How to cool the planet (and save the economy, too)
In their new online book, Berkeley environmental scientist John Harte and his wife, Mel, assert that solving global warming is critical, but it doesn't have to be painful
| 28 January 2009
BERKELEY — John Harte has seen the future, a hothouse world marked by destructive summer heat waves, melting glaciers, reduced water for farms and cities, and vanishing species. That's not even to mention other potentially disastrous impacts of global climate change — droughts, wildfires, and increasingly erratic weather, for example — for which reliable predictions require further scientific data.
Harte, however, is no Cassandra, quick with the prophecies but helpless in the face of looming catastrophe. In fact, Harte, a longtime Berkeley professor in the Energy and Resources Group and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, maintains that it's neither too late, nor too costly, to save the planet from the ravages of Homo sapiens' addiction to fossil fuels.
In the age of Al Gore and Barack Obama, of course, it's become axiomatic that a greener environment need not be the enemy of a strong economy. Harte, though, doesn't leave it at that. Solving the global-warming crisis, he insists, is easy. Or, to be precise, EASY, an acronym for the four steps of a plan spelled out in an online book authored by Harte and his wife, Mary Ellen — better known as Mel Harte, a biologist, nature photographer, and sometime radio host — bearing the decidedly un-academic title Cool the Earth, Save the Economy: Solving the Climate Crisis Is EASY.
The project, which offers up rigorous science and policy analysis in readable, everyday English, has its roots in an op-ed piece John sent to The New York Times about two years ago, but which the paper declined to run. It began to take its current shape over dinner with Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, the founders of MoveOn.org and close friends of the Hartes.
"We were talking about anxiety over the cost of transitioning from coal — how were we going to do the least damage to the economy when we solve global warming?" he remembers. "And I said, You know, I think that's wrong, that actually the only way to save the economy is to solve global warming, and that they shouldn't be viewed as tradeoffs, but as a confluence of interests."
will really motivate the country, and move the government to do the right thing at the mega-level. Because mega-changes are what really need to happen."
As the four continued to talk, "I was catching on to the idea that this was more than an op-ed," he explains. "This was going to take a book-length project."
Over the next year-and-a-half, the Hartes — "the peasant and the professor," in Mel's phrase, her "toned down" peasant blouse and skirt adding a dash of Southwest-flavored yang to her husband's tenured-casual yin of sport shirt, slacks, and sandals — worked together to craft a manuscript they decided, after briefly flirting with conventional publication, to post as a free download. The book lays out the dangers of global climate change, methodically weighs the pros and cons of a host of technological and economic solutions, and offers a package of policy initiatives — based largely on a combination of tougher auto fuel-efficiency standards and stepped-up investment in solar and wind energy — they call "available, affordable, and acceptable."
The plan, they write, "does not require significant hardship and suffering — we will not need to drink warm beer in cold rooms, or drive slow cars on alternate days. In fact, switching from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources will help us maintain our current lifestyles by eliminating the economic drains of oil wars and future economic catastrophes brought on by the ever-increasing climatic effects of global warming."
As an example, John calls up "one of my favorite calculations from the book" — the number of workers it would take to install rooftop solar panels on every U.S. house that gets adequate sun by 2030.
"It turns out," he says, "you'd need a workforce the size of our current army in Iraq, which is there to defend our oil. So we could stop defending the oil that we wouldn't need if we solarized our houses, and the same number of people — 160,000 people — is exactly what it would take."
We already have the technologies needed to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, the Hartes insist. And the economy would actually benefit from a transition to greener, cleaner energy.
All we lack, they conclude, "is the political will."
EASY does it?
The first three letters of "EASY" stand for Energy-efficient technology (in appliances, manufacturing, and buildings); Automotive and transport efficiency (CAFE standards, plug-in hybrids, investment in public transportation); and Solar and wind energy, to be helped along by a revamped system of subsidies and economic incentives.
