On the eve of Earth Day, a new Gallup poll finds that Americans "just can't seem to get worked up" about global warming. While 61% believe the effects of global warming have already begun, just 37% worry about it a "great deal."1 The latter figure has remained basically unchanged for the past 20 years. And global warming doesn't fare well when compared to other environmental issues: Only two environmental problems -- urban sprawl and acid rain -- worry Americans less than global warming. This despite the fact that 80% claim to already understand the issue well or very well.
These numbers tend to support a conclusion that I have reluctantly come around to in the last few months as the climatic clock has moved closer to midnight: If humanity succeeds in avoiding planetary disaster, it will not be due to a "great awakening" of populations in the United States or elsewhere. Instead, the best chance of rescue now lies with a minority in the private sector bolstered by a small number of public sectors -- mainly regional (California, for example) or European -- willing to help finance technological change of the necessary scale and speed to save the rest.
The fact remains that most people and politicians in the wealthiest societies -- many of whom are kind, well-meaning, and compassionate in hundreds of other ways -- remain mired in the more immediate, personal struggles of their lives and constituents or the endless and tiring sprint to stay atop the consumption treadmill. And in developing societies like India and China, the desire for more energy is as morally just and understandable as it is silly to stand in the way.
At this point, the successful global warming end-game will not be one in which human behavior is fundamentally changed for the better. I know that is difficult for many in the environmental community (myself included) to accept, especially given the myriad of ecological problems facing the planet -- most of them stemming from the profligacy of our uber-species. If the world were populated by 6.5 billion saints (or a far smaller number of lesser souls), or if the atmospheric point of no return were a century in the future, we might rely upon a new level of awareness and behavior to lead the way. But we are not saints and the red line is less than 10 years away.
Under these circumstances, supplying vast amounts of clean energy extremely quickly and at lower cost than the dirty alternatives is the only way out. Or, to put it differently, if we succeed in avoiding catastrophic climate change, most people on Earth will have little idea how it was done. Other than using electric heating and cooking appliances and charging their car at night, they may well live no differently than today.2
Public awareness campaigns like that launched by Al Gore are valuable for a range of reasons, but the mechanisms by which they primarily operate (personal behavioral change and elections) are too slow given the state of the atmosphere and the required changes. With only 37% of Americans really worried about climate change and a recession looming, I see little chance of a large-scale political movement in this country or many others where emissions are booming. We are like an oblivious toddler dancing on the edge of a very tall cliff. At some point, the wiser parent tires of warning the child to move away from edge, walks over, picks it up, and simply carries it to a place where the self-absorbed fun can continue in relative safety.
Luckily, we have a handful of technologies capable of producing the end-game described above and moving our toddler-like species away from the edge. In fact, I am incredibly optimistic about our chances to avoid catastrophic climate change! When Gore says that we should "approach this challenge with a sense of profound joy and gratitude," I know where he's coming from: With a targeted and purposeful push to drive down the prices of clean alternatives, we could get the large quantities of clean energy required to avoid the worst.
Who will provide that push? I'm banking on a cadre of venture capitalists, institutional investors, and forward-looking governments that pool resources to do something that is unheard of in conventional climate proposals: A concerted effort to pick specific technologies with a chance of beating fossil fuels on cost alone in the very near future.
1For comparison, even the notoriously cautious IPCC reports at least 80% certainly that recent warming is already severely impacting ecosystems.
2This is particularly true of activities where carbon-free electricity can be used to meet energy needs. Emissions from agricultural expansion present a different challenge, however, and changes in food consumption patterns and population growth may be required.