Waking the frog

In his new book, Waking the Frog, Tom Rand tackles the question of why we, like the metaphorical frog in the boiling pot, are just sitting and doing nothing while the carbon count rises and the climate gets more disruptive.

Rand makes clear he doesn’t think we have to boil to death. “The good news is that we can solve the climate problem,” he writes. “The capital we need sits in our pension funds and money markets, the policy tools to unlock it are well understood and emerging innovations are fully capable of powering our civilization.”

Yet the fossil fuel party keeps rockin’ in the face of the risks, challenges and opportunities. The vested interests, the captains of industry, the politicians are all “paid very well to continue doing what they do.” They hire pseudo-experts to confuse and deny. They claim change is natural and we have nothing to do with it. They claim that it is simple fraud. They claim that other issues should have priority.

Rand explains why people so easily “rest blissfully in denial.” He distinguishes between “active” and “passive” deniers. Active deniers, he explains, are those who don’t actually believe what they are saying when they go on about it all being a left-wing plot to create a new world government. Passive deniers are similar to those who lived through the cold war years – they suffer from the “psychic numbing” of living under the constant threat of nuclear destruction, so they simply put the issue out of their minds.

“There are lots of reasons for passive denial,” he writes. “It’s not unreasonable. We may feel powerless or overwhelmed. We might want to avoid feelings of guilt. We are afraid of what it means for our children.”

Rand proposes a way to change the conversation and suggests that we take advantage of our cognitive biases, put on a happy face, and promote “a brave new world of clean energy abundance and sustainable economic growth.” The trouble is, everyone kind of likes things the way they are, with their cars and their granite counters their plane flights. Party on. But as notes, “The best parties are often followed by the worst hangovers, and the fossil fuel party has been a great one.”

Indeed it has. Unfortunately, we keep doing everything we can to postpone that hangover, thanks to hair-of-the-dog innovations like fracking and arctic drilling aimed at squeezing those last bits of hydrocarbons out of rocks and seabeds. Yet Rand says we have to cut our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2030. “It’s a massive affair. Replacing it in a generation – which we must do if we are to avoid catastrophic climate disruption – is daunting.” To do so, he proposes an energy moon shot – “a publicly directed new low-carbon energy mission that unlocks the engineering, industrial and financial might of the global market economy.”

It’s a huge job, writes Rand. Indeed, it’s much more ambitious in scope than the original moon shot. “The energy moon shot is a multi-stakeholder effort. Everyone rows in the same direction. Science sets the goal. Government provides the right policy support. Industry’s job is to get us there, not obfuscate the science or lobby against the policy. Industrialists, financiers, and captains of industry contribute to the debate and start by saying, ‘We get it, we’re on it.’”

This 21st century moon shot would include a serious carbon tax, next-generation nuclear (breeder reactors), carbon capture and enhanced geothermal systems that tap the heat of the earth 10 kilometres down. That’s big stuff requiring big engineering, reflecting Rand’s own bias as an optimistic engineer.

Then there is the low hanging fruit that you pick by fixing buildings. Rand did it himself with his own Planet Traveller hotel in Toronto, cutting its carbon footprint by three-quarters. The irony here is that having a planet of travellers comes with a much larger carbon footprint, and as Rand writes, “we’ll never go without long distance air travel… it’s part of the glue that makes us a global community.”

So we’re left with the belief that we can all live in a brave new world, all row in the same direction, and at the same time we can get captains of industry to say “we’re on it!” Rand is truly convinced we can avoid the hangover.

But the unanswered question remains: Will we?

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