Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A clean climate must be a consumer commodity

By Daniel Kammen

The United Nations Climate Summit  last week in New York was yet another venue for important scientific releases highlighting the now well-established scientific consensus about both the economic and social severity of inaction on global warming. Equally thoughtful and numerous will be the proposals to move nations to a common ground on a framework for action.

These efforts are critically needed. Without greater attention to individual consumers, however, we are likely to continue to make a mistake that has gone on for decades. Simply put, we need to take a fresh look at how to engage a national movement around the very real benefits of a secure climate for humanity.

The path to a broadly negotiated climate protection accord is one that political scientists have warned us against. Rarely do complex, broadly negotiated accords achieve significant advances. Instead, thoughtful efforts to clarify the individual benefits that stem from collective action have, time and again, proven to be more effective.

To significantly advance the climate protection effort, we need look no further than the changes in the medical and biotechnology industries. An effort to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget began as a movement among Senate Republicans in 1999 and garnered increasing bipartisan Congressional support in the 105th Congress. The effort created a climate supportive of the move to dramatically increase federal support, which was approved in 2003. A very simple premise underlay this effort: everyone values good health, and this investment holds the promise to directly benefit every American.

Additional examples abound. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was created by a successful ballot initiative (Proposition 71 in 2004) to make stem-cell research a state priority. The initiative created a $5 billion taxpayer-funded entity, intended to advance public health by developing cures and treatments for diabetes, cancer, paralysis, and other illnesses.

To be sure, both the NIH and CIRM efforts had and have their critics, but they underscore the benefits of direct individual benefits of collective action.

Energy efficient lightbulbs
High-efficiency lightbulbs

Climate change is at least, and arguably, even more critical a collective issue, but to date the advocates of action on global warming have been unable to capture the sentiment that supported political and financial action on health solutions.

Gone are the days when investments in clean energy may feel good, but neither "pencil out" or provide better services than the dirty energy systems they replace. Today, we have ample avenues to clarify the public benefits of climate protection, and to act on initiatives that will bring these benefits to U. S. citizens and to the global community.

First, consumer products now exist that demonstrate the value of energy efficiency and clean energy. Light-emitting diode (LED) flashlights and headlights for cars are not just more efficient than incandescent lights, but provide superior performance at lower cost. In developing nations, stand-alone lighting products with a small solar-panel powering an array of LED lights, often accompanied by outlets for cell phone charging and even highly-efficient flat screen televisions are now the hub of the most dramatic increase in energy access we have seen in four decades. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative started by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has adopted this technology platform as part of an effort to provide universal energy access by 2030 – a goal that brings quality of life and climate protection together in a fundamental, empowering, initiative.

Research on carbon footprints by my laboratory and many others present a very clear conclusion: reducing carbon emissions saves money. Numerous companies now offer roof-top solar leases that reduce utility bills immediately.

At the state and national level, efforts to divest municipal, university, corporate and church financial portfolios illustrate the opportunities to take immediate steps that reduce financial risk and send clear political messages. With much of the unburned fossil fuels needing to stay that way from a climate perspective, these efforts are an opportunity for meaningful change.

Proposals to direct revenues from regional carbon emissions markets, such as in California, offer the chance to send back to individuals funds they invest in carbon and money saving opportunities.

All of these actions directly benefit the individual bottom line, making climate protection a by-product of smart consumerism. We do need a global agreement on climate, but we won’t succeed without making clear the immediate, personal benefits, of sustainable energy and climate plans.

We must open a new dialog about the benefits of "going green" so that future climate events — the Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings in December in Lima and then in Paris in December 2015 among others — have new and substantive avenues to advance the dialog.  There are important lessons in the history of health innovations that the climate science community would do well to examine.

Daniel M. Kammen is a professor at UC Berkeley, where he directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. He served as the World Bank’s Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy, and today he serves the U. S. Department of State as Fellow of the Energy and Climate Partnership to the Americas.