OK. I am guilty.
Of what you say?
Well… I plead guilty to always talking and acting as if doing climate-beneficial things was simple and easy. After all, all you have to do is think ONLY of climate change when you make any decision, right?
It’s not that simple, is it.
Climate is not “job 1” for most people. Yet our climate future will depend on hundreds of thousands (more?) decisions large and small. Many of them may look like no-brainers if the decision-maker views them only through only a climate lens. But they will not be doing that. And this is what I have been thinking of based on some things that have (virtually) crossed my desk lately.
Put yourself in the shoes of the leader of an African country where a large new gas deposit has been found. Your country is considered a “Developing” nation. Your country (not to mention your continent) is responsible for only a micro-portion of historical emissions. You have a share of the estimated 600,000 African’s yet to have electricity access.
You look at the largest and most robust economy in the world and know that it is responsible for the largest share of historical emissions. You also know that it is the largest gas exporter in the world and continues to drill for more.
You look at the buzz being made over creation of special international funds and financing for developing countries, and the fact that COP29 reached agreement on reparations. But you also know that the country pledges so far are not enough to fully fund these things. And you know that country pledges are just that – a pledge, and climate pledges have had a way of changing.
So – put yourself in the shoes of a leader of this Country. What would you do?
Oh….and this is not a hypothetical that I created. It is the situation in Senegal as described in this article.
Let’s look at another example.
You are the head of the entity responsible for ensuring the reliability of the electricity system in a defined area. But wait – reliability is being defined in two ways: reliability of supply and reliability of delivery. And there’s more: you are also supposed to make sure that a fair price for electricity ultimately consumed.
And then carbon emissions and climate change are added on top of all of that.
If you are this person, you understand that solar and wind are the cheapest things you can add to the grid. You understand that despite claims to the contrary, it is those resources – not the gas plants – that helped Texas make it through the extreme weather they had a couple of years ago. You also know that distributed resources (DER) make sense, especially for reliability and security.
But you also know that there are utilities and other parties that stand ready, willing, and able to build a gas plant – peaking plant or otherwise. You know that gas is available and abundant. You know that a gas plant is a generator. You can pretty much turn it on when you want.
So … put yourself in the shoes of this person or entity – What do you do?
Again, not a hypothetical. The head of the North American Electric Reliability Corp was recently quoted as saying “The resource that keeps the lights on is natural gas. And it’s not because I love natural gas. It’s because I love the performance of natural gas generation” He is not the only one in the PJM footprint saying things like that.
Now for example 3.
You are the head of an electric utility. You have an obligation to serve all customers. You are the wires company, and responsible for the maintenance and operation of all or part of the physical grid.
If you are an Investor-Owned Utility (IOU) you are under constant vigilance of and pressure from your state public utility commission and Wall Street. You also are responsible to stockholders, and responsible for spinning off dividends and practicing fiduciary accountability.
You know that you are still working with a business model that was put in place a long time ago, and it is one that incentivizes you to build things, or “put iron in the ground” as the saying goes.
Your industry sector is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. You are expected to totally change your company so that you still provide electricity, but with no such emissions while also keeping all those people above happy.
Step into those shoes … what would you do?
Let’s not forget some other shoes.
What would you do if you were an investor who knew that by investing in a portfolio with fossil fuel companies you would get higher returns than investing in one with only clean energy ones. The natural thing, for better or for worse, is to seek higher returns so that we put the proverbial food on the table and pay for college. How do you make that investment decision?
How would you vote if you knew that a ballot question that would reduce emissions would also raise the cost of your energy bill?
So … what is my point in dumping such long thoughts?
I have three:
1. It is easy to say that climate should be Job 1, but it’s not that easy in practice. Climate action does not exist in a vacuum.
2. Because of that, there is a tendency to act on climate in incremental, “small-ball” fashion, essentially fitting it into the other metrics we are already beholden to.
3. Because of that, emissions are continuing to rise even though many emission-reducing actions are taking place. The latter just aren’t big enough or being done fast enough.
So, what should we do about this? How do we make it easier to make not just climate decisions, but climate decisions that meet the need for magnitude and speed?
I have several ideas, with many of them focusing on policy, which can often alleviate a post-policy decision-maker of tough decisions, but this Op Ed is already too long. (:
What about you? If you have just tried stepping into any of the shoes above, what do you think would cause you to make more climate-positive decisions? If you are trying to induce greater climate action on the part of a decision-maker, what should you do? What would you support?
I would love to hear your thoughts.