Reader P.J. Gendell of Beverly Hills, in a letter published Thursday posed a question to journalist and climate-change activist Bill McKibben in response to his Jan. 6 Op-Ed article, "Climate change won't wait":
"McKibben is very adamant that 'if we're to slow the pace of climate change, we need to cut emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year.' Considering what a huge amount that is, it would be helpful for the professor to explain what the result would be if we somehow managed to do it.
"How much would that slow the pace of climate change? Would it make a significant difference, or would it simply be destroying modern economies for the sake of doing something? What will be the result if we don't do it?"
Bill McKibben responds:
What a good and useful question. The figure of a 5% annual reduction in "carbon intensity" of our planet comes from a source most Angelenos will recognize: the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Turns out that it does more than tally the votes for the Oscars; it also produces a wide variety of reports for various clients as they try to deal with the future.
In this case, its report, published in November, dealt with the following question: What would we need to do if we wanted to keep the planet's temperature from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius, which is the one thing even the planet's most conservative governments, from China to the U.S. to the United Arab Emirates, have agreed on as a climate goal? (A 2-degree increase, it should be noted, is no picnic. So far we've raised the temperature 1 degree, and that's been enough to melt much of the Arctic ice, so most scientists are horrified by the thought of a 2-degree rise. But on our current path, we're headed for 6 degrees, which is a planet out of science fiction.)
Cutting emissions by 5% annually will be a very tall task; it's far faster than we've gone in the past. It would require, in essence, putting our economies on a wartime footing, as we make the transition to renewable energy our highest societal priority.
Past wartime experience would indicate that yes, this will cost money. It would also indicate that the newly rebuilt economy will be far more efficient and productive — think back and compare the prewar economy of the 1930s and the postwar one of the 1950s.
As for "destroying modern economies," the real danger lies in not doing anything about climate change. The most robust attempt to tally the likely damage — from the economist Nicholas Stern, who had been commissioned by the British government — found that the cost of unchecked global warming could pass the combined cost of both world wars and the Depression. To understand how such a thing might happen, consider the costs of this year's drought and Superstorm Sandy: $100 billion price tags start to add up (and of course the biggest price was born by poor consumers around the world, many of whom saw the price of their daily bread rise painfully out of reach).
Bottom line: not easy or cheap, but easier and cheaper than the alternative of a hopelessly overheating world.