What you can do in 2020 to keep the world from burning up: Don Pittis

One of Canada's foremost climate economists has developed a strategy that he is confident will work, but beware those who are deluding themselves - or politicians who are "faking it."

Fighting climate change is hard but possible if we focus on the best techniques

A firefighter battles a blaze in New South Wales, Australia, where the country set a new record high temperature just before Christmas. (Gena Dray via Reuters)

Just before Christmas, two Australian firefighters died battling a blaze spurred by record high temperatures that have swept the country — just as the government was celebrating rising coal exports.

For people trying to take action against climate change in 2020, it is easy to be dispirited by the fact that rich countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States continue to produce more carbon while international climate negotiations end in squabbling.

If anyone could be excused for giving in to despair, one candidate might be Mark Jaccard, energy economist and adviser to world leaders, who has watched successive deadlines pass and global temperatures rise over a career trying to guide the world away from what he and other climate scientists call an economic and even an existential crisis.

While he is saddened by missed opportunities, Jaccard, known in global climate circles as a leading architect of British Columbia's successful climate struggle, wants to tell the world there is hope.

Turning the tide in 2020

For those confused about what they can do in the coming year to help win the battle against climate change, he offers a strategy that he believes can turn the tide. He says winning does not require transforming us all into climate believers.

"The solution is easier than that," says the Simon Fraser University professor from his Vancouver home where he is busy marking and editing a chapter for a new policy paper. "Not easy. But easier than convincing everyone."

He admits that in fossil fuel-producing areas of the world like Australia and Alberta, there are many who will remain impossible to sway.

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg attends a Fridays for Future protest in Turin, Italy, in December. Jaccard says climate change action cannot wait for the overthrow of capitalism or the end of economic growth. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

The quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair opens one of the chapters in Jaccard's forthcoming book The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success, but with polls showing a majority of people in many parts of the world anxious to act on climate change, the deniers and profiteers are not necessarily the main problem.

In a movement populated by idealists, Jaccard is a self-admitted pragmatist. In conversation and in his writing, he takes a cynical view of politicians who pay lip service to climate concerns while doing nothing, of those willing to sacrifice the planet's future for their own self-interests, and even of climate ideologues who make the task more difficult than it already is.

Delayed by overthrowing capitalism

Any journalist who has interviewed climate activists has encountered those who say the real problem is eating meat, for example, or that climate change is an inevitable product of capitalism. 

But if we have to convert everyone to vegetarianism or overthrow the capitalist state before moving on to the fight against climate change, it is likely we'll never get to the main job. Certainly not in time.

And while Jaccard says he wants to avoid alienating the many enthusiasts who are fighting climate change in their own way, one of the cornerstones of his strategy for 2020 is to help us narrow the focus down to what is essential, while striking off the to-do list things that might be nice some day or are positively inimical to the climate project.

A crow sits on a barricade in front of New Delhi's India Gate. Eventually countries that manage to cut carbon emissions will have to band together to put tariffs on those who don't, according to Jaccard. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
Among things to strike off the list is the idea that humans must transform their behaviour. Declaring that we must wait for people to stop flying in planes, stop driving cars, eat only vegetables and end economic growth before we can make progress offers an easy out to the powerful forces that would be happy for us to take no action at all.

He is also horrified by those who keep telling us that market forces or innovation by business will do the job for us. Jaccard says that view ignores how useful fossil fuels have been to humanity as a source of concentrated energy and how essential they will continue to be as we make the transition, one that will be far from effortless.

While business can perform a valuable role, with fossil fuels so cheap and easy to use, the economic pressure to act must come from government regulation. Without government rules, the free market would simply continue to use the atmosphere as a free garbage dump for carbon.

Start at home

Jaccard objects to the idea we must wait for an effort like the Second World War or the push to put astronauts on the moon. He says we already have the means to make the transition, if only we had the political will to move toward what he calls "deep decarbonization."

The place to start in 2020 on that decarbonization is not in areas that affect a country's internationally competitive industries. One of the barriers to getting global agreement is that if one country forces its industries go low-carbon their products will be more expensive on world markets, giving the planet's climate free riders a trade advantage.

That's why the first step of Jaccard's strategy is to put the immediate effort on two areas that mostly affect a country's domestic markets. Those two areas, energy production and transport — essentially power plants and cars and trucks — are responsible for the majority of most countries' greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, that transition will lay foundations that will make later industrial decarbonization easier.

Rather than forking out for Faraday Future's luxury electric or buying carbon offsets money for fighting climate change would be better spent on political action, argues scientist Mark Jaccard. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

As we have seen, cutting carbon with carbon pricing or regulation is not politically painless, so the main efforts from citizens should be directed at the political process by encouraging what Jaccard calls "climate-sincere" politicians. Since making real economic changes is politically difficult, politicians prefer ineffective window-dressing that does little except making voters think they are taking action.

"These might include funding for electric vehicle rechargers, a tax-break for wind power, training for electric car technicians, grants for biofuel producers, climate research, adaptation planning, an educational kit for schools ... subsidies for home insulation ... funding for urban transit feasibility studies..." writes Jaccard in a much longer list.

He calls such spending political sleight-of-hand to avoid real action and that merely demonstrates the politicians are not sincere at all. While Jaccard himself drives an electric car and heats his home with an electric heat pump, he says the most important place for concerned citizen to invest in stopping climate change is political action.

The trouble is changing your own personal behaviour by say, selling your car or refusing to fly, may make you feel like you are doing something useful, but the effect is tiny when all your neighbours drive SUVs and air travel continues to soar. 

In fact, rather than trying to assuage your guilt at flying or driving by buying carbon offsets as many are now doing, Jaccard recommends taking the money and donating it to a pro-climate group that can identify and support climate-sincere politicians and point a finger at the majority of those who are "faking it."

Because in the long run, getting carbon out of world's atmosphere cannot be completed by a few individuals doing good, it must instead be a project of people using politics to transform regional and national rules about carbon. Jaccard says those regions and countries will then combine to put carbon tariffs on the world's free riders, not a project for 2020.

But if you need a practical New Year's resolution to get yourself started, you could do worse than ordering a copy of Jaccard's book and reading it before passing it on to friends.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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