humans Become Self-Aware

September 9, 2014


This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Decades from now, historians and others will look back at 2015 as the year humans suddenly became self-aware of their planet. I say 2015 because we are not quite there yet — we are still pre-aware. However, next year, or very soon thereafter, the United States will finally join the rest of the world in becoming both aware of and responsible for our part in adding to the world’s production of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and ensuing climate change.

What led to this not-so-sudden shift in public perception and the need to change how we live on the planet? It wasn’t Earth Day and it wasn’t “An Inconvenient Truth.” But maybe each contributed in some way.

Over the past few years, a series of scientific reports, as well as increased news accounts explaining climate change, began to coalesce around tilting opinion in the United States from a lop-sided state of national confusion over energy, the environment, and the economy toward a more scientific-based awareness of climate change:

  • The daily average atmospheric concentration levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) surpassed a notable milestone of 440 ppm in 2013, a threshold not found on Earth in the past 3 million years.
  • The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment released in 2014 states that dangerous CO2 emissions increases over pre-industrial levels is due, in fact, to human activity.
  • This year the US government released the third National Climate Assessment stating in no uncertain terms that climate change was “a reality happening now” — not in a distant future.
  • In the journal Environmental Science and Technology (August 2014), more than 1,800 climate scientists registered “overwhelming agreement” that climate change is real and that it is due to human activity, again.
  • Recent federal court decisions affirm the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, and this past summer the EPA announced a proposed rule to reduce nationwide CO2 emissions from existing stationary sources by 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030.

These announcements are not enough to shift the perception of a majority of Americans on whether climate change is real or not, and, even if it is, no one agrees on what to do. What it does, though, is add to the common sense recognition taking hold among college students, farmers, firefighters, insurance companies, and more than a few business executives. The shift in public opinion is fairly analogous to the way Americans came to understand why smoking is bad for your health and banned it from work and public places.

Brand name companies, a lot of mayors and governors, athletes and meteorologists, understand that climate change is happening and will have consequences for our economy that we need to anticipate. For example, Forbes magazine reports that some companies’ views on climate change are “not about the political machinations” but rather potential economic losses. This is increasingly the case for institutional investors and large operating companies with a heavy carbon footprint. Forbes noted that Farmers Insurance filed suit against 200 municipalities in the Chicago area (later withdrawn over the potential financial impact of lawsuits on the communities) for their “alleged failure to do anything to mitigate climate-related weather events.”

Another factor that may be leading to a change in public perception is the media market reaction to unfounded or overstated skepticism about climate change, particularly what gets aired on a variety of radio and cable news talk shows. The popularity of shock-jocks on this topic seems to be weakening during a period when reporting on, and understanding, climate change is rising significantly. More than a few AM radio listeners and cable news viewers are becoming aware that the daily serving of angry anti-government incitement they receive verges too far from a Main Street norm that views climate change as a reality — climate change is a reality in Iowa!

Climate change, like Obamacare, is red meat for any political base that views the government as suppressing freedom, yoking the economy or undermining the Constitution. Even though public opinion is shifting in support of doing something about climate change, some members of Congress, a bunch of well-paid lobbyists, and certain news media personalities have known for a while that being against something, even science, is very lucrative, both politically and personally.

While it may be true that “Democrats trust everything except Fox News, and Republicans don’t trust anything other than Fox News,” earlier this year, Fox News hit a four-year record low, with 41 percent of voters trusting it versus 46 percent who did not, according to Public Policy Polling. The business and investment community, whose economic views think tanks like the Heartland Institute and news organizations like Fox News believe they are championing, are now on the wrong side of business and history — as well as the rest of America — including Iowa.

The idea that adopting bipartisan legislation to counteract and limit greenhouse gas emissions will hurt the economy and kill jobs, it turns out, is really just hackneyed political sway — and seriously wrongheaded. The politically-motivated humbug against adopting steps to price or curtail greenhouse gas pollution is not aligned with the direction of the economy, science, or business. In other words, ideological skepticism against developing sensible and rational climate change legislation beyond what cities and states can do on their own, or what the president and EPA can reasonably do under the Clean Air Act, is political fodder of the worst kind.

Americans want to lead (and need to lead) a new energy economy revolution — and Congress needs to get in line with accelerating this American know-how.

Regulating or otherwise putting a price on carbon will bring much needed policy confidence to business planning, new investments, and the marketplace. It will unlock a multiplicity of investments in clean energy and technological innovation needed to curb some of the most negative impacts of carbon pollution and climate change. These changes include innovations in distributed generation, the electrification of transportation, new smart grid networks, and significant advances in energy efficiency, energy storage, and battery technology.

In 1931, Thomas Edison told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Managing and pricing carbon is no longer a partisan issue — and should never have become so ideologically polarized — it is a public goal that investment and markets can profitably tackle with the right policy incentives. Historians will look back at the period between 2000 and 2015 and wonder, with all that was happening, why didn’t more people realize that clean energy and technology would become as much of a driving force for the global economy as dirty energy had been a century before?

David Monsma is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program.