Stick It To Carbon, Not The Man.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Climate Shock (2015) by Gernot Wagner, Lead Senior Economist, Environmental Defense Fund, and Martin L. Weitzman, Professor of Economics, Harvard University. Published here with permission from Princeton University Press.

Gernot & MartinTwo quick questions:

Do you think climate change is an urgent problem?

Do you think getting the world off fossil fuels is difficult?

If you answered “Yes” to both of these questions, welcome. You’ll nod along, occasionally even cheer, while reading on. You’ll feel reaffirmed.

You are also in the minority. The vast majority of people answer “Yes” to one or the other question, but not both.

If you answered “Yes” only to the first question, you probably think of yourself as a committed environmentalist. You may think climate change is the issue facing society. It’s bad. It’s worse than most of us think. It’s hitting home already, and it will strike us with full force. We should be pulling out all the stops: solar panels, bike lanes, the whole lot.

You’re right, in part. Climate change is an urgent problem. But you’re fooling yourself if you think getting off fossil fuels will be simple. It will be one of the most difficult challenges modern civilization has ever faced, and it will require the most sustained, well-managed, globally cooperative effort the human species has ever mounted.

If you answered “Yes” only to the second question, chances are you don’t think climate change is the defining problem of our generation. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a “skeptic” or “denier” of the underlying scientific evidence; you may still think global warming is worthy of our attention. But realism dictates that we can’t stop life as we know it to mitigate a problem that’ll take decades or centuries to show its full force. Look, some people are suffering right now because of lack of energy. And whatever the United States, Europe or other high emitters do to rein in their energy consumption will be nullified by China, India and the rest catching up with the rich world’s standard of living. You know there are trade-offs. You also know that solar panels and bike lanes alone won’t do.

You, too, are right, but none of that makes climate change any less of a problem. The long lead time for solutions and the complex global web of players are precisely why we must act decisively, today.

What we know is bad, what we don’t is worse

If you are an economist, as we are, chances are you answered “Yes” to the second question. Standard economic treatments all but prescribe the stance of the “realist.” After all, economists live and breathe trade-offs. Your love for your children may go beyond anything in this world, but as economists we are obligated to say that, strictly speaking, it’s not infinite. As a parent, you may invest enormous sums of money and time into your children, but you, too, face trade-offs: between doing your day job and reading bedtime stories, between indulging now and teaching for later.

Trade-offs are particularly relevant on an average, national or global level. And they are perhaps nowhere more apparent on the planetary scale than in the case of climate change. It’s the ultimate battle of growth versus the environment. Stronger climate policy now implies higher, immediate economic costs. Coal-fired power plants will become obsolete sooner or won’t be built in the first place. That comes with costs, for coal plant owners and electricity consumers alike. The big trade-off question, then, is how these costs compare with the benefits of action, both because of lower carbon pollution and because of economic returns from investing in cleaner, leaner technologies today.

Economists often cast themselves as the rational arbiters in the middle of the debate. Our air is worse now than it was during the Stone Age, but life expectancy is a lot higher, too. Sea levels are rising, threatening hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods, but societies have moved cities before. Getting off fossil fuels will be tough, but human ingenuity — technological change — will surely save the day once again. Life will be different, but who’s to say it will be worse? Markets have given us longer lives and untold riches. Let properly guided market forces do their magic.

There’s a lot to be said for that logic. But the operative words are “properly guided.” What, precisely, are the costs of unabated climate change? What’s known, what’s unknown, what’s unknowable? And where does what we don’t know lead us?

That last question is the key one: Most everything we know tells us climate change is bad. Most everything we don’t know tells us it’s probably much worse.

Stick it to carbon

“Bad” or “worse” doesn’t mean hopeless. In fact, no prediction of climate outcomes or damages can stand without being prefaced by a version of the words unless we act. We don’t venture predictions only to see them become true. We talk about where unfettered economic forces may lead in order to guide them in a more productive, better direction. And guide we can.

