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Yes, it was a shameful poke in the world’s eye by the dangerously
narcissistic, temporary occupant of the White House.
Like other unconscionable and unfathomable acts of the early 21st
century—a period of historic great change already—Trump’s pulling
out of the Paris Climate Agreement has sent me searching for the
deeper meaning of it all, while the pundits flail away.
The attack on the World Trade Center, an iconic symbol of
globalization if there ever was one, triggered for me a period of
introspection and a personal existential crisis as it opened up a
possible dark side of my previously unquestioned Wall
Street-influenced worldview. Then the financial crisis drove
a stake in the heart of our failed neoliberal economics and
finance ideology, leaving in its wake profound and still
unanswered questions. Brexit shined a light
on the flawed architecture and economic assumptions underlying
the European Union, while Trump’s unimaginable election
should force America’s self-anointed elites, in particular, to
face their own shadow.
Is there not a deeper message being offered up to us as we
undergo the shock therapy that is the Trump phenomenon, with his
extraordinary ignorance, egotism, and moral ineptitude, most
recently evidenced by his unconscionable withdrawal from
Paris? It’s worth our reflection: Trump as cosmic messenger,
the wake-up call we deserve.
Consider the reality. The Paris Agreement is not an enforceable
treaty with binding emissions limits. Nor is it even an
adequate statement of intention, since even if all signatories
live up to their promises, the best scientific projections suggest
we will not stay below the intended 2-degree warming
ceiling. And, we know we actually need to stay below 1.5
degrees warming, a radically different proposition. Finally,
nothing in the Agreement addresses the existential threat it poses
to all Petro States since the math implies that 80% of existing fossil fuel
reserves, the lifeblood of these societies, must remain in the
ground, demanding unprecedented economic transitions
requiring a new development
paradigm, and that it will that take decades of investment
and hard work. See Venezuela for a preview of the challenges
Russia is such a Petro-State. Hmm…Calling Jared?
So perhaps the first deeper message we need to hear, disguised
below Trump’s disgraceful act is: “The Paris Agreement amounts to
little more than appeasement; get serious, people.”
So far, the initial response within the United States and
globally is actually quite hopeful. States led by
California, cities led by Pittsburgh, and a vast cross-section of
the business community have been emboldened to show the world (and
ourselves) that the “current occupant” does not get to decide for
its people on a matter of such grave importance. “We’re
still in!” Perhaps the sleeping bear – we, the people – has
finally been poked?
Second, one primary reason the Agreement was not a binding treaty
is that all participants understood that Obama could never deliver
the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. So the deeper message we
must confront is that many of the leading global institutions of
governance, from the United Nations to the United States, to the
European Union, are all incapable of addressing the urgent and
interconnected global governance crises of the 21st century.
Where are the serious plans to address this reality, while at the
same time reacting to the unending crises of the day?
Third, despite decades of scientific analysis and diplomacy
around climate change, we are still working off a horribly
inadequate playbook that reduces the complex challenge of
restoring balance to the earth’s carbon cycle to simply a call by
nations to “cut fossil fuel emissions” by some seemingly random,
politically negotiated amount based on what each nation was
willing to commit to, that collectively is grossly inadequate to
the task at hand.
Just in time, Paul Hawken and colleagues have recently published
Drawdown. The name calls out the real goal we
must embrace: “drawdown” of the concentration of greenhouse gasses
in the atmosphere, rather than the insufficient objective of
reducing emissions. We are at 402 PPM today and need to get
below 350 in the face of a growing population and rising standards
of living for the majority of humanity. That’s the
task. It demands an integrated, multi-dimensional, rigorous
plan. Drawdown provides the analytical foundation for such a
plan, documenting the 100 top viable solutions using available
technology, and conservative assumptions about their realistic
scale-up rates and economics over a thirty-year period between
2020 and 2050.
Good news: the math says we can do this! It
identifies 1000 Giga Tons reduction in atmospheric CO2 (or
equivalent), and requires collectively a highly diversified
investment of $30 trillion over thirty years, generating economic
savings (in the aggregate) of two and half times that amount, on
top of avoiding the worst-case consequences of climate
change. To be clear, this represents a profound and
unprecedented shift in the allocation of resources from business
as usual. That’s the deal.
The results from the Drawdown analysis are not what most will
expect. First of all, the single largest solution is not
solar or wind. It’s refrigerant management. HFCs, the
“solution” to the ozone layer problem of the past, turns out to
have somewhere between 1,000 and 9,000 times the greenhouse effect
of CO2. We must simply swap out the AC, which will have nine
times the impact of converting to electric vehicles (only number
26 on the Drawdown list). Who will be the Elon Musk of AC?
Perhaps more revealing is the combined impact of family planning
and educating women, which, when looked at together, would move to
the top, exceeding onshore and offshore wind combined.
Population is often a taboo subject. But an extra billion
people all desiring to live a middle-class lifestyle makes a
massive difference, so we need to be able to talk about it as part
of a comprehensive plan.
And perhaps most hopeful, the report rightly turns our attention
to the amazing natural “technology” we take for granted:
photosynthesis, the basis of all life on this planet.
Drawdown demands we focus on the massive carbon sinks where carbon
is safely stored, in addition to reducing emissions.
Remarkably, few realize that our soils are the second largest
carbon sink after the oceans, comparable to the world’s
forests. Small, achievable percentage changes in the stock
of carbon held in our soils, through profitable regenerative agriculture hold
massive potential for drawdown, without even factoring in all the
ancillary benefits to human health and, therefore, our healthcare
crisis, water retention, desertification, and species loss.
The role of regenerative agriculture and land use of all
varieties, from no-till crop farming to holistic grazing accounts for fifteen of the top
twenty-five drawdown solutions.
So the message we need to hear underlying Trump’s Paris
fiasco: The current occupant will be judged by history; but
so will we: wake-up call. The U.S Congress and the
Trump enablers in his Administration have a chance to restore
their integrity, but no one is depending on it. National
leadership on climate has long been outside the U.S. federal
government and that’s OK, but it’s a lost opportunity. U.S.
states, cities, the U.S. military, and the private sector are
already mobilized and that will now only accelerate.
We must shift our attention from grand diplomatic gestures by
institutions of governance designed for a different time to a
rigorous, empowering plan where there is no silver bullet but
unlimited and empowering opportunities where the real leaders are
already defining our future. Those leaders are us.
The goal is simple: drawdown. It’s no easy feat, and time
is not on our side. Let’s roll, people.
John Fullerton is the founder and president of Capital Institute,
a collaborative working to illuminate how our economy and
financial system can operate to promote a more just, regenerative,
and thus sustainable way of living on this earth. He is the author
Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns Will Shape the
New Economy.” Through the work of Capital Institute, regular
public speaking engagements, and university lectures, John has
become a recognized thought leader, exploring the future of
Capitalism. John is also a recognized “impact investment”
practitioner as the principal of Level 3 Capital Advisors, LLC.
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