A climate change agreement was signed in Paris yesterday by nearly two hundred countries. Long pause. Heavy sigh.
Let me walk you through a particular set of examples from India since this is the kind of location where the future of energy and climate will ultimately be determined.
This is what the air looks like in India. Don’t recognize the spot? Let me zoom in.
There. This is the Taj Mahal. You’re not looking at rain or mist. I didn’t take these photos at dusk or dawn. This is just what the air quality is like at mid day in Agra, a small provincial town of three million people. (And by the way, the last time I was in Agra twenty five years ago the population was closer to one million.)
This is what the air in New Delhi looks like at two in the afternoon on a bright dry day. This building is the Indian equivalent of the White House. But standing outside the gates looking in through the front garden you can hardly see the building, grand as it may be.
The main concerns for the working class in Indian (population 1.2 billion) involve “kitchen table” issues. Persistent drought, quite possibly caused by climate change, has driven up the cost of staple foods like lentils and chickpeas. For people living close to the bone that’s the difference between two meals a day or only one – or none. Or meals with no protein.
People can see the snow pack recede up the sides of the mountains year after year. They also see the flash floods that wash away entire towns. They fully grasp the connection between burning coal and oil and the shift in the climate. But their very reasonable response is to work harder to make more money to pay for the increasing cost of necessities triggered, at least in part, by the effects of a shifting atmosphere. That quest for more income almost always involves using more energy. The cheaper, the better.
The cost of fuel has been mercifully low this year. That’s been a blessing compared to past years when energy was punishingly expensive. Most Indians don’t have any slack in their household budgets so any increase in fuel costs comes directly out of their diet or their children’s education. They blame former prime minister Singh for high energy costs and credit current prime minister Modi for today’s relief. Neither political figure has any real control over global oil prices, but that’s not how voters respond at the polls.
Here’s Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial in central New Delhi, right next to the Rajghat coal fired power station. That’s not fog or drizzle. That’s just plain old heavy particulate matter suspended in the air. I kept wiping my camera lens, but chunks of crud kept dirtying the glass. Indians understand the connection between the smoke in the air and the problems with human health and the environment. But they need that energy to earn money so they can afford to pay for doctors and the rising price of food. Catch 22.
The people peddling or standing on the side of the highway probably don’t want to be there. But life is hard in the countryside. The city offers the promise of advancement and a better life, warts and all. And if they’re going to be in the city they really do frantically want to be inside one of those shiny new cars. At the very least they want a motorbike. Better yet, they want a job at a factory that manufactures motorbikes.
Indians understand the Big Picture. But they work moment by moment at improving a series of very small individual pictures. It’s the same in Houston, or Sao Paulo, or Beijing, or Manila. Taking collective action that limits short term individual progress is incredibly difficult to achieve in a democracy. Implementing these policies in a dictatorship isn’t much easier if the ruling elite wants to keep their people docile and malleable. Hungry people are angry people. Insurrections are expensive for any government.
Climate change agreements are doomed to irrelevance for two primary reasons. First, they aim to continue exponential growth while radically reducing fossil energy consumption. But energy isn’t a subset of the global industrial economy. Energy is the modern economy. Second, we (as a species) will always focus on short term gains at the expense of long term consequences.
I believe we’ll eventually get to a world where the human footprint is in balance with what the planet can reasonably support. But it won’t be the result of any gentlemen’s agreement. Instead, we’ll all charge ahead and eventually exhaust ourselves. What could have been a smooth controlled voluntary transition will most likely simply be a hard crash involving a lot of unpleasantness. Then things will stabilize at a new lower level of consumption and a whole lot fewer people. Failure fixes itself.