Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Changing Our Resource Culture

I don't know everyone can walk and chew gum at the same time, but we are in the position of having to change our culture toward the resources we consume or waste. At the same time, we need to start taking obvious and radical actions to reduce our carbon footprint.

Weighty, heavy task. We are continuing to be told the consequences of failing to act. Besides the IPCC, who co-won the Nobel Prize for Peace along with Al Gore, every day we see new impacts of climate change. I heard today that the climate change models were too safe in estimating the CO2 carrying capacity of the warming
oceans. The data shows that in earlier times, similar ocean warming caused mass extinctions. We have an early entry with the polar bear.

I was talking with Alaska Lt. Governor Sean Parnell yesterday evening following a presentation he gave, exhorting UAF students to get active in helping impacted communities like Shishmareff (ocean storms eating away the town) or Hooper Bay (burgeoning landfill). I pointed out that his examples are all attributable to our failure to account for the after-cost of using resources, without those costs being built into the original purchase. What to do with the leftovers after one is finished consuming the part we are interested in? Leftover from burning fossil fuel for heat - CO2 and more. Leftover from that package of Dove bars - plastic and paper. He saw the point, but then said - boy, those are big problems. How are we going to deal with that?

Hello? If we can't our government leaders willing to take the longer view toward species/biome/habitat stabilization/survival, it's pretty hard for the ordinary citizen. A fundamental shift in how we value goods and services is required. Non-egoist economic behavior usually manifests itself after a disaster, such as Katrina, or the recent wildfires in southern California. The longer we wait, the more disasters, the more cost to societies.

One of the comments of the Nobel Committee in awarding the Peace Prize to those who were urging climate change mitigation is that, to stabilize the climate would preserve peace, as opposed to war and conflict over diminishing resources.

We've known many of the things we need to do to be more intelligent and efficient about the resources we use, what is available to us in the form of non-carbon emitting resources for the energy we do use. We've known for decades. And to be fair, we are making some changes, but the time grows shorter as we discuss the more fundamental changes. Even with newer technologies, the old legacy constituencies still keep us from actively recognizing and taking radical actions to change our behavior.

This brings me back to my first point - changing the culture. My view is that, in general, culture can only change from perceived risks and costs. The U.S. is more self-centered, thus more resistant to change. We don't have a culture of commune-ism, such as Europe has. And we certainly don't value self-sacrifice. As the leading resource consumer and carbon contributor, we have so much we can do.

Politicians don't yet feel strongly they have the mandate for that fundamental restructuring of resource economics to cover our kids' butts. We are still tinkering with mini-projects, suggesting "clean" alternatives such as nuclear (oops, Mommy, I left the plutonium in the oven). Some of the states are starting to get it. Alaska, who holds a fortune in resources, still is pretty tentative, preferring to be powerless in the face of change, just willing to adapt, seeing little opportunity or showing the will thus far to mount the bully pulpit as those like Amory Lovins, Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and James Hansen have been doing for decades.

If action only happens after a whack to the head, then please let me help. Whack, whack, whack?

Oh, and for those who don't believe climate change is causing all these extreme weather changes? By denying it, you are saying we have no control over it, thus can't change it and we'll just have to bear the high cost to our societies to adapt.

And if you don't believe that man can change the climate, there are still obvious and rational economic reasons to not consume non-renewable fossil fuels so inefficiently. As I told Sen. Stevens some years ago when I asked him to get behind an increase in CAFE standards, let's get the biggest bang for the gallon we can. There isn't a need to madly export every last drop out of the North Slope of oil or gas as fast as possible? How about giving it the full value? It makes alternative non-polluting energy so much more attractive.

A fundamental change in how we value our resources is needed. Lots of good ideas are out there. Action is what is needed, as fast as we can. As it is, we've done a good job of committing our societies to increased costs of weather damages. Any idea how much it will cost to move southern Florida?

I hesitate to be too cynical with so many positive opportunities for changing that culture and our actions, but climate change inaction just impacted the Doomsday Clock. We were the generation that was going to save the world. Now I have to tell MY kids, "you've got a big job, sorry for the mess."