Q&A: CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN – President, WORLDWATCH INSTITUTEWritten on January 16th, 2009
CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN is President of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based international research organization focused on energy, resource and environmental issues. Worldwatch is recognized around the world for its pathbreaking work on the global connections between economic, social, and environmental trends. Chris has spent his career at Worldwatch where he previously served as Senior Vice President and Vice President for Research.
Chris is co-author of three books on energy, including Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution, which anticipated many of the changes now under way in world energy markets.
Chris is a regular co-author of the Institute's annual State of the World report, which has been published in 36 languages. He has participated in several historic international conferences, including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Climate Change Conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997.
Chris is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and serves as a board member of the Climate Institute and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan. He is on the advisory boards of the American Council on Renewable Energy, and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. He is also a member of the Greentech Innovation Network, an initiative of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
TEN KEY CHALLENGES
(Excerpted from The Perfect Storm by CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN and Robert Engelman, Chapter One of STATE OF THE WORLD 2009, A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society.)
Ten challenges must be met in order to create the world of zero net greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to achieve climate stability.
Human beings have evolved to be very good at focusing on an immediate threat-whether it is wild animals the first humans faced on the plains of Africa or the financial panic that gripped the world in late 2008. Climate change is a uniquely long-range problem: its effects appear gradual on a human time scale, and the worst effects will likely be visited on people not yet alive. To solve this problem, we must embrace the future as our responsibility and consider the impact of today's decisions on future generations. Just as Egyptians built pyramids and Europeans built cathedrals to last millennia, we need to start acting as if the future of the planet matters beyond our own short lives.
The world needs to develop and disseminate technologies that maximize the production and use of carbon-free energy while minimizing cost and optimizing convenience. (Convenience matters: the ease of transporting, storing, and using carbon-based fuels is among their attractions, not captured in price alone.) An effective climate pact will offer incentives that accelerate technological development and ensure that renewable energy and other low-emission technologies are deployed in all countries regardless of ability to pay the costs. We need to dramatically increase the efficiency with which we use carbon-based energy and lower release into the atmosphere of land-based CO2, methane, nitrogen oxides, and greenhouse gases stemming from cooling and various industrial processes. The opportunities for quick and inexpensive emissions reductions remain vast and mostly untapped.
It is essential to reopen the global dialogue on human population and promote policies and programs that can help slow and eventually reverse its growth by making sure that all women are able to decide for themselves whether and when to have children. A comprehensive climate agreement would acknowledge both the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations and the long-term contribution that slower growth and a smaller world population can play in reducing future emissions under an equitable climate framework. And it should renew the commitment that the world's nations made in 1994 to address population not by pressuring parents to have fewer or more children than they want but by meeting the family planning, health, and educational needs of women.
The world's climate cannot be saved by technology alone. The way we live will have to change as well-and the longer we wait the larger the needed sacrifices will be. In the United States, the inexorable increase in the size of homes and vehicles that has marked the past few decades has been a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions and the main reason that U.S. emission are double those of other industrial countries. Lifestyle changes will be needed, some of which seem unattractive today. But in the end, the things we may need to learn to live without - oversized cars and houses, status-based consumption, easy and cheap world travel, meat with every meal, disposable everything - are not necessities or in most cases what makes people happy. The oldest among us and many of our ancestors willingly accepted such sacrifices as necessary in times of war. This is no war, but it may be such a time.
We need to reverse the flow of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from destroyed or degraded forests and land. Soil and vegetation can serve as powerful net removers of the atmosphere's carbon and greenhouse gases. Under the right management, soil alone could absorb each year an estimated 13 percent of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. To the extent we can make the land into a more effective "sink" for these gases we can emit modest levels essential for human development and wellbeing. Like efficiency, however, an active sink eventually faces diminishing returns. And any sink needs to be secured with "drain stoppers" to prevent easy return of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere when conditions change.
