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What Will it Take?

An interesting confluence of events this week: A Senate committee votes down a contentious amendment to the “climate” bill, a new Stanford survey shows rising concern about global warming, and pundits gather in Pasadena to sort through it all.

87496035The survey, conducted by Jon Krosnick’s Political Psychology Research Group with funding from the National Science Foundation, suggests that some climate pollsters have been getting it wrong. About three in four respondents to the Stanford poll (74%) acknowledge that the “world’s temperature” is rising, and though they appear to be divided on the cause (with a slight edge to human causation), roughly the same majority (76%) favor federal limits on “the amount of greenhouse¬† gasses thought to cause global warming.” Krosnick summarized some of his findings in an editorial for the New York Times.

Meanwhile eminent climate scientists, social scientists and journalists assembled in SoCal this week, in part to ask the question: “What will it take to precipitate meaningful policy responses to climate change?” The answer from author Stewart Brand was succinct: “It takes warfare.” Brand was part of a panel at “Moving By Degrees,” a day-long forum hosted by American Public Media’s Marketplace program. Brand, who describes himself as an “ecopragmatist,” has concluded that when the planet’s “carrying capacity” is strained to the point where nations and peoples are fighting over dwindling resources, only then will coordinated international action begin in earnest.

Brand’s dim view was shared by physicist-turned-blogger Joe Romm, who said that while current US policy is driven by “denial,” he sees a coming shift in which people move “from denial to desperation.” That, says Romm, will be the catalyst. “Denial makes easy things hard and desperation makes hard things easy,” he said. Romm says he expects the desperation phase to set in about a decade from now, when extreme weather events and other likely manifestations of climate change intensify and become more frequent. Romm challenged the notion that technology will provide an easy solution to climate change and defied the gathering to come up with one “game-changing” technological breakthrough in energy, over the past three decades.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy (it's the little green squiggle in the middle). Photo: Craig Miller

Romm and Brand were joined by two high-profile climate scientists, Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Michael Mann, who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State; social scientists Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and Strategies for the Global Environment; as well as commentators from business and investment groups.

Most agreed that “putting a price on carbon,” through cap-and-trade or some other means, is an essential, if overdue policy step. Analyst Bruce Kahn of Deutsche Bank issued a plea for a coherent policy on carbon pricing. “You can’t put a policy in place today and change it tomorrow,” said Kahn. “A carbon price needs longevity and certainty so companies will add it to their business models.” Once that happens, Kahn said there’s “a massive amount of capital out there looking for a place to go,” and that investment capital will flow to where stable policies exist. Mindy Lubber, president of the CERES investor group, went a step further: “We are losing the jobs and opportunities right now in the clean tech sector,” said Lubber, “because we don’t have the right market signals in place.”

Brand also had some advice for environmentalists, which he says have become “the cohort of the Left:” Brand said “We need to de-tribalize,” and he offered that “The best thing Al Gore could do is shed the Democratic party.”

All of the day’s sessions are archived at the Marketplace conference website.