Increasingly intense hurricanes, more floods, more droughts, not to say anything of rising temperatures and rising seas are what we know is happening and will continue to happen. Tallying those effects — at least the bits we can put a dollar figure on — results in a minimum cost of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere today. But on average, the world isn’t considering anything close to these costs. The average global price is closer to negative $15 per ton, considering the massive fossil fuel subsidies in many countries.

None of that yet includes the truly frightening low-probability events. There’s a huge difference between a likely sea-level rise of 0.3 to 1 meters (1 to 3 feet) by the end of this century and eventual possible extremes of 20 meters (66 feet) or more in future centuries. And it’s debatable whether we can describe any of these extreme scenarios as “unlikely” or “low probability” to begin with. By our own, conservative calculations, there’s about a 1-in-10 chance of eventual global average warming in excess of 6 C (11 F), something that can be described only as “catastrophic” for society as we know it.

It would be easy to conclude that capitalism is the problem. Capitalism is indeed at the core of the problem. Or rather: misguided market forces are.

One seeming solution would be to simply change our ways — voluntarily change our behavior to be greener. If only we slowed down, went back to the land, and generally did more with less, climate change would be a thing of the past. Not quite. The math on voluntary action simply doesn’t add up. And the calculus of changing capitalism as we know it — however desirable that may be as an independent goal — is daunting, to say the least. It also confuses the issue.

Some, like author Naomi Klein, call for “taxing the rich and filthy.” That’s a nice turn of phrase. One might agree that we probably should be taxing the rich more. But that’s a different problem entirely. First and foremost, we ought to be taxing the filthy. Instead of “sticking it to the man,” the point is to stick it to carbon.

Far from posing a fundamental problem to capitalism, it’s capitalism, with all its innovative and entrepreneurial powers, that is our only hope of steering clear of the looming climate shock.

That’s not a call for letting markets run free. Laissez-faire may sound good with the right French accent — in theory. But it can’t work in a situation in which prices don’t reflect the true costs of our actions. Unbridled human drive — erroneously bridled drive, really — is what has gotten us into this current predicament. Properly channeled human drive and ingenuity, guided by a high enough price on carbon to reflect its true cost to society, is our best hope for getting us out.

Published on Ensia.com on February 25th, 2015. Continue reading in Climate Shock, available at booksellers everywhere.

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This idea, of conquering seemingly impossible obstacles, is one I’ve seen reflected in a number of new advances in corporate sustainability, including many discussed at the conference and others from our own work. Each demonstrates how entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs) are harnessing major environmental and social challenges to create real solutions: Read more

Lasers, circuit boards and a $30 sensor: innovative solutions to the methane problem

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices.

The technologies we see today didn’t all start out in the forms we’re used to. The phones we carry in our pockets used to weigh pounds, not ounces. Engineers developed hundreds of designs for wind turbines before landing on the three-blade design commonly seen in the field.

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Fast forward and now we're looking at a drunk-driver-and-alcohol sensor that was converted into a methane leak detector. And a sensor purchased off the web for less than $30 that was transformed into a monitor that fights off greenhouse gases.

I was excited to see the diversity of technologies such as these moving forward in the Methane Detectors Challenge.

Environmental Defense Fund’s initiative with seven oil and natural gas companies—including Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Company, the latest two to join—seeks to catalyze a new generation of technology for finding methane leaks in the oil and gas sector – a powerful contributor to climate change.

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Big Ideas on Display with Verizon Ventures

At the invitation of Alan Scott, Verizon’s leader of energy and sustainability, I was thrilled to participate in the Verizon Ventures Powerful Answers Award Dinner two weeks ago, a gathering of entrepreneurs, sustainability executives from large corporations, and nonprofit leaders.

Verizon Powerful Answers Award

The dinner was part of the run-up to Verizon's multi-million dollar global competition for creative solutions to the world's problems in the areas of education, healthcare, sustainability and transportation. The competition, for which the entry deadline is June 30th, rewards innovators for finding more efficient, sustainable, and accessible solutions that lead to better outcomes.

It was fascinating to hear the variety of conversations in the room, which appropriately was held at Foreign Cinema restaurant, a San Francisco Bay Area restaurant known for its sustainable practices. Across the evening, two key themes resonated with me: cross-learning and networks.

