Dr. Kaushik Sridhar

Growth Is a Habit, but Not the Answer

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In 1968, when Apollo 8 broadcast the first images of Earth from space, millions of Earth’s citizens observed their planet in all its glory and beauty; blue, white and breathtaking. Even trained astronauts were stunned! That beautiful and breathtaking sight is rapidly changing, and nearly gone today. Its rich blue oceans are darkening and turning brown as global warming impacts the planet- and everyone and thing will suffer from it. Observations that began in the 19th century, advanced examinations that started in the mid-20th century and “paleoclimate reconstructions” that provide insights spanning many millennia confirm unambiguously that the Earth’s climate is getting warmer.

Higher temperatures have affected weather patterns. Globally, scientists assess that it is highly likely that more days and nights are warm than cold. Emissions from burning fossil fuel have caused temperatures to rise by more than 1.5°F (1°C) – so far. This has increased storms over the oceans, creating larger systems carrying more rain and making more lightning. Rainfall now goes up 1.5% each decade. Since the rain doesn’t fall where it is needed, the extra lightning starts more forest fires. Climate Change also affects the tropics, which have expanded more than two degrees of latitude north and south since 1980. Such shifts disrupt weather patterns, bringing permanent drought conditions to large parts of Australia and the US. In Tibet and Bolivia, glaciers are melting, changing regional ecologies and economies. Oceans absorb more CO from the atmosphere, leading to increased water acidity, which makes it harder, for example, for oysters to reproduce, and which may completely destroy coral reefs.

People got caught off guard in a deep way, rarely understanding that they were living through “a huge experiment” that humanity was running on itself and on the planet, a trial unlike anything in the past. Economic growth has long been mankind’s cultural norm. However, that is coming to an end. This “reflex” is an adaptation that fit the old world, not the new one. It just isn’t possible to keep growing forever. The new economy needs to go slower than the one society now takes for granted. This change will require a serious mental shift. As society slows down, it also needs to downsize. As the world has gotten faster, major elements of the Western economy have gotten bigger. Houses have become larger, retail spaces have expanded and organizations – particularly banks – have become not just bigger, but “too big to fail.” Organisations that get too large can’t react well to changed conditions.

Despite the urgency of global warming, governments are not moving quickly to redesign their energy framework. A city’s infrastructure may take decades to change, but this is not quick enough to mitigate damages from climate change. Climate change adaptation, such as changes to rainfall and sea levels are becoming increasingly important, especially in vulnerable and poorer countries. Individual countries must devise their own adaptation strategies, but delaying will make the inevitable disruptions all the more devastating.

Numerous climate change conferences over the years have stimulated discussion on climate change risks to our planet; most recently climate change was highlighted as the biggest global risk facing humanity. However all these conferences and talks border around climate diplomacy – a pattern of setting bold and ambitious emission-reduction goals without factoring in whether they are even realistic or not. When countries face uncertainties in forecasting CO emissions, nonbinding agreements let governments move forward, gain experience with market participants and determine what works best. Some countries are committing to reach certain benchmark reductions if other nations promise to do so as well. Climate change negotiations are difficult since nations have a strong incentive to cheat. But robust enforcement – perhaps with trade sanctions – is crucial. A “carrot only” strategy, without strong “sticks,” will not curb emissions.

According to various media sources, large corporations such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway and Goldman Sachs are looking to invest at least $140bn to shrink their carbon footprints. The committed funds will be utilised to cut emissions, provide financing to environmentally-focused companies, reduce water consumption, and produce 1,600 megawatts of new, renewable energy, which is enough to power nearly 1.3 million homes.

Governments need to also take stronger action to combat climate change. Introducing a set of tougher and updated versions of proposed environmental regulations designed to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions from a country’s power plants could ultimately transform their energy/electricity industry. If the regulations can get past certain legal obstacles, it could create a snowball effect through incredible policy changes impacting and leading to closures of hundreds of coal-fired power plants, prevent new coal plants being built and drive innovation and production of renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.

Understanding the behavioural psychology to climate change policy is an art, something governments and the private sector are slowly but surely realising. We know a lot needs to be, and can be, done.

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