Saturday, September 24, 2011

Climate Change Versus Clean Energy: How Can We Move Forward?

Working on climate change over the last several years has consistently pushed me to expand my comfort zone and explore new frontiers. Although I first approached it as an international law scholar, I soon became intrigued by the transnational networks of localities, states, and provinces taking action and the nuances of their place-specific strategies. More recently, as clean energy becomes the more politically viable proxy for engaging climate change (for example, in President Obama’s latest State of the Union address), I’ve begun learning the complex fabric of energy law and the uneasy energy/environment intersection (with the help of a really interesting discussion of the intersection by Lincoln Davies). I find myself immersed in new challenges again, as I try to wrap my head around SmartGrid, energy segregation, and the role of small cities and suburbs in addressing climate change even as I also worry about the turn towards geoengineering in the desperate search for ways to address climate change and nascent and fragmented accompanying governance approaches and more generally about the lack of viable international-level approaches for getting emissions down at the pace scientists say are needed.
As part of all of this, I’ve participated in some really exciting discussions these past few weeks of both climate change and clean energy where I’ve learned a great deal and been impressed at how interdisciplinary the conversations are becoming. But I always walk away from climate change and clean energy dialogues feeling very differently: depressed after the climate change ones and buzzing with new possibilities after the clean energy ones.

While there are significant new developments on climate change—I learned so much from being included in the conversation at the conference hosted by the University of Melbourne about Australia’s proposed climate change law and the resulting expert submission—the consensus always seems to be that nothing happening on the mitigation side is close to enough. In fact, in his keynote address following our climate change panel at a recent conference at Case Western on whether there is a crisis in international law, Richard Goldstone said that while there was not generally crisis in international law but rather in its implementation, climate change was one of the areas of real crisis. I agree. Each year, I understand new pieces of climate change law better, and the more I know, the more discouraged I become about the big picture (we are already well above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—around 390 as of August 2011—with no meaningful plan for staying below the revised goal of staying below 450 parts per mission). I don’t know how to inject the nuance I think is needed into the politicized discussion, I don’t know how to garner the requisite political will, and it will be really hard to catalyze the creative governance approaches needed to transform the action going on outside of the international and national levels into a viable transnational strategy.
With clean energy, huge challenges also loom, but they somehow feel more manageable. Working on the marriage between science, technology, engineering, public policy, and law needed to advance these approaches is exciting. People across the political spectrum often are able to embrace the win-wins that energy efficiency paired with new technology can bring. We have a long tradition of governmental involvement in infrastructure in this country, and even if the politics and money aren’t yet there, it seems conceivable that they will get there and that we will invest in our grid. After a recent Smart Grid conference here at the University of Minnesota, I wanted to go read, take classes, and maybe even take on yet another degree.
The problem is that I know that all this excitement doesn’t solve the looming crisis of climate change. Clean energy solutions can’t replace meaningful progress on climate change—they are unlikely to bring mitigation quickly enough and they often don’t help focus energy on adaptation. But they do help because they get more mitigation than would have happened otherwise.
So where to go from here? In this country, we have a presidential election going on (yes, I know it’s not for over a year—but we’ve had a lot of debates and stump speeches already). I hope we can find a way to stop fighting and talk about these challenges in a meaningful way that cuts across what divides us. We need to make progress on both of these issues. Clean energy shouldn’t get buried in our fights because there is broad agreement on the need to move forward as we get increasingly behind other countries. And we need to stop focusing on what we disagree about on climate change science, and focus on what it would mean to be cautious in the face of risk (since almost everyone acknowledges at least some level of risk). On my discouraged days, I have no idea how we can climb this mountain. But on the good days, like this morning, I have hope that we can be thoughtful and move forward if we keep talking, acting, and building bridges (and transmission lines for renewables) that go somewhere.

(Cross-posted on Environmental Law Profs Blog)

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