Fiddling while the planet burns

Environmental studies professor Alan Richards (Photo by Jim MacKenzie)

Edited by Jennifer McNulty,

Alan Richards, professor of environmental studies, is the recipient of the Alumni Association's 2008-09 Distinguished Teaching Award. An economist and an expert on energy politics and the Middle East, Richards created the class Blood and Oil: Energy, the Middle East, and War, to give students a historically based understanding of current events. We asked Richards to discuss climate change and the role educators can play in meeting the challenge. Excerpts from the interview follow.

I am deeply troubled by the disconnect between what public policymakers and natural scientists are saying about climate change. Leading scientists say we have three years to reverse the rate of carbon emissions and avert serious consequences.

So that's the bad news: Nobody in the public policy world is talking about actions that could do that. Instead, emissions are growing at a rate of about 3 percent a year. This is manifestly unsustainable. These emissions build up cumulatively, which is important. It's like piling on blankets. You may get too warm, but once you stop adding blankets, you're still hot.

And it gets worse, because everywhere in the world for the past 250 years, increasing standards of living have been accompanied by large-scale increases in the use of energy per person, especially in the relatively early phases of economic growth.

Yet it would be unreasonable and politically unfair for rich western countries to tell poor countries that they shouldn't become better off. So the big problem is how to make room in the atmosphere for the emissions that are going to come from poorer countries, without doing irreversible damage.

International impacts

But the good news is the United States finally has a government that appears to understand this. Having a less belligerent administration is good because we need to make international deals. The United States and the Chinese have been locked in a suicide pact; they say it's our fault, and we say it's their fault. Both sides are right.

The consequences of large-scale climate change include, according to the CIA, very scary impacts on international politics. For example, if the glaciers that sustain the major Asian rivers dry up and the water supplies of Northern India and Central China are seriously challenged, the governments of those countries-both of which have nuclear weapons-will face enormous pressures. Similarly, there could be large-scale immigration, literally floods of very poor people, moving from North Africa to Western Europe.

Devil's in the details

In the short term, this is a political problem, not a technological one, because the technology to reduce emissions already exists. There's an emerging consensus, led by people like Al Gore, that we need to electrify the economy and build a smart grid to generate electricity from renewable resources. We need serious public investment in changing the nature of the energy system, and we need incentives like a carbon tax, which people have been talking about for 20 years.

But, as always, the devil is in the details: Are there enough votes in Congress to pass legislation to implement the changes we need? What about the millions of Americans who continue to disbelieve in climate change? They appear to be turning into a minority force, but we've seen before that minority forces can still block important legislation.

As a social scientist, I think the scariest part of this is what I've learned from history. My reading of history suggests that people make deep, wrenching changes only in a severe crisis. But with climate change, by the time the crisis hits, it's too late.

This is the way change happens

The bottom line is that we had better get started. The nature of this problem is so large that everybody has to do what they can, as journalists, teachers, researchers, artists, and private citizens.

I believe we can avert the worst, but education will be critical. Sixty-nine percent of voters aged 29 and younger went for Obama. The youth get it. A lot of UCSC students are very engaged, and so is the chancellor. Our researchers are developing technological advances that could make this transition easier. (Read about what UCSC researchers are working on.) This is an institution that collectively understands that we must do something, even in the midst of collapsing budgets and exploding enrollments.

This is the way change happens. The analogy I prefer is race relations. When I graduated from a segregated high school in Dallas in 1964, there was open, virulent racism. But last November, 57 percent of Dallas County voted for Obama. So I know change is possible.

Who pioneered that change? It was the Civil Rights Movement. But universities and educators helped foster the necessary cultural shift that delegitimized racism. Is racism gone? No, it's not. But it has been delegitimized, and there's no reason the same thing can't happen with respect to the environment. Deeply destructive environmental behaviors can be delegitimized.

Universities are hubs of innovation, and they are incubators for social change. We have enough scientific knowledge to make a big dent in global warming. But there has been a great deal of fiddling while the planet burns.