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A nation of Neros

Jamie Cate, associate professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology | October 18, 2009

We live like kings.  At least that’s what most of the world thinks of Americans, economic downturn notwithstanding.  And humanity throughout history would see us the same way.  How did we get to the quality of life that would make emperors jealous?  We got here with fossil fuels, and lots of them.  The energy sector accounts for many trillions of dollars a year in the world economy.

What can we expect out of any agreement in Copenhagen?  We can look at the example of Kyoto, and see that nations will find any number of accounting loopholes to get out of meeting the targets that have been or will be set.  International flights are one example.  The trillion dollar question (ten trillion?) is whether an agreement in Copenhagen will have any practical meaning.

My biggest fear is not that no agreement will come out of Copenhagen.  I fear we won’t have the means or desire to pay for it.  With the federal government running trillion-plus dollar deficits for the forseeable future, we can’t look to government to pay for the changes in energy infrastructure that we need.  It will take multiple trillions of dollars to rebuild and replace our present infrastructure for a low-carbon future.  Unless President Obama can lead the nation and convince all sectors of industry to tackle the problem of global warming, we’re just fiddling while the world burns.

Comments to “A nation of Neros

  1. Fascinating discussion! Alice Friedmann is right on in saying that it’s up to citizens to take action. But maybe not so much to “overcome economic interests of corporations” as take action to re-direct their economic interests. After all, citizens form the market that corporations compete to cater to. If we were all to behave as if there were a crisis, we could change the corporate position. Use fewer resources, boycott non-sustainable products and most importantly, educate and inform your family, friends and neighbors. Big business would expedite cleaner technolgies once they get the message that we will stop buying what they are making now. But we can only do it if we are willing to sacrifice and do without some of the luxuries we now take for granted.

    The other great point is that elephant in the room. The planet currently has about three times as many humans as can survive sustainably on it. Heartless and cruel as it may sound, the predicted droughts and increased water levels will reduce populations significantly. Bottom line is that Mother Earth does not care whether or not we all survive. It’s up to us to care, adapt and make it happen. If government’s are at the wheel on this (I have my doubts), we should be well-informed and voiciferouse back-seat drivers.

  2. The problem with Copenhagen is that the American federal government is set to act on behalf of the American people, and we haven’t found a way yet to properly poll people on this particular issue.

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