One last chance
In 2006, NASA's top climate scientist warned that we have at most a decade to turn the tide on global warming. After that, James Hansen said, all bets are off. Temperature rises of 3 to 7 degrees Farenheit will “produce a different planet.”
If Hansen is right—and most scientists think he is—then every year lost is a year closer to the precipice. In more positive terms, we have one last chance—but only one chance—to save the planet.
This guide is about that last chance. Its two premises are: (1) the climate crisis must be solved now, and (2) popular understanding is a pre-requisite to getting a solution that actually solves the problem.
What's the problem? For many decades, human emissions of greenhouse gases have exceeded the atmosphere's capacity to safely absorb them. We need an economy-wide system to reduce those emissions steadily and surely. If a policy doesn't create such a system, it may be helpful, but it won't be enough.
The atmosphere itself is a commons—a gift of creation to all. It performs many vital planetary functions, including climate maintenance. The trouble is, we humans—and especially we Americans—are disturbing it with our pollution. Even though we know we're doing this, we don't stop. Indeed, we can't stop as long as our current system for using the atmosphere persists.
That system—first come, first served, no limits and no prices—is clearly dysfunctional. One alternative is rationing—limit total use and give everyone equal usage rights. Rationing worked during two World Wars, but we're loath to use it again—we prefer market mechanisms to government chits. Such a preference is fine, but it doesn't change the fact that we need an economy-wide system to reduce atmospheric disturbance. The design of that system is what the debate is about.
Here are a few principles that can help us think about that design:
- The simpler a system is, the more likely it is to work.
- The fairer a system is, the more likely it is to last.
- In the future, polluters should pay for the right to pollute.
That third principle is particularly important because, when all is said and done, the debate about system design is a debate about who will pay whom.
Many large and powerful companies—what I call the legacy industries—are happy with the arrangement in which polluters pay nothing. But pollution has real costs, and if we want to fix the climate crisis, someone must pay them. If polluters don't, the rest of us will. We'll pay them in the form of higher energy prices, and the extra money we pay will reduce our disposable incomes substantially.
About this guide
This guide is intended to help the general reader understand the key measures that must be taken if we are to turn the tide on climate change. A reader who wants additional information can refer to the web sites that are noted at the end.
This guide is also meant to be shared. A free pdf version can be downloaded from www.onthecommons.org, and that version will be updated.
Every author brings certain biases to his work. In my case, having spent three decades in business, I appreciate the dynamism of markets and lean toward systems that steer markets in the right direction. I'm also keenly aware of the fickleness of government policy. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I ran a solar energy business in San Francisco. Thanks to solar tax credits, my company flourished for a few years. But then, President Ronald Reagan abolished the solar tax credits and my company, along with many like it, went bankrupt.
My hope is that the next time the federal government acts, it will irrevocably direct markets away from dirty fuels and toward clean ones. Then, America's indomitable entrepreneurial spirit will eagerly solve the climate crisis.