In terms of political will, the Hartes believe the new president — along with his new energy secretary, the former head of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab — is moving the country in the right direction.
"I think Obama has a sense of the urgency, and I think Steven Chu does," John says, noting the president's support for higher CAFE standards, solar and wind, and an improved power grid. Yet the new administration has also signaled its openness to nuclear power and "clean carbon," whose costs and unsolved technological issues — such as how to safely dispose of nuclear waste and how to sequester the carbon released by burning coal — the Hartes view as obstacles to a speedy solution to global warming. Nor are they keen on biofuels, which John says are now — and are likely to remain — a less efficient source of energy than sunlight.
They also dismiss what he terms "this silly debate between the cap-and-traders and the carbon taxers" — that is, advocates of an industry-friendly approach to cutting emissions versus a more punitive, regressive tax on carbon consumption — "neither of which seems very acceptable to a lot of people."
"We said, OK, forget clean coal, forget geoengineering, which we call in the book smoke and mirrors," he explains. "Let's see what we can do without any of those pie-in-the-sky options. So no carbon tax, no sequestration, no ethanol. And we can still solve it."
"And we can do most of it by treating the solar and wind industries as if they were the fossil-fuel industries," adds Mel, finishing the thought. "Shift the subsidies over to them.
"It's doable," she declares. "This is not rocket science."
That said, it's no small feat to translate complicated concepts — scientific, technological, and economic — into easily understandable language. That task fell largely to Mel, in close consultation with John, whose own writing consists mainly of peer-reviewed, scholarly work, including "a gazillion papers" on such questions as "how does life affect climate, and how does climate affect life?" (His classic 1993 textbook, Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving, is still widely used.)
Since 1989 he's been leading a much-chronicled experiment in the Colorado Rockies, monitoring the ecological changes that result from a 2-degree warming. The heated soils have lost some 20 percent of their carbon; if all the planet's soils put that amount into the atmosphere, it would double the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.
"That's why this is a big deal," he says. "So far, since the Industrial Revolution, we've raised CO2 30 percent. Now we're talking about a 100 percent increase. So it's potentially a huge effect."
And the Y in EASY? It stands for You. "That was her," John says, gesturing to his wife, though he does subscribe to the book's advocacy of personal responsibility, from the familiar "reduce, reuse, and recycle" mantra to such things as vegetarianism and limiting family size. He balked, though, at Mel's suggestion that they promote veganism as a hedge against warming.
"What we didn't want it to look like," he explains, "is here's a bearded Berkeleyite and a folk-costumed Berkeley woman preaching Berkeley values to Midwesterners."
And, notes Mel, "The real truth is, the most control you have over the situation is electing decent people to office who will really motivate the country, and move the government to do the right thing at the mega-level. Because mega-changes are what really need to happen."
Now that Obama has taken office, she'd like to see the U.S. emulate Germany, where "they really have done everything right — turning the country toward green energy by shifting subsidies, demanding that power utilities use a certain percentage of green-generated energy (and get paid for using it), and then at the same time, while you're doing that, slowly ratchet up regulations and goals for industries."
Meanwhile, the Hartes are eager to get their message out. They've mentioned the book on The Huffington Post, for which they write occasionally, have sent copies to congressional offices, and are exploring how to drive traffic to their website to promote what the book likens to "a limited-time offer at an incredible bargain price" — that is, a plan to address global warming "that we can implement starting today."
"Sometimes I feel like we're in the middle of a 1950s science-fiction movie, where the scientists know the earth is going to end, and what are you going to do to get out of it?" Mel says. "And then I have to say, no, this is real, and we really have to communicate much more effectively with the government, with people in general, about what's going on, so that we can prevent this. Because we have a window of opportunity here to do things right and effectively, and without as much handwringing as people think."
"In fact," John suggests, "it should be hand-clapping. Because we want to save the economy as well as solve global warming."
To download Cool the Earth, Save the Economy, go to www.CoolTheEarth.us.