Friday, August 22, 2014

Waking the Frog Before We Boil

Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis

By Tom Rand
ECW Press, 2014 
245 pages, $29.95

You've probably heard the story before.

A frog leaps into a pot of water that happens to be sitting 
on a stove. Being coldblooded, he lazes away, oblivious as the temperature creeps up from cold, to warm, to hot. 

Only as the water nears the boiling point does he register danger. But by then his muscles have been paralyzed by the heat.

The water boils. The frog dies in agony. End of story.

That's the gruesome metaphor that frames Canadian climate activist Tom Rand's analysis of the pot we're stewing in as a civilization thanks to climate disruption – the result of anthropogenic (we did it) global warming – and the froglike fallibilities of human psychology, our destructively “free” markets and our ineffectual political systems.

Rand chooses the expression “climate disruption” in favour of the familiar “climate change” hoping it will bypass the frog's powerful denial mechanism. “The term,” he explains, “helps circumvent the nonsense that this warming is part of a natural cycle and emphasizes our contribution to the coming changes and the speed at which they are approaching.”

Rand brings a versatile skill-set to a subject usually tackled by more specialized writers (climate scientists, environmentalists, science writers).

To begin with, he's smart (doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto). He's also a good writer, with a lively didactic style. And as a seasoned entrepreneur and cleantech venture capitalist, Rand has an insider's grasp of the world's dominant (if not only, for all intents and purposes) economic system: free market capitalism, with the emphasis on “free,” as in the world's dominant economy south of the border. As a result, Rand's critique of this runaway train – and of the ideologues who fetishize its “invisible hand” to the point of letting it reset the planet's climate – is insightful and, more importantly, constructive.

Tom Rand
Left to its own devices, the free market is happy to keep distracting us frogs with shiny, fossil fuel-powered objects, lulling us into complacency. But just as the market needs limits when it comes to selling us cigarettes, alcohol and other destructive products, same with our dirty energy habit. Indeed, with adult supervision (ethical, responsible regulations), the market could – no, must – be the engine that gets us out of this pot, argues Rand. 

But that's going to take a lot of horsepower, given the enormity of the energy transition the world must make, and fast. It's going to require an all-hands-on-deck effort, and that means including the Darth Vaders of the old energy order. 

“Exxon is not going to be replaced; it must be forced to evolve,” says Rand.  He means that literally. The titans of the fossil fuel economy, which carry the clout of trillions of dollars on their balance sheets, must be compelled, if necessary, to beat their oil rigs into wind turbines. Their deep capital reserves must be repurposed from profiting by disrupting the climate to profiting by protecting it. 

To give an example of how cost-effective “de-carboning” (Rand's word) the economy can be, Rand describes one of his own entrepreneurial achievements. Planet Traveler, a hostel in downtown Toronto, is, to the best of his knowledge, “North America's lowest-carbon hotel.” By retrofitting the popular, five-storey hostel with largely Canadian-made geothermal heating and cooling, solar thermal water heating, PV solar electricity panels, super-efficient LED lighting and other green technology, Rand and his partners leveraged an investment worth just 5 percent of the building's value to slash its energy use by 75 percent. They wound up saving money while taking on what is probably the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions: the homes and buildings we live and work in. 

Planet Traveler is a case-in-point of what's right with smart green investment and what's wrong with the backward-looking economics embraced by governments like our own (the federal one). Writes Rand:

“If every building did what we did – and most could – Canada would zoom past our abandoned Kyoto promises! To hear Canada's government talk about it, hitting those Kyoto targets would render us uncompetitive, poorer. Absolute nonsense.”

Rand is full of bright ideas like this, from the obvious ones – like an all-important price on carbon to “simultaneously harness and unleash the most powerful tool we have at our disposal: the market” – to the more original, such as “green bonds” (national and municipal “war bonds for the environment”) and other innovative financial instruments of mass decarbonisation.

If you've ever tried to wake a sleeping frog, you'll know that the facts of climate change too often fall on aggressively unreceptive ears (Rand also discusses this vexatious psychology of climate change denial). But a shower of carrots and sticks that make climate-friendly choices profitable and rewarding – now that's a language few can resist. It's enough to make a lazing frog perk up and smell the opportunities. 

Reviewed by Syd Baumel

No comments:

Post a Comment