Comment: After Glasgow summit, where do we go on climate?

A successful strategy on climate change must include the will to act on carbon pricing and clean energy.

By Paul Roberts / For The Herald

The science is clear, and has been for decades. Global warming is real and human consumption of fossil fuels are a primary cause. Climate-influenced events — extreme heat, fires, rain, flooding, droughts, sea level rise and more — will continue unabated until we reduce greenhouse gases (GHG), in particular carbon and methane. Until then, these events will increase in frequency, intensity and severity.

What we are experiencing today represents warming of 1 degree Celsius, on a trajectory that currently has no end. To be clear, we are in a fight for our survival. All the wake-up calls in the world will not help if we refuse to wake up. We are addicted to oil and need an intervention. If oil is our heroin, clean energy is our methadone.

But what does a strategy for success look like? Dr. Stephen Palumbi, professor of biology at Stanford University offers a perspective. He calls it “climate stopping distance.” Every 16-year-old learning to drive understands stopping a vehicle involves reaction time, conditions and applying the breaks. The sooner we apply the brakes, the better our chances of surviving. For the record, we have not yet taken our foot off the gas. Our children and grandchildren are in the back seat and the 16-year-olds are watching.

A successful climate strategy includes these elements:

First, recognize the magnitude of what we face. The preparation for war is a fair metaphor. The laws of nature are self-enforcing. The planet will not negotiate with us and we are only beginning to pay the price to stay on this path. We need to prepare a response at least as massive as the preparation for WWII. COP26 in Glasgow, which concluded Saturday, was our most recent opportunity.

Second, move to a sustainable economic structure, valuing environmental and social costs and benefits as well as financial ones. This includes pricing carbon. For years economists have estimated the social price of carbon. Today it is north of $50 per ton. When expressed in terms of gas prices, we get sweaty palms. The fossil fuel industry plays on our addiction and reaction at the pump. Yet we ignore the costs of consuming fossil fuels including heat, fires, floods, droughts, sea level rise and yes, extinction.

Third, build a clean-energy economy by investing in research and development and workforce training for sectors such as energy, water, agriculture, buildings, transportation, health care and more. Like other movements in history — the industrial and tech revolutions — many of the technologies and businesses we need for a clean energy economy have not yet been invented. History shows these investments pay tremendous dividends.

Fourth, recognize that regions — the metroplexes of the world — are the economic and geographic building blocks for success. The Puget Sound region is one of them. Regions are where carbon dixoide and other greenhouse gases are produced and where they can be measured, monitored and managed. These regions are the link between land use and transportation.

Transportation and electricity production are the primary sources of GHG. If we develop best practices for regions and export them, GHG reduction can be accelerated. According to the United Nations, there are less than 600 regions with a central city over one million in population. That is a manageable number and can emerge as a bottom-up approach independent of world agreements and global policies.

There is a pathway to success, if we apply the brakes now.

Paul Roberts advises Washington cities on climate action planning.He is chair of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency board of directors, vice chair of the Sound Transit board of directors, and a member of the Everett City Council. His views are his own.

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