Buying compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars wonâ€™t do it.
To stop global warming, and save the planet as we know it, nothing less than a radical redesign of our economy will suffice. Energy, transportation, housing, offices, industrial processesâ€”they all need rethinking and remaking.
Thatâ€™s the most important message of The 11th Hour, the new movie produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio that sounds an urgent and unremitting alarm on behalf of Mother Earth. Itâ€™s flawed and occasionally tediousâ€”but well worth seeing. The movie opened this past weekend in Washington (in a single theater, sparsely attended when my wife, daughter and I saw it on Saturday), and it gets a broader national rollout soon.
I canâ€™t say I learned a lot from the movie; perhaps thatâ€™s not surprising since my job requires me to read, write and think about environmental issues almost every day. Whatâ€™s more, unlike Al Goreâ€™s An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour is light on science and heavy on emotion. Itâ€™s a Hollywood picture, in essence, albeit a documentary.
This movie does, however, have the advantage of taking literally a birds-eye view of the earth, when it isnâ€™t taking an even longer view from outer space, and this big-picture approach can be valuable. I came with two overarching messages, both well communicated:
First, Americans (and Europeans and others in the developed world, not to mention China) are literally living off our past and our future. The past, because we are rapidly and aggressively exploiting tens of millions of years worth of the sunâ€™s energy that is stored as coal and oil and natural gas. The future, because we are emitting carbon into the air at a rate so dangerous that we are putting the lives of future generations (including our own children) in jeopardy.
Usefully, this movie reminds us that there was a time when people on earth lived off the current energy from the sun, more or less. This yearâ€™s sunlight fell on this yearâ€™s crops, which were consumed or fed to animals to become this yearâ€™s food, or burned as fuel. Thom Hartmann, one of the many talking heads interviewed in the movie and the author of a book called The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight â€“ an evocative title, isnâ€™t it? â€“ makes this point very well.
The other big idea in the movie, as noted above, is that incremental solutions wonâ€™t do the job. Iâ€™m ordinarily a fan of incrementalism, and remain oneâ€”small steps lead to big changes and all thatâ€”but itâ€™s clear that the way we live, work, travel and consume in the U.S., in particular, is unsustainable. This is both depressing and exciting. As Paul Hawken, the writer and entrepreneur, explains in the movie, what’s exciting is that this need for radical change creates enormous opportunities for business to redesign our cars, buildings, power generation and transmission systems and the like. We know, more or less, what to doâ€”promote renewable energy, make lighter and more fuel-efficient cars, build green buildings and rehab old ones, redesign community life to enable mass transit, biking and walking. Yes, itâ€™s an ambitious agenda but no more so that gearing up to fight World War II, as The 11th Hour notes. But how do we get from here to there?
Many of the solutions, I think, will come from business, but only after we get the politics and policy of climate change right. (About which The 11th Hour doesn’t say nearly enough.) Iâ€™m not going to write again today about cap-and-trade legislation but I will tell you about a recent meeting that I had with Steve Cochran, who runs the climate change campaign at Environmental Defense in Washington. Steve told me that ED is actively running grass-roots campaigns in a half dozen or more statesâ€”Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennesseeâ€”that are designed to sway legislators to take action on climate change.
ED is organizing on college campuses, working with grass-roots groups, getting active in state legislatures and hiring lobbyistsâ€”the former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack is helping them in Florida. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, is helping ED come up with ways to talk to moderate and conservative voters about climate change.
Some of this is already paying off. U.S. Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican, has become a crucial supporter of carbon regulation. Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, recently held an impressive climate change summit. Hurricanes and all that. â€œGovernor Crist has surprised us,â€ Cochran told me. â€œWhat heâ€™s talking about doing rivals any state government in America.â€
This kind of organizing will help drive the dramatic changes we need.