The United Nations Climate Summit taking place here in New York is, of course, a venue for important scientific releases highlighting the now well-established consensus on both the economic and social severity of inaction on global warming. These statements will bolster thoughtful proposals to move nations to a common ground on a framework for action. (See related post: “The Gathering Storm: U.S. Must Lead Action on Climate Change.”)
While these efforts are critically needed, they are not enough. Without greater attention to individual consumers, we are likely to continue down the ineffective path where we’ve wandered for decades. Simply put, we need to take a fresh look at how to engage a national movement around the real benefits of a secure climate for humanity. (Take quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.)
Year after year, nations have struggled—and failed—to arrive at a broadly negotiated climate protection accord. Political scientists warn that rarely do complex, broadly negotiated accords achieve significant advances. Instead, thoughtful efforts to clarify the individual benefits that stem from collective action have, time and again, proven more effective.
To significantly advance the climate protection effort we need look no further than the changes in the medical and biotechnology industries. An effort to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget began as a movement among Senate Republicans in 1999. Consensus built rapidly for dramatically increased federal funding, which was approved in 2003. A very simple premise underlay this effort: everyone values good health, and this investment held the promise to directly benefit every American.
Additional examples abound. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was created by a successful ballot initiative (Proposition 71 in 2004) to make stem cell research a state priority. The initiative created a $5 billion taxpayer-funded entity, intended to advance public health by developing cures and treatments for diabetes, cancer, paralysis, and other illnesses.
To be sure, both the NIH and CIRM efforts have had their critics, but they underscore the power of collective action to achieve direct individual benefits.
Climate change is an even more critical collective issue, but to date, the advocates of action on global warming have been unable to capture the sentiment that supported political and financial action on health solutions.
Gone are the days when investments in clean energy may feel good, but neither ‘pencil out’ or provide better services than the dirty energy systems they replace. Today, we have ample avenues to clarify the public benefits of climate protection, and to act on initiatives that will bring these benefits to U. S. citizens and to the global community
Consumer products now exist that demonstrate the value of energy efficiency and clean energy. Light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs, flashlights and headlights for cars are not just more efficient than incandescent lights, but provide superior performance at lower cost. In developing nations, stand-alone lighting products with a small solar panel powering an array of LED lights, often accompanied by outlets for cell phone charging and even highly efficient flat screen televisions are now the hub of the most dramatic increase in energy access we have seen in four decades. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative started by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has adopted this technology platform as part of an effort to provide universal energy access by 2030 – a goal that brings quality of life and climate protection together in a fundamental, empowering, initiative. (See related posts: “Linkin Park’s Efforts on Energy Poverty Get Brighter” and “Linkin Park’s Bid to ‘Power the World‘”)
Research on carbon footprints by my laboratory and many others present a very clear conclusion: reducing carbon emissions saves money. Numerous companies now offer roof-top solar leases that reduce utility bills immediately. On Wall Street the WilderHill Clean Energy Index (ECO) is up +50% in the past 24 months.
At the state and national level, efforts to divest municipal, university, corporate and church financial portfolios illustrate the opportunities to take immediate steps that reduce financial risk and send clear political messages. With the climate science verdict that most of the unburned fossil fuels today must stay that way, these efforts are an opportunity for meaningful change and leadership.
Proposals to direct revenues from regional carbon emission markets, such as in California, offer an important mechanism to rebate to individuals funds that can in turn be invested in carbon and money saving opportunities.
All of these actions directly benefit the individual bottom line, making climate protection a by-product of smart consumerism. We do need a global agreement on climate, but we won’t succeed without making clear the immediate, personal benefits, of sustainable energy and climate plans.
We must make the UN conference the forum where it becomes clear to everyone that climate protection begins at home, and benefits the American household, just as investing in health did two decades ago.
Daniel M. Kammen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. He served as the World Bank’s Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy, and today he serves the U. S. Department of State as Fellow of the Energy and Climate Partnership to the Americas.
[This article was originally posted on National Geographic.]