Friday, May 13, 2011

Brilliant ideas on what Jesus, the pope, Levi Strauss and pensioners could do for climate change

I'm no fan of the Catholic church for reasons that are not relevant here. The Vatican's position on many aspects of contemporary life should be consigned to ancient history, along with burning witches at the stake and calling Galileo a heretic for showing that the earth revolved around the sun.

But it's a relief to finally be able to agree with the Vatican on one issue: climate change. Last week, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences published a report on the melting of glaciers and how "mankind" should respond. Although it makes no direct reference to clean energy, it does say categorically that as "stewards" of the earth we should be burning less carbon:

Every effort must be made to cut CO2 direct emissions from fossil fuel burning, cut indirect emissions by avoiding deforestation, and expand forests and other sinks, as fast as possible to avoid the profoundly long warming and associated effects that CO2 causes.
The pope has spoken about the need to act on climate change before (watch the video above). But this latest report also makes very valuable points about the unproven geo-engineering "solutions" which even bright people such as Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt have attempted to espouse as techno-fixes for climate change.

The Vatican's report says that geoengineering should be considered only when "irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts cannot be managed with mitigation and adaptation".
Geoengineering is no substitute for climate change mitigation. There are many questions that need to be answered about potential irreversibilities, and of the disparities in regional impacts, for example, before geoengineering could be responsibly considered.

The power of religion to influence politics and popular will was addressed by Dr Larry Brilliant, the head of the Global Threats Initiatives at the Skoll Foundation. Brilliant has a resume as sparkling and solid as his name suggests, and you can read it all here.

But at a reception for the Ceres conference which starts this week, Brilliant made the point that there was no major social shift in the US - civil rights, gay and lesbian rights - that succeeded without support from the "church". Brilliant participated in the World Health Organisation's project to eradicate small pox in the 1970s. It succeeded because there was popular will behind the effort - after all, small pox was too obvious to ignore.

But he said that climate change was a much harder problem to deal with because "CO2 is a colourless, odourless gas that's maybe going to harm you in 20 years' time".

The church, he said, would be a powerful lever in propagating the public will.

Beside him sat Alan Salzman, a venture capitalist from VantagePoint Capital. Salzman said that it no longer made sense for us to use nuclear power to boil water to turn turbines to generate electricity. He said that the basic coal-fired power station and incandescent lightbulbs had remained the same since Thomas Edison invented them both in the 1880s. Technology had the solutions to transition to a low carbon economy, Salzman said.

There was so much low hanging fruit everywhere we look, they agreed.

But Brilliant said that it was the way people deployed technology and acted towards each other that would really make the difference. It's all about the apps…the platform is just the tool.

Meanwhile, at the opening of the conference, Anne Stausbol, chief executive officer of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), announced that the largest pension fund in the US, with $236bn in assets would: "Fully integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in all investment decision-making across all asset classes."

Levis chief executive officer, John Anderson, also announced his company's scheme to improve the conditions of its factory workers around the world, making a woolly commitment to "ensuring environmental sustainability."

A huge amount of positive actions and commitment to act came out of the Ceres conference. But as Ceres President Mindy Lubber acknowledged in her closing speech, public policy is vital to level the playing field for all participants.

But maybe Larry Brilliant has a point too and the constituency really missing from the narrative on climate and energy policy in the US is the church.

Separation of church and state is an illusion in the US, after all. About 570 bills have been introduced in 48 states this year to restrict abortion, for example.

But climate change may be one area where religion affects change and perhaps the church could use its influence to reach the parts of society unmoved by the economic or environmental arguments for a transition to a lower carbon economy.

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