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Be humble, be bold: inspiration from the 2014 Shared Value Summit

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As a manager in new project development with EDF’s corporate partnerships team, I was drawn to the Summit to learn from other organizations working to harness the power of markets to drive societal and environmental progress, creating “shared value” for all involved. Browning’s talk was just one of the highlights of the Summit, where an inspiring combination of expertise, experimentation and uncommon alliances was on display.

Redefining shared value

Shared value is a still-evolving idea, first defined in 2011 as “a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business.” While the terminology is new, the concept of creating it through corporate-NGO partnerships thankfully isn’t.

What is new, as noted in the opening plenary, is the rapid shift of companies from launching many small-scale pilot projects to “developing the playbook”–codifying and scaling best practices across business units and entire sectors.

Honing the playbook

The term playbook itself captures the diversity of efforts that companies at the Summit described as necessary to drive real results. “You have to take a variety of approaches to do something big,” said Beth Keck of Walmart in summing up the company’s wide-ranging efforts with international NGO TechnoServe to incorporate one million smallholder farmers into its supply chains. JPMorgan Chase & Co and the Nature Conservancy announced the launch of NatureVest, an innovative new platform drawn from both organizations’ strengths to drive impact investment in conservation.

Partnerships that require both expertise and experimentation to scale up impacts are never easy and speakers offered their hard-won insights. According to Zia Khan of Rockefeller Foundation, partners need to not only care about the problem to be solved, but see it as important to their organization. Our partnership with AT&T came quickly to mind; water scarcity represents a critical operational issue for the company and an important issue for EDF, which has driven us to work together to help AT&T and other companies in five water-stressed areas reduce their water use.

Applying lessons learned

At EDF, I work with colleagues to develop new models to engage business in addressing critical environmental issues, including efforts to reduce pollution from fertilizer and emissions from deforestation, and EDF’s playbook’s getting richer and more diverse with each new project. At the moment we’re ramping up a competition to identify innovative technologies to make it easier for the oil and gas industry to find and quickly fix methane leaks, as well as working with Walmart to phase out toxic chemicals from their supply chain.

With exciting challenges ahead, I look forward to applying lessons learned from the Summit: to be bold in seeking transformational change; be humble in learning from the expertise around me; and to seek alliances, however uncommon, with those willing to work together.

The 2014 Skoll World Forum: Always Act

Skoll World Forum logoSe hace camino al andar – the road is made by walking,” said Yves Moury of Fundacion Capital, quoting Spanish poet Antonio Machado. He went on to explain that the poet was telling us to find new ways to think and to act. “Always act,” he exhorted, “the road is made by walking.”

I identified with this call to action as the unofficial theme of the 2014 Skoll World Forum. The presentations, the side conversations and even the general spirit of the Forum underlined this. Here is a sampling of some of the more provocative actions and articulations I heard:

  • In the opening plenary, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, argued that the world needs more CEOs to stand up to their shareholders.
  • Also in the opening plenary, Arif Naqvi, founder of private equity firm The Abraaj Group, emphasized the importance of a broad definition of stakeholder engagement because as he put it, “you can’t have islands of excellence in an ocean of turbulence.”
  • Jason Saul of Mission Measurement presented a framework that promotes deriving a cost/outcome across what he deems is 132 outcomes in the world.
  • Jeff Bradach of Bridgespan Group raised not only organization-centric pathways to scale, but also field-centric ones that would argue for strengthening a constellation of organizations.
  • Feike Sijbesma, chairman and CEO of Royal DSM, emphasized that more than shareholders have to be a company’s priority in “future-proofing a business” as he traced the company’s transition from a coal mining company to a chemical company to its current framing as a life sciences company.
  • Mike Barry of Marks & Spencer shared in a side conversation that in 10 years their most important strategic partner might be a healthcare company as they think about a frame of wellness rather than products.
Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

Finally, as a tour de force at the Forum were the words of Malala, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt as she advocated for education for girls. She spoke passionately and eloquently with a poise way beyond her years as she proclaimed, “Education is more powerful than any weapon.” Although she was specifically speaking about education for girls, her message is really universal whether speaking about individuals, investors or companies.

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