Down on Doha?

Why national governments and the latest U.N. climate talks aren’t the answer.

"InternationalToday begins week two of the latest U.N. Climate Change Conference, this edition held in Doha, Qatar. Representatives from nearly 200 countries are in attendance at the event, which comes on the heels of a new World Bank report forecasting that a global temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius by 2100—a disconcertingly plausible scenario, based on scientific predictions—would bring about dramatic sea level rise, crop failures, malnutrition, and other doom and gloom reasons to sit up and take note.

It is another call for change and definitive action in the climate arena. Multiple levers exist for driving such change, including top-down policy, bottom-up consumer activism, and in the case of RMI, business innovation that helps capture value … economic, environmental, and societal. But lately, the world has seen that policy actions sometimes aren’t strong enough to usher in the degree of change that’s needed most.

Despite the seeming urgency of the situation, the mood surrounding this year’s U.N. climate talks has been pessimistic, as reported in the Washington Post at the beginning of last week. Environmentalists and less developed nations alike were concerned that there would be too much talk and too little action. Despite the fact that 1997’s Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012, in less than one month, “this year’s round of talks is not expected to produce any major breakthroughs,” wrote Juliet Eilperin in the Post.


Some held out hope for the possibility of a Kyoto 2.0, a new pact which would be signed by 2015 and which would take effect in 2020, notes National Geographic. But would such an agreement be too little too late, many wondered?

By the end of last week, such hopes had all but faded away. Calls for developed nations to agree to deeper legally binding carbon emissions cuts fell on seemingly deaf ears.

The Associated Press (via U.S. News & World Report) reported on Friday that Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s climate change secretariat, was urging people “not to look solely to their governments to make tough decisions to slow global warming, and instead to consider their own role in solving the problem,” and that “whatever comes out of Doha is not at the level of ambition that we need.” Policy has, thus far, fallen short.

"CO2 Perhaps fittingly, then, today marks the final stop on the nationwide Do the Math tour of author, environmental activist, and founder Bill McKibben. Not content to sit on the sidelines of the climate change crisis, McKibben is on a mission to get global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (currently at 392 ppm) back below 350 ppm, the threshold most climate scientists agree is the tipping point for irreversible climate change.

He and his Do the Math tour are working toward that goal, not by leveraging national governments, but by exerting economic influence via consumer activism. In particular, he’s seeking to inspire a swell of grassroots activism on college and university campuses across the country, prompting higher education institutions to divest their sizeable endowment investment portfolios of fossil fuel companies. By Friday, more than 100 such movements had already taken shape, and early last month Maine’s Unity College announced it would be the first to fully divest its endowment portfolio of fossil fuels (by unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees).

Such outcomes are a cogent reminder of the power of economic forces to shape our energy and climate future. While McKibben’s Do the Math tour rallies the economic strength of consumer activism, RMI’s Reinventing Fire demonstrates a different brand of economic force, one driven by the businesses themselves in search of capturing value. Reinventing Fire offers a window into a future in which the U.S. energy landscape no longer depends on oil and coal, instead buoyed by energy efficiency and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

That future is economically compelling—providing some $5 trillion in net present value to the U.S. economy—and there’s an equally compelling climate case to be made as well. Based on RMI research and analysis, the brighter energy future envisioned in Reinventing Fire would reduce 2050 domestic carbon dioxide emissions from 6.6 gigatons per year under business-as-usual forecasts to just 1.1 or less gigatons per year. That outcome would bring U.S. carbon emissions below the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change target of an 80% reduction from 2000 levels by 2050.

Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change at the Climate Institute, told the Post, “Developed countries need to show a modern economy can prosper on low greenhouse gas emissions.” Reinventing Fire demonstrates just that, and the time to usher in that future is now, regardless of the outcome of the talks at Doha.

Highlighted Resources


A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Boulder Evaluates Climate Plan


Tips for Campus Sustainability Planning


Some images courtesy of Shutterstock.