The Power of No Regrets

One of the most promising, yet also most frustrating, aspects of dealing with climate change is how the noise (the static) of the debate makes it difficult for the majority of people to understand the power of the "No Regrets" strategy opportunity and promise.

The concept of a "No Regrets" strategy has been around for decades. For example, this 1991 New York Times article on a National Academies of Science report was entitled Economic Scene: The 'No Regrets' Greenhouse Fix

 

Reduced to its journalistic essence, "no regrets" goes something like this: Atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, CFC refrigeration chemicals) are rising rapidly...virtually guarantees the planet will trap more solar energy and the earth will grow warmer. But the plausible range of temperature change is as little as 2 degrees Fahrenheit to as much as 9 ... [this does] not tell us much about the ensuing environmental and economic damage or the difficulty of adaptation. In agriculture, for example, hard-to-predict shifts in rainfall are likely to have far greater consequences than the direct effect of hotter summers. Gradual weather change would probably prove only an expensive headache for humans. ... there is some possibility of discontinuous, catastrophic change -- for example, a huge release of methane from the melting Arctic tundra that turned the cornfields of Iowa into a desert in a single generation. And there is little doubt that thousands of marine and plant species would be decimated by even a gradual warming.

Note that this is from nearly 20 years ago, during the first Bush administration, and the formal reports, with the stamp of approval from a Republican administration that made clear that global warming/climate change was/is real, that it had serious risks, and merited actions. But what actions ...

What to do? The panel's "no regrets" strategy starts with emissions-reducing initiatives that would pay for themselves in greater economic efficiency. High on this list is energy conservation for buildings, vehicles and industrial processes.

There are win-win paths to cut radically emissions and reliance on fossil fuels that make absolutely sense before one even accounts for climate change. Mining and drilling for those negawatts and negagallons is the richest set of veins to tap into the United States ... 20 years ago and today. And, those savings can be had for a fraction of the fiscal cost of producing new power. And, when looking at producing new power, with each passing day "clean" sources are becoming more cost-competitive with polluting sources -- even before considering the national security implications of dependency on foreign oil and the polluting costs of fossil fuels (whether asthma, cancer, mercury in the foodstream, smog visual impacts at National Parks, or global warming).

Once factoring those "externalities" into our understanding and calculations, the 'clean' choice becomes an even more powerfully smart choice. In short, the pure "No Regrets" strategy can only take us so far. We can, at a profit, carve a tremendous chunk out of the damaging impacts that our energy profligacy and polluting practices cause. At some point, however, the 'profit' motive fails to deliver.

That is, it "fails to deliver" only if we choose to ignore something the NAS highlighted back in 1991: the uncertainty factor. Again:

There is some possibility of discontinuous, catastrophic change.

Americans spend tremendous resources on "insurance," hoping never to need it, but spending those resources "just in case." Whether disability insurance through the Social Security taxes or additional private payments, health insurance, life insurance, or even travel insurance and extended product warranties, we "insure" ourselves to reduce the harm from and help us weather the potentially 'catastrophic' event (like our DVD player breaking 1 year and 1 day after purchase or coming down with a cancer that requires $100,000s of medical care and will keep us out of the work force for years).

Thus, a true "no regrets" strategy wrings out all those elements that will improve economic performance (as individuals, businesses, communities, nation). And, after doing so, asks the question:

What is a logical cost assessment of the remaining risk and how much would it cost to reduce that risk?

If the risk of sea level rise, species extinctions, disrupted agriculture, new infrastructure investments required to adapt to catastrophic climate change, etc can be valued at $20 trillion in "net present value" (NPV ... value today, in today's dollars), then an investment of $1trillion or $4 trillion to obviate that risk is a well-spent insurance policy. And, this was the conclusion of that 1991 NAS panel:

the panel ... would go further, buying a little insurance against an unexpectedly rainy (or, more likely, a very dry) day. This would surely include spending money to develop greenhouse-benevolent energy technologies that will be on the shelf and relatively affordable if they are needed. And it would probably also include reducing greenhouse emissions where there are only modest net costs.

Truth be told, some 20 years of near inaction (and, actually, worsening action) have made the exact recommendations clearly OBE (overtaken by events), even if the overall sense of the report is spot on in terms of creating the political and societal cases for taking actions to mitigate catastrophic climate change. And, the power of "No Regrets" is one reason why you will hear naysayers fighting so hard against "Green Jobs" (or Clean Energy Jobs), arguing that energy efficiency gains are false (Jovan's Paradox), that renewables aren't real, etc ...

green jobs They will strive to continue the confusion on this because they realize that as people understand that much of what needs to be done isn't 'sitting in the dark', but finding ways to more cost effectively (efficiently) get them their lighting, the support for real action will grow.

When people begin to realize that, almost certainly, we can make green by 'Going Green', the support for serious action on energy efficiency, clean energy, and climate change mitigation will mount. As people understand that it is not a question of the economy versus the environment, but the economy and the environment, the support for serious and aggressive action away from our fossil foolish heritage will mount.

Those who seek to keep the United States embedded in a 19th century energy system, who believe that the answer to everything is 'more' rather than use smarter, and look down beneath their legs when they hear energy (coal, natural gas, oil), are fearful of losing their record profits as Americans move toward an Energy Smart future. They wish to keep their profits and thus seek to confuse the public and the political system as to the value of aggressively pursuing a No Regrets Strategy. And, if we continue to listen to them as has been the case for far too long, we will only have regrets ... quite serious regrets.

More articles on Celsias:

A Word on Pollution and the Electric Vehicle

Green Schools - What are the Benefits?

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  • Posted on Jan. 19, 2010. Listed in:

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