If we could reduce our coal dependency by 50 million tons per year (reducing 100 million tons of CO2 annually in the process), but would need to relocate over a million people to do it, would we? The Chinese news service recently posted an update on the massive Three Gorges Dam, highlighting completion of the project, including the relocation of 1.3 million people.
The dam, which spans the Yangtze river, is over a mile long and five times larger than the Hoover Dam. The project has many critics, which cite changes to local ecosystems which could have unforeseen consequences, the potential for the reservoir behind the dam to become a cesspool of sewage and industrial pollutants, and accumulating silt, and the social impact of forcing so many people to leave their homes. The official party line is that the country needs clean energy, and the project will protect millions from flood waters, and millions of acres of farmland. Both sides are probably right.
Reduction on coal dependency in China is a critical element of a global approach to fighting climate change, but is this sort of central planning approach really the only way? Thomas Friedman wrote recently in the NY Times: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century…China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar.”
Yikes! I for one hope that our democratic system can lead to an equally positive climate outcome, without trampling on personal rights to do it.
Rather than promoting Chinese-style government, Friedman is really lamenting the failure of our congress to act in a bipartisan fashion to come up with a new energy and climate policy which reduces our overall consumption and dependence on fossil fuels. As Friedman says, “The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying ‘no.’” What you end up with is what he calls “one party democracy.”
This potential logjam created a pretty clear contrast between the Chinese president’s speech to the UN climate summit – full of targets and planned action – and President Obama’s, which was heavier on rhetoric, calls for action, and restatement of the problem, but lighter on specifics.
Even so, Obama’s acknowledgment of urgency and strong statement of support for action on the global stage is significant progress. The signals are pretty clear that we need a new energy/climate policy, and we should be discussing “how” rather than “if”. The beauty of cap and trade (if designed right), renewable energy targets, or even a carbon tax is that each points towards the needed outcome, without resorting to autocratic measures to get there. There are plenty of ways to change our footprint, from conservation, to wind and solar investment, to changing what we buy, what we make, and how we get around. We simply need to create more urgency and some choice.
Do our legislative officials have the will and public mandate to at least acknowledge that there is a problem, so that we can work on the solutions? Or will this be just another issue for bipartisan bickering and lobbyist influence? As Obama said “…the journey is long. The journey is hard. And we don’t have much time left to make it.” But the alternatives are not very appealing.
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