July 2012 was the hottest month ever recorded, and 2012 is becoming the hottest year since record-keeping began in the nineteenth century. Global climate change is here now; it is not only a harmful problem for future generations. And it is bound to grow worse if we continue to ignore it, to deny it, or to devise ineffective mitigation measures that cannot possibly overcome it.
Climate change at its most basic is caused by accumulating heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the air. These gases build up the heat of the earth’s surfaces, ocean waters, and atmosphere with potentially disastrous consequences. The consensus approach of developed nations to the mitigation of climate change risks is to establish multi-decade GHG emissions-reduction programs that will cut relatively small amounts of GHG discharges for the first three decades, ultimately decreasing GHG emissions to around 80 percent by 2050. What the policy-making sponsors of these emissions-reduction efforts fail to take into account is that annual GHG discharges will combine with the already-too-high level of GHGs in the air to increase the cumulative heat-trapping GHG concentration in the atmosphere.
The largest greenhouse gas by volume, carbon dioxide (CO2), is also the most persistent, remaining in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia. The small GHG cutbacks imposed for three decades under consensus emissions-reduction plans, such as Obama campaign proposals or the Kyoto Protocol, would allow the huge remaining volume of heat-trapping gases to reach the atmosphere and to remain there for a very long time. By 2050, when stringent emissions-reductions are supposed to take effect, the consensus emissions-reduction programs will have allowed hundreds of billions of tons of additional GHGs to reach the atmosphere, where the persistent gases will combine with the existing volume of GHGs to worsen many climate change hazards. In essence, the consensus GHG emissions-reduction programs would not attain any tangible improvements in climate change dangers; but instead would allow climate degradation to become steadily worse.
Only one realistic, but not easy or inexpensive, solution appears promising. We must adopt a “de-carbonization” strategy that can replace the main sources of greenhouse gases, including fossil fuel producers, energy generators, and transportation industries, with “clean” GHG-free alternative technologies. This technology replacement approach would enable people to maintain their current lifestyles, or improve them, while no longer continuing to damage climate conditions.
[pagebreak]Can we achieve this? In previous decades, the United States poured many billions of dollars into the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Project, and the construction of publicly-owned treatment plants. Yet, the predicted harms from climate change are surely as worthy of concentrated mitigation efforts as the initiatives in these other fields. And it appears that most of the clean replacement technologies are already available or are now under development. Here is a short list of these alternatives:
This list of “clean” GHG-free alternative technologies is not exhaustive, but it should be sufficient to refute the claim that we must remain dependent on fossil fuels and other major GHG sources endangering our climate and people for hundreds of years to come. The vital question is not whether we can afford to develop these clean replacement technologies – some will succeed and others may not – but whether we can afford not to create clean alternatives while climate change dangers continue growing worse.
Howard A. Latin is a Distinguished Professor and Justice Francis Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark. He recently published Climate Change Policy Failures: Why Conventional Mitigation Approaches Cannot Succeed (2012), which may be purchased at: ecovitality.org or amazon.com.