At the Brink of Disaster, Finding Each Other

A talk given by Dick Russell, at the VII International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, November 29, 2009, in Viterbo, Italy

(with acknowledgment to my friend Ross Gelbspan for allowing me to utilize his writings on the climate crisis: see

Recently I attended another conference, this one on “green building,” in the southwestern United States. More than 27,000 people came from all around the country, a very impressive gathering. And it was here that I learned about a little town in the heartland of America called Greensburg, Kansas. Probably you’ve never heard of it. I hadn’t. But it is an amazing example of people coming together to make a difference, following a natural disaster that devastated their community.

Like so many other places in rural America, Greensburg was struggling. The kids were leaving after high school, and the population of 1,400 was increasingly elderly.

Then, on May 4, 2007, everything changed. Storms are becoming more powerful as the climate heats up, and that night a 17-mile-wide tornado with winds exceeding 200 miles an hour damaged or destroyed more than 90 percent of Greensburg’s structures, including all the public buildings. Eleven of its citizens were killed. The rest had to disperse, as there was no place for them to live.

A week later, a meeting was called under a big tent in what used to be the city center, to see how many might want to try to rebuild. Five hundred people showed up. One choice was to rebuild quickly in the same old way, something a number of people wanted. But, as school superintendent Darin Hedrick said, the town had “been on a slow process toward extinction” – and what was to keep that from happening?

Enter Daniel Wallach, who lived about 50 miles away and, with his wife, had the idea to establish a non-profit called Greensburg Green-town. And that’s the direction they headed, toward becoming the “greenest” community in America. The 800 citizens who wanted to return all said “yes.” With support from the federal and state government, a sustainable master plan was drawn up.

Townspeople overcame their fear of outsiders telling them what to do, revitalizing the pioneer spirit that created the town in the first place. When Greensburg’s motto changed from “For Future Growth” to “For Future Generations,” Wallach said, “that’s when I knew this was about people and community.” Greensburg was no longer in the “middle of nowhere,” but the “middle of everywhere.”

The county courthouse, the hospital, the school are all sustainably certified. Today Greensburg has become an educational model. A community wind farm provides 100 percent renewable energy. The new county courthouse, hospital and school are all sustainably certified. All the new homes are 30 to 80 percent more efficient than code. In the process, 200 “green jobs” have been created. The school has natural daylighting, and is a source of pride to the youngsters. Architectural students from the University of Kansas built an Art Center in Kansas City and trucked it out to Greensburg.

The mayor summed it all up like this: “We were called to a higher responsibility, a sense of community that came from losing everything you have. We learned that the only truly sustainable thing in life is your relationships with each other.”

Does it take a disaster to bring people together? Today the global financial system continues to unravel with devastating consequences. The escalating threat of terrorism, driven by persistent inequity between the world’s rich and poor, seems immune to military solutions. The global climate, as we have learned at this conference, stands at the threshold of runaway changes. Every country is beginning to feel the impacts of our increasingly unstable climate.

The threat of escalating climate change transcends national boundaries. Nations recognize sovereignty; nature does not. If there is any issue that contains the seeds for a permanent state of conflict — over food shortages, water scarcity, and displaced populations — it is global warming. Last December, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a global green New Deal. “The economic crisis is serious,” he said. “Yet when it comes to climate change, the stakes are far higher.”

What is needed is a one-stop solution that transcends traditional coalitions and national antagonisms and brings the nations of the world together in a common global project. In short, a coordinated global public-works program to rewire the world with clean energy. In the United States, after eight years of denial under the Bush Administration, President Obama’s proposed 10-year clean energy investment of about $150 billion would certainly boost domestic production of windmills and solar panels and help jumpstart the economy. But it would do nothing to address global economic inequity. Even if the U.S. were to dramatically cut our carbon emissions, those cuts would be overwhelmed by the coming pulse of carbon from India, China, Mexico, Nigeria, and all the developing countries which are struggling to feed and educate their people and can scarcely afford massive investments in clean energy.

So today’s globalized economy requires a global initiative to counteract a worldwide economic recession. A global public-works program — with something like $300 billion a year in predictable North-South capital flows — would provide a much-needed ballast to counteract the wild market swings that have helped destabilize the global economy. The relentless poverty that afflicts about two-thirds of the world’s people, moreover, requires that such projects provide tangible economic opportunities for the world’s poorest residents. Development economists tell us that every dollar invested in energy in poor countries creates far more jobs and far more wealth than the same dollar invested in any other segment of their economies. A transition to clean energy would create millions of new jobs in the developing world.

A model for how to achieve this, which a group of experts in the U.S. has drawn up, is the one I’d like to tell you about today. This model is not the only way to accomplish the task. But, unlike most other approaches, it is appropriate to the scope and urgency of the challenge.

The Clean Energy Transition plan includes three strategies:

  • In industrial countries, the withdrawal of subsidies from fossil fuels and the establishment of equivalent subsidies for clean energy sources;
  • The creation of a large fund — perhaps through a small tax on global finance — to transfer clean energy technologies to developing countries; and,
  • The incorporation within a new global climate treaty of a progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year.

On the subsidy issue, the United States currently spends about $45 billion a year to subsidize carbon fuels. In the industrial countries overall, those subsidies have been estimated at about $250 billion a year. The industrial nations should phase out subsidies for oil and coal and create equivalent subsidies for clean energy technologies. The lion’s share of the subsidies could still be available to the major energy companies to retrain their workers and re-tool to become aggressive developers of wind farms, solar systems, and fuel cells.

