September 23, 2014

Climate Change and ISIS -- Fighting Multiple Existential Threats

World leaders and CEOs of multinational companies are meeting at the United Nations this morning to discuss climate change. Some skeptical people may wonder why our leaders should focus on this seemingly long-range problem (even after 400,000 people marched to raise awareness) when there's so much else going on. If you watch the news, you'd be forgiven for thinking the only threat in the world is ISIS.

When powerful, radical Islamic pseudo-states take over parts of the Middle East, capturing oil and weapons, we absolutely should be concerned. But it's also more than a bit troubling when the world faces 100-year droughts and wildfires in the West threatening food supplies, or tries to manage record-setting catastrophic floods from Arizona to India.

The reality is we don't have the luxury of dealing with everything in succession - as a society, we have to tackle multiple threats simultaneously. The dilemma of the urgent versus the important has always been tough - and what if more than one thing is urgent?
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Photo: Flickr, Jessica Lamirand
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Climate change has seemed like a long-range "important" problem, but is moving into the "urgent" category quickly (which tends to happen to important problems left to fester). Earlier this summer, former U.S. Treasury Secretaries Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin, along with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, issued a report they called Risky Business, which told us that climate change is "already costing billions." It will cost many hundreds of billions more, and even threaten the stability of our society, without prompt action.

It can seem daunting to find the resources and focus to tackle multiple large issues. But perhaps the answer is perspective. As President Eisenhower reportedly said (and energy expert Amory Lovins likes to quote when talking about environmental challenges), "If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it." It's a powerful insight. Our existential crises are connected.

Former CIA head James Woolsey often points out that what he calls the "malevolent" threat of radical, fundamentalist Islam and the "malignant" threat of climate change can easily be linked - our oil addiction sends money to countries (primarily Saudi Arabia) which fund radical schools around the world. As Woolsey has memorably said numerous times since 9-11, this may be the first time in history that one country has funded both sides of a war. So tackling climate change and fighting fundamentalism are connected (although one problem is easier to get agreement on - nobody is saying they think ISIS is a hoax).

Becoming independent of foreign oil by producing our own fossil fuels does not truly solve the problem. Resources, and oil in particular, are global commodities, so until we make fossil fuels irrelevant to the economy, we're propping up petro-oligarchies and dictatorships from the Middle East to Russia. And that list now includes ISIS, which has captured some oil producing regions.

We need a major shift in how our economies and companies operate - what I'm calling the big pivot - to bring on the clean economy as fast as possible. A combination of innovation, smart policy, and focused investment can get us there. Putting a price on carbon and eliminating the estimated $600 billion in fossil fuel subsidies are two critical steps forward at the macro level. Companies, for their part, need to demand much more renewable energy and support clean energy policies like these.

While many fear that shifting to clean energy will be expensive or limit growth, the numbers don't support that argument. The price of solar panels, for example, has dropped 70% in five years. And a new study, the New Climate Economy report, calculates that when you factor in the savings from a healthier, non-fossil-fuel based world - actual lives saved from lower pollution - the clean economy saves money. Throw in the savings in military lives and treasure that we waste keeping oil reserves secure, and the calculus gets even clearer.

The best news is that we probably don't need new capital: the report also notes that the world will spend as much as $90 trillion on infrastructure in the next 15 years - why not shift that investment to solar, wind, electrification of vehicles, public transportation, efficiency, and much more?

We can't fight groups like ISIS directly with an electric car - the coalition President Obama has gathered will have to fight with real weapons and troops. But we at home can work to build a world that drains support from radical groups like ISIS. We have multiple, connected existential threats. ISIS must be stopped. So must climate change. We can do both.

(Andrew's new book, The Big Pivot, is out! Get your copy here. Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewWinston)

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