"Good governance" can be a cliché-until someone needs it to survive. The final months of 2008 laid painfully bare the dangerous imbalance between a freewheeling global economy and a regulatory system that is a patchwork of disparate national systems. And if there was ever a global phenomenon, the climate is it. In fact it is not hard to imagine the climate problem driving a political evolution toward global governance over the long term, but given the public resistance to that idea the next most effective climate-regulating mechanism will be the strength and effectiveness of the United Nations, multilateral banks, and major national governments. New institutions and new funds will be needed, but it could take a major public awakening or a dramatically deteriorating climate to overcome the obstacles to inventing and establishing them.
The Equity Imperative
A climate agreement that can endure and succeed will find mechanisms for sharing the burden of costs and potential discomforts. Per capita fossil fuel CO2 emissions in the United States are almost five times those in Mexico and more than 20 times the levels in most of sub-Sahara. An effective climate agreement will acknowledge the past co-optation of Earth's greenhouse-gas absorbing capacity by the wealthiest and most industrialized countries and the corresponding need to reserve most of what little absorbing capacity is left for countries in development. Most people live in such countries, and they bear little responsibility for causing this problem -though it is worth recalling that a small but growing share of their populations already have large carbon footprints.
In the fall of 2008 the global economy foundered, raising the obvious question: can a world heading into hard economic times add to its burdens the costs of switching from fossil to renewable fuels or managing precious land for carbon sequestration? Any climate agreement built on an assumption of global prosperity is doomed to failure. And as growing and increasingly affluent populations demand more of the resources of a finite planet, we may have to balance the future of climate against present realities of hunger, poverty, and disease.
A robust international climate regime will need to design mechanisms that will operate consistently in anemic as well as booming economic times. And a strong pact will be built on principles and innovations that acknowledge and accommodate the problem of cost - while building in monitoring techniques to ensure that efficiency is not achieved at the expense of effective and enduring emission cuts and adaptation efforts.
A world distracted by major wars or outbreaks of terrorism will not be able to stay focused on the more distant future. And just such a focus is needed to prevent future changes in climate and adapt to the ones already occurring. A climate pact could encourage preemptive action to diminish insecurity caused or exacerbated by climate change. But unless nations can find ways to defuse violent conflict and minimize the chance that terrorism will distract and disrupt societies, climate change prevention and adaptation (along with development itself) will take a back seat.
On the bright side, negotiating an effective climate agreement offers countries an opportunity, if they will only seize it, to practice peace, to look beyond the narrowness of the interests within their borders at their dependence on the rest of the world, to see humanity as a single vulnerable species rather than a collection of nations locked in pointless and perpetual competition.
Mobilizing for Change
As fear of climate change has grown in recent years, so has political action. But opponents of action have repeatedly pointed to the vast costs of reducing emissions. At a time of serious economic problems, the power of that argument is growing, and some of those who are persuaded are going straight from denial to despair.
The most effective response to both of those reactions is, in the words of Common Cause founder John Gardner, to see global warming as "breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems." Solving the climate problem will create the largest wave of new industries and jobs the world has seen in decades. Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the United States are among those that have devoted enormous efforts to attracting new energy industries - with a glancing reference to climate change and a major focus on creating new jobs to revive "rustbelt" economies.
In November 2009, the world faces a test. Will the roughly 200 national governments that meet in Copenhagen to forge a new climate agreement come up with a new protocol that provides both vision and a roadmap, accelerating action around the globe? The challenges are many: Will the global financial crisis and conflict in the Middle East distract world leaders? Will the new US president have time to bring his country back into a leadership position? Will the global North-South divide that has marked climate talks in recent years be overcome?
Climate change is not a discrete issue to be addressed apart from all the others. The global economy fundamentally drives climate change, and economic strategies will need to be revised if the climate is ever to be stabilized - and if we are to satisfy the human needs that the global economy is ultimately intended to meet.
We cannot afford to have the Copenhagen climate conference fail. The outcome of this meeting will be written in the world's history books - and in the lasting composition of our common atmosphere.
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