But even if the countries of the North were dramatically to reduce emissions, those cuts would be overwhelmed by the escalating carbon emissions from large developing countries. So a second element of the plan involves the creation of a fund of about $300 billion a year for about a decade to jump-start renewable energy infrastructures in developing countries.

That fund could be financed by any number of sources. An extremely promising mechanism involves a very small tax on international currency transactions, named after its developer, the late Nobel prize-winning economist James Tobin. (These transactions occur as a normal part of business as governments and companies exchange yen for dollars and dollars for euros.) Today, the commerce in currency transactions exceeds $1.5 trillion a day. A tax of a quarter-penny on a dollar on those transactions would net out to about $300 billion a year, which could go toward wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in Mexico, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and vast, solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East. In short, the proposal involves a small tax on global finance to preserve the global environment.

Since currency transactions are electronically tracked by the private banking system, the need for a large, cumbersome bureaucracy could be avoided by paying the banks a small fee to administer the fund. That fee would offset their loss of income from the contraction in currency trading that would result from the tax. The use of the banks to administer the fund would, moreover, discourage corruption. The plan would require banks to publicly post fully transparent reports on their verification of construction benchmarks to ensure that the funds went directly into clean energy projects. Perhaps equally as important, the banks’ role in administering the fund could provide a social mission and a sense of purpose for an industry that sorely needs a new, moral facelift. This arrangement would eliminate the need for a new cumbersome international agency. The only new bureaucracy that would be required would be a small international auditing agency to oversee the banks’ administration of the fund, to provide equal access for all energy vendors, and to further minimize corruption in recipient countries.

If a currency transaction tax proves unacceptable, a carbon tax in industrial countries or a tax on international airline travel could fill the same function. Regardless of its revenue source, the fund — on the ground — would be allocated according to a U.N. formula that specifies what percentage of each year’s fund would go to each developing country. If India, for instance, were to receive $5 billion in the first year, it would then decide what mix of wind farms, village solar installations, fuel-cell generators, and biogas facilities it needed. The Indian government (in this hypothetical example) would then entertain bids for these facilities. As contractors reached specified benchmarks, they would be paid directly by the banks. As self-replicating renewable infrastructures took root in developing countries, the fund could simply be phased out. Alternatively, progressively larger amounts of the fund could be diverted to other global environment and development needs.

The third element of the plan — which makes it all work — calls for subordinating the inequitable and ineffective mechanism of international carbon trading to a simple progressive Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard which goes up by 5 percent per year. This mechanism, if incorporated into an international agreement, would harmonize and guide a global energy transition in a way that emissions trading cannot. Under this approach, every country would start at its current baseline to increase its fossil fuel energy efficiency by 5 percent every year until a global 70 percent reduction is attained. In other words, a country would produce the same amount of goods as the previous year with 5 percent less carbon fuel. Alternatively, it would produce 5 percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the previous year. Since no economy grows at 5 percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.

For the first few years of the efficiency standard, most countries would likely meet their goals by implementing low-cost or even profitable efficiencies — the “low-hanging fruit” — in their current energy systems. After a few years, however, as those efficiencies became more expensive to capture, countries would meet the progressively more stringent standard by drawing more and more energy from new, clean energy installations — most of which are 100 percent efficient by a Fossil Fuel Standard. That, in turn, would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them economically competitive with coal and oil.

This mechanism would also be far easier to monitor than emissions trading, with its morass of legalistic and excruciatingly arcane loopholes. A nation’s compliance would be measured simply by calculating the annual change in the ratio of its total carbon fuel use to its gross domestic product. That ratio would have to change by 5 percent a year.

A project of this scope would create millions of new jobs — especially in developing countries. It would begin to turn impoverished and dependent countries into trading partners. It would jump the renewable energy industry into being a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.

One hopeful accident of timing is that the climate crisis does coincide with other trends. The economy is becoming truly globalized. The globalization of communications now makes it possible for anyone to communicate with anyone else anywhere else in the world. And, since it is no respecter of national boundaries, the global climate is now impacting every corner of the world. Ultimately, a global public-works program to rewire the world with clean energy has the potential to bring the people of the world together around a common global project to preserve both a robust global economy and, hopefully, a stable and secure human habitat.

The key to our civilized survival lies in an enhanced sense of community. We can no longer maintain the fiction that we can thrive as isolated individuals. As a former Argentine climate negotiator said: “We are all…in the same boat – and there’s no way half the boat is going to sink.” To keep ourselves afloat, it is critical that we elevate the ethic of cooperation over the deeply ingrained reflex of competition. We need to emphasize our biological similarities over our geographical differences. We need to recognize our common humanness to prepare together for a very difficult future. Finally, we need to realize that nature is giving us an unprecedented opportunity for a new beginning for the human enterprise – in short, one more chance to finally get it right.

As happened in Greensburg, Kansas, there will be some chaos and some breakdowns in our civic lives. But it is precisely those breakdowns that will create the space for people who can help lay the groundwork for reconstructing a society which is truly based on the principles of social justice. The crisis will be providing an opportunity to help shape a global society in which exploitation is replaced by a much greater degree of equity between rich and poor, in which all of the planet’s inhabitants have the right to participate in a truly democratized world and, ultimately, in laying the groundwork for a whole new era of peace – peace among people and peace between people and nature.

There is no body of expertise – no authoritative answers – for this one. We are crossing a threshold into uncharted territory. And since there is no precedent to guide us, we are left with only our own hearts to consult, whatever courage we can muster, the intellectual integrity to look reality in the eye and an uncompromising dedication to a human future that reflects the combined aspirations of every single person in this room.