Easy cure for global warming?
Thirty years ago, in the lakes and forests of the eastern United States, scientists noted a mysterious decline in plant and animal life. They soon pinpointed the culprit: Pollution was acidifying rain and snow. What followed is a heartening environmental success story.
In 1990, a federal law created the world’s first “cap and trade” system, which placed a limit on sulfur dioxide emissions. Under the law, companies were allowed to buy emission rights if they needed extra; if they managed to emit less than their share, they could sell the surplus. Rather than prescribe a specific way to reduce pollution, the scheme encouraged creativity, while the profit motive incentivized the deepest possible emission cuts. As a result, acid rain is a problem we now associate with the savings-and-loan crisis and Def Leppard.
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, recounts this achievement in “Earth: The Sequel,” written with journalist and fellow defense fund staffer Miriam Horn. Krupp helped to spearhead the reform, and now he promotes the same approach to the more unwieldy challenge of global warming. In this highly informative if rather bloodless book, Krupp explores the energy sources that he predicts will both power our future and jump-start economic growth. “No single technology will stop global warming,” the authors write, “but there is a silver bullet: a cap on carbon that will launch all these solutions into the mainstream.”
Focus on technology
Imaginative research is already underway as Silicon Valley geeks and other visionaries take on the challenge. We hear about startups with names like Innovalight and Verdiem. We learn in detail about efforts to harness the energy of the sun, the ocean, the Earth itself and biomass. For instance, one section describes work with algae, which show tremendous promise as both a fuel source and as carbon dioxide consumer. Obstacles remain to deploying algae on a large scale, but after a setback -- the algae grew faster than they could be harvested -- engineer Ray Hobbs is undeterred: “If you succeed the first time, you won’t really understand why.” Another researcher is extraordinarily fond of his algae, which, he insists, are “not pond scum. They’re the sweetest creatures.”
Krupp and Horn offer several other intriguing glimpses into the minds of inventors as well as a few colorful character sketches. By and large, though, the human dimension plays a secondary role in “Earth: The Sequel.” The technologies themselves hog the spotlight. The authors deserve a great deal of credit for spelling out the science, but readers should be warned that many of the explanatory passages are dense with terms like “syngas” and “hemicellulose.” Much of the book reads rather like a textbook for a college course about renewable energy.
An odd lack of narrative voice compounds the impersonal tone. Ostensibly by Krupp, the book refers to him several times in the third person. The pronoun “I” never appears. Obviously this is the awkward result of delegating the book’s composition to Horn. A first-person narrator -- a stand-in for the reader, telling the story of visiting research sites and learning about the technologies -- could have made for a livelier narrative.
Nevertheless, the descriptions of these emerging technologies are valuable and even tantalizing. One chapter reviews the many ways that we could reduce emissions through efficiency. New software, for instance, enables schools and businesses to shut down idle computers through their networks. There are aerodynamic automobile designs that would sharply increase mileage (not to mention make drivers feel like extras in “Blade Runner”). Another area of innovation is the controversial campaign to remove carbon dioxide from the air -- through “sequestration” deep underground or a “Stairway to Heaven” that would send the gas into outer space using lasers and radio waves.
Although this last scheme may be far-fetched, so many possibilities are within reach or could be soon -- but only, Krupp repeatedly stresses, if the market is mobilized by a carbon cap-and-trade system. Such a scheme would place a limit on carbon dioxide emissions, divide the total among polluters and allow them to trade on a carbon market. Thanks to the profit motive, he believes it would more effectively unleash the potential of the market than a carbon tax, which would simply make fossil fuels more expensive. A tax also cannot guarantee meeting emission targets as a strict cap could.
Shades of green
Advocates of the tax, however, consider a tax easier to understand and administer, better at preventing price volatility and less vulnerable to manipulation by special interests, although the book does not mention any of this. Krupp makes a strong case for his preferred system, but one wishes he had fully engaged his opponents’ arguments to prove that his case stands up against theirs.
The debate over whether climate change is real, scary and our fault is essentially over. Now the debate about how to address it has begun in earnest -- and it goes far beyond the disputes discussed here about how to tweak the market. Krupp’s more radical counterparts would ask: How can the two forces that arguably got us into this mess -- technology and the market -- be expected to save us from it? In the end, writers such as Bill McKibben argue, our ecological straits will call for a thoroughgoing interrogation of our lifestyles, consumption and values -- and an economic philosophy that no longer reveres growth.
There are many shades of green, and this variegation is on balance an asset to environmentalism. Entrepreneurship may not be a panacea, but the Environmental Defense Fund’s business-friendly ethos has resulted in genuine achievements. No environmentalist would deny that new technology will need to play a crucial role in the effort to contain global warming and that, in the short term, a government policy reflecting the cost of carbon emissions is essential. “Earth: The Sequel” is a welcome contribution to an increasingly heated discussion.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is associate editor at Boston Review Books.