Shrinking Timeline Underscores Need to Cut Carbon Pollution

This blog post was originally featured on the Hewlett Foundation's Blog, "Work in Progress". This post was authored by Erin Rogers, Program Officer, Environment Program at the Hewlett Foundation.

Remember the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and their friends were trapped in a trash compactor on the Death Star? Soon after falling into a watery container filled with space garbage and a really creepy snake, the walls around them started slowly closing in. They had a shrinking window of opportunity to find a way out. They scrambled higher atop mounds of trash, adapting to the situation as best they could and buying time. But the walls kept closing in. Finally, R2D2 was able to shut down power to the entire garbage system. Addressing the root of the problem saved their lives.

With apologies for the over-simplified and dated analogy, we are facing a similar shrinking window of opportunity to address the root cause of climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere through burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.

On January 17, the New York Times reported on a leaked draft of a forthcoming United Nations report that explains that although we are starting to see increases in renewable energy and more efficient use of energy, these hopeful improvements are dwarfed by the rapid increase in the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, we are making progress, but not far or fast enough to avoid widespread human suffering as well as major economic and ecological problems.

The Times article describes the UN report, which was produced by scientists around the word who work together as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as a warning that “another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies...If countries permit continued high emissions growth until 2030…the [atmospheric carbon] target will most likely be impossible to meet, at least without a hugely expensive crash program to rebuild the energy system, and even that might not work.”

Fifteen years. The Hewlett Foundation takes the urgency seriously. Our Environment Program has built its core funding strategies around this shrinking window of opportunity. We are keeping our eyes on the prize of reducing emissions from the world’s highest emitting countries and their highest-emitting sectors—electricity and transportation—as substantially and quickly as possible. This entails funding for work developing policy and technical solutions to reduce emissions, but also building the political and consumer will to adopt and deploy them.

CERES estimates that in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, current global investment in clean energy should double to $500 billion per year by 2020. For comparison--the cost to the US economy of just two storms--hurricanes Katrina and Sandy-- amounted to more than $175 billion. The costs of mitigation pale in comparison with the costs of global adaption. Investing in efforts that reduce emissions now is the most cost-effective way to address climate change and if we’re going to succeed, we’ll need vastly greater investment of these public, private, and philanthropic dollars.

Too many governments, companies, and foundations are spending too much on efforts to adapt to changes that are already occurring. Such changes, while undeniable, are minor compared to what will happen if we don’t reduce emissions quickly. The amount and expense of adapting to global warming later will be far higher—indeed, will dwarf what we are spending today—if we don't act to cut emissions within the short window of opportunity that remains.

This isn’t to say that any or all efforts to help communities adapt to what's happening now are a mistake. On the contrary, we should be seeking approaches that help us adapt to climate change that also serve to reduce emissions. But what matters most, what everyone needs to focus on now, is diminishing the amount of heat-trapping gases going into the atmosphere. Any other focus is just climbing up garbage piles while the walls continue closing in.

Like R2D2 and the trash compactor, more of us need to focus on addressing the root cause of the problem. Now, if only we had Yoda on staff…