Have you heard about Step It Up? Itâ€™s a national day of action on climate change, organized by the writer Bill McKibben. More than 1,000 events are planned in all 50 states â€“ marches, hikes, bike rides, walks, swims. Check out the Step It Up website. Bring the whole family.
Itâ€™s amazing, when you think about it, how many big companies now support the regulation of carbon: GE, Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, DuPont, utilities like Duke Energy and PG&E Corp., the automakers. So thereâ€™s clearly momentum building for a federal law to reduce emissions from fossil fuel.
But to get the right kind of law, weâ€™ll need to demonstrate that there’s political support for climate action and GHG regulationâ€”even if that means changing our livesâ€”by paying more for fuel or electricity, investing in energy efficiency, driving less, walking or biking to taking public transport more, consuming less, figuring out how to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprints. Step It Up is a step towards building a mass movement around climate action.
Lately, Iâ€™ve been trying to understand how regulation of carbon emissions would work and what it would mean to the economy. To that end, I had lunch the other day with Jonathan Pershing, who directs the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute. Heâ€™s a very smart guy who has been thinking about climate change for a long time, as a science advisor in the state department in the 1990s, then as head of the energy and environment division of the International Energy Agency and since 2003 at WRI. He had lots of interesting things to say, most of which Iâ€™ll save for a future story in FORTUNE.
What stuck in my head from our talk was a metaphor. Itâ€™s about a sink. Think of the water in a sink as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We donâ€™t want any more water in the sink. Ideally, weâ€™d like less. Keeping the water in the sink (and GHG concentrations in the atmosphere) at todayâ€™s levels isn’t good enough; at today’s level, the earthâ€™s temperature keeps rising.
The problem is, the faucet is running, and putting more water into the sink every day. Actually, every single day, it puts in a bit more water than the day before. (Those are todayâ€™s rising GHG emissions.) The sink is filling up faster than water can leave the sink through the the drain. Thatâ€™s been going on for, say, about 200 years.
We canâ€™t keep pouring water into the sink at todayâ€™s paceâ€”let alone at a faster pace–because it will soon overflow. Nor will reducing the flow of water by just a little do the job. Our goal, remember, is to reduce the amount of water in the sink. So we must either cut the flow of water way, way back, or figure out how to open up the drain a little wider (i.e., carbon offsets like planting trees), or both.
Over time, John told me, most scientists think we need to reduce our GHG emissions and therefore our burning of fossil fuels by 80 to 90%. Thatâ€™s going to require radical changes in the ways we power our cars, heat and cool our homes, build offices and factories, make things, etc. And the only way that can happen is if the government through regulation or taxation attaches a high price to carbon.
Thatâ€™s why we need public support for climate action. Step It Up.