Tuesday, January 22nd 2013, 10:25 AM EST
Being a parent means you get to talk to kids to about climate change. Not your own kids, of course. With them, you're lucky if you can deduce what homework they have each night. But when their friends come over after school, that's when you get a chance. And, encouragingly enough, I've found a no-spin zone in talking with kids about climate change -- something I rarely encounter when talking with neighbors and colleagues steeped in op-ed page rhetoric. And it's in these no-spin conversations that one of the important truths about climate change comes out: global warming isn't a science problem. It's a political problem.
There is no mystery about how global warming works or how dangerous it is. Even kids grasp the basics. The carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels is heating up the atmosphere and driving increasingly costly climate disruption. The next part is a little more tricky, but still simple: once carbon pollution gets into the atmosphere it sticks there. There's no cleaning it up, no going backward. The math has been done, and it turns out that we have about 15 years on the current burn path before we permanently load the atmosphere with so much carbon pollution we risk truly catastrophic changes.
Naturally enough at this point in the conversation, the kids are pretty bummed out. But still they ask if there is anything we can do about it. And once again, the answer is pretty clear. This time it's the engineers, economists, and business consultants that have done the math. Investing in energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy is not only feasible, it often saves a lot of money. Over in Germany the government is looking at a plan to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Right now, 25 percent of the German electrical grid is already powered by renewable energy.
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To be sure some of the technology we'll need for the end game decades away is still very expensive or even in development. But kids also understand that's no reason for delay since we can tackle those problems when we get there. "Well, if we can get started now," my sons' friends ask, "what's the problem?" As anyone who has tried to explain the crazy ways of the 21st century to kids, that question is a lot harder to answer.
One issue, of course, is the myopia of corporations who can't see past their next quarterly earnings statement to look up at the future staring them in the face. In fact, these companies often argue that they have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize short-term profits regardless of all else. It's an outlook that a lot of smart CEOs have debunked, while banking big bucks for their companies. But it's still so dominant among otherwise reasonable people that economists call it a "market imperfection," i.e. it's a reality of the markets.
So, it turns out there is a role for government after all. And it's a role that most Americans support, as evidenced by poll after poll reporting that Americans support government action to switch our nation over to clean energy to protect our climate. The support is clear and widespread, but it's not deep or passionate, not yet.
And that's where you get to the nub of it. We're not delaying action on climate change because we don't know what causes it. We're not stalling because we don't know what to do. We're not barreling along the business-as-usual path because we don't have any viable alternatives. We're not switching to clean energy because Americans don't support it. We're headed for the cliff, with our foot stomped down on the accelerator, because fossil fuel interests still control the energy agenda in Washington D.C., preserving the status quo at our expense.
This isn't a partisan issue limited to Republicans. President Obama has made no bones about his "all of the above" strategy when it comes to building our country's energy future. He wants wind and solar, but he also wants to burn as much fossil fuel as we can drill, frack and mine. The $250,000 just donated to the president's inaugural fund by Exxon Mobile is only the most recent transaction highlighting the current political logic in Washington.
This country only turned the corner on smoking when the political hammerlock of the tobacco industry was broken. And the same will be true for climate change. Problems transform into issues that demand action when people realize that the costs they are paying are not just an unhappy fact of life, but rather they are the result of self-interested profiteering by others. Sociologists use the term "hot cognition" to describe this society-wide light bulb moment.
Climate change is a political problem. And solving the problem requires challenging the role of the fossil fuel industry in American politics. Outing big oil is a key task in transforming widespread and shallow support for climate protection into a deep and passionate national demand. Challenging the fossil fuel industry is a difficult task, of course. But recognizing the necessity makes it easier. Kids were among the first to respond to the campaigns that outed the role of tobacco companies in marketing smoking to youth. And I've found that explaining to kids the role of big oil in keeping us addicted to fossil fuels isn't that hard either.