Coalitions of the Willing

Monday, November 26, 2012

After 20 years of failure to reach global agreements, it's time to start at the bottom to achieve environmental goals

This essay reflects on the United Nations Climate Change Conference "Conference of the Parties 18" talks, in Qatar, running from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7, in which global leaders are seeking agreement to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Big international agreements seem to have hit a rut. This past June, "Rio + 20" was a bust by most accounts. Nothing short of a global green economy was its goal, but it ended as the latest failure in a string of ambitious UN meetings including the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, 2009; the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, 2002; and several Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

My students and I attended several of these meetings because (naively) we believed history was in the making. We thought the world was on a path to sustainability, and it was only a matter of time. But I could feel frustration growing with each successive event. The original Rio Earth Summit in 1992 had detractors and disappointments, but optimism still prevailed. So what changed?

The world changed. Now it's "hot, flat and crowded" in the words of Thomas Friedman, and much more uncertain economically. The global economy, quite robust in 1992, is now wracked by fears of bank defaults, real-estate bubbles, sovereign debt crises, and recession. Global corporations grow more powerful—they promise jobs but peddle influence instead, and they conspire with lawmakers to avoid change.

With corporate profits greater than the cash flows of many countries, these multinational companies are not beholden to any one nation—only to their shareholders. Defending this philosophy most stridently was Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who said, "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits" (The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 13, 1970.)

But the mantra of the environmental movement for the past two decades, Sustainable Development, has not served us well either. In 1992, sustainable development proffered that a good environment and a good economy could go hand-in-hand, if only nations acted smartly and sustainably. Now, doubters prevail. Top down conferences run by mega-governments have stalled. Clean energy and climate change legislation are stillborn.

Maybe it's time to begin anew?

What if we were to simply forge ahead without any global treaties or comprehensive national legislation? We can't seem to agree on them anyway. Let's just mitigate climate change, conserve precious water, preserve species, and reduce our collective footprints without any formal mandates or fossil energy price signal.

Why not let those who see the need, and are willing to act now, simply pull together and do it? It could begin with individuals and spread like an infection to clusters of citizens, businesses, industries, NGOs, academia, and small government all pulling together toward a common goal. Let's resurrect a tarnished political term and call it "The Coalition of the Willing".

Like nodes in the Internet, a network of people willing to act now could "scale-up" powerfully. It would not be led by government—that's the beauty of it. Simply, the people who "get it" begin to act cooperatively by sharing successes and information on how to move forward. For the Coalition of the Willing, the fact that we are decimating our forests and fisheries, drivingour species to extinction, depleting our aquifers, and storing our exhaust in the atmosphere is reason enough already. For them, the acidification of the entire ocean and the weird weather across the planet is a no-brainer. It’s time to act now because the alternative is unthinkable.

Like flowers pushing-up through pavement, these coalitions are forming already. It can start with a single individual.

I had the good fortune to meet "The No Impact Man" a few years ago and I’ve seen first-hand the change inspired in others. His No Impact Project Website summarizes: "For one year, Colin Beaven and his family unplugged from the electric grid, produced no trash, traveled exclusively by foot or bike, and bought nothing except food, all of it locally grown. By the end, they discovered something surprising: Living simply wasn't just good for the environment, it made them healthier, happier, and richer in ways they never expected."

But one doesn't need to live like a monk to make a difference. A network of the world's megacities and the Clinton Climate Initiative, C40, have produced a new online platform to exchange ideas on best practices and urban innovation. They've implemented 4,700 projects to tackle climate change including car-free days, expansive bike paths, totally green buildings, and energy efficiency. Already some participants have reduced their carbon footprint.

Chair of C40, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg provides testimony, "We are revolutionizing the way cities communicate with each other and share information more broadly..." He's convinced that cities—responsible for almost 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—are the key to curtailing global climate change.

Action is contagious, and 17 states have now targeted a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Meanwhile the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 18th Conference of the Parties is meeting in Qatar Nov. 26-Dec. 7. We wish them well, but in the meantime the Coalitions of the Willing are not waiting but actively seeking solutions.

Jerry Schnoor holds the Allen S. Henry Chair in Engineering and is editor of the journal Environmental Science & Technology (American Chemical Society) from which this piece is reprinted with permission.