12/08/2011 02:33 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

It's Time for Solutions

Now that I've returned from my stint at the Durban Climate Conference, it's clear that the fundamental dynamic we are dealing with is that the global economic crisis has caused most leaders to focus exclusively on short term problems, which has enabled oil and coal and their right-wing allies to prevent even the most sensible precautions and reforms from moving forward.  That dynamic, not the specific outcome of this conference, is what we must find a way to overcome.

It's clear that the urgency of cleaning up carbon pollution is accelerating.  Last year saw the biggest increase in climate threatening emissions in human history.  New studies document that at least 3/4 of the recent warming trend is caused by human climate pollution.  The Texas State Climatologist says that the unprecedented heat and drought afflicting his state are driven by global warming.  The debate over the melting of the Himalyan glaciers is over. And this pollution has other, more immediate consequences -- Beijing Airport, along with major freeways in and out of the Chinese capital, has been shut down by unprecedented particle pollution with hundreds of flights cancelled. 

While the crisis is getting more urgent, action is getting easier.

The cost of alternatives to coal and oil, like solar and wind, keep coming down, while fossils get more expensive.  The out-of-pocket economic cost  of coal-fired power in Asia has doubled since this spring.  The latest round of bids for providing solar energy in India came in at half the level the government had expected, under $0.15/kwh.  In both India and China, wind is now cheaper than coal, and solar only about 30 percent more expensive.  The experts agree that within two or three years solar, too, will be cheaper than coal.

It's also clear that public PERMISSION for leaders to lead on climate is present.  New studies show that the number of Americans who believe that climate change is both real and caused by human pollution is growing, and that a major gap has opened within the Republican party and among independents, with moderates embracing the need for action on climate and clean energy, leaving Tea Party Republicans -- about a fifth of the public -- in an isolated minority.

But at the same time, the ambition of the major emitting governments to lead keeps deflating. Yvo deBoer, who until Copenhagen led UN Climate negotiations, says leaders are failing. "I'm still deeply concerned about where it's going, or rather where it's not going, about the lack of progress."  Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the scientific panel for the UN, the IPCC, told me there is a stunning collapse of ambition.

Durban may yield some modest steps forward.  But environmentalists are still having to arm-wrestle to get the UN's Clean Development program and the World Bank to stop funding coal-fired power plants that are both increasingly uneconomic, major threats to people's health and climate devastating. The U.S. still won't really come forward and embrace innovative financing mechanisms for global climate progress, like small fees on pollution from shipping and aviation.  And it wants to postpone discussions on any kind of binding global agreement until after 2020 -- far too late and even though in the world of Nnimo Bassey of Nigeria,  "Eight years from now is a death sentence on Africa." India seems to have stepped back from some of the progress it made in embracing global climate agreements in Cancun and Copenhagen.

The one bright spot came from China, which came  forward for the first time and said it was prepared to accept a binding, international agreement. China's chief negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, said "major economies including China should be legally obligated to curb greenhouse gas emissions after 2020."

"We accept a legally binding arrangement," he said.  China, reasonably enough, said it would do so only if the industrial world with its much higher per capita income and historically greater climate pollution, moved agressively in the next decade -- exactly what the U.S. is fighting. But neither the US  nor India embraced the Chinese opening, and in response China refused to be drawn into more details.

"A legally-binding comprehensive agreement may not be possible in Durban," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the talks. "But this will have to be our priority."

Talking with local activists around the globe, you hear the same thing.  Leaders are not really paying attention, which means that bureaucrats and special interests, always adept at finding a reason to say "no" or at best "not yet" are driving the process.  While leaders have PERMISSION to move forward, they don't have focused demand. No one wants to go first. Framing is a big part of the problem.   What is really an opportunity to make collective progress is being portrayed as an exercise in burden sharing or ducking the pain.  

Underneath there is the looming reality of a world economic crisis unprecedented since the 1930s. Public opinion data shows that for the first time, broad swathes of the public in rich countries think that things are going to get worse, not better.  Confidence in leadership institutions -- business or government -- has utterly collapsed.  Democracy is seen as failing -- but so (with the singular exception of China) is autocracy in its various forms.

So what do we do after Durban -- however modestly well or badly it comes out?  Perhaps we need to identify three or four MAJOR solution steps -- things specific enough that the world can watch them, see them, smell and touch them -- and demand that they get done, because they are right, because they are prudent and because they are smart.  We ought to stop building uncompetitive, filthy coal plants -- a world-wide moratorium on coal would make an enormous difference.  We can light the lives of the 1.2 billion people without electricity -- the subsidies for just a handful of coal plants would pay for it.  Forests can be invested in, forest dwellers treated fairly.  We can reform agriculture so that it becomes part of the climate solution, and in doing so enhance rural lives and end the pollution that results from toxic industrial agribusiness.  Maybe we need a movement around climate solutions, not just the climate problem.  Because something needs to change.