Comprehensive global warming plan needed soon

So many solutions have been proposed for global warming that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Confusion about how to approach the growing threat abounds in all quarters, from those of government policymakers to the scientific establishment to the thousands of environmentalists confronting the problem.

This is to be expected because the scope and complexity of the challenge is unprecedented. Left unabated, global warming – which is ubiquitous and without borders – threatens to disrupt the global economy and even the stability of the ecosphere.

It’s no wonder, then, that there is confusion about the appropriate responses to the developing crisis. Global warming will affect everyone; therefore, almost everyone has an idea about what should be done.

But few, if any, coherent, systemic solutions have been proposed. Instead, there is a hodgepodge of disconnected ideas, often half-formulated, often contradicting each other, either because of a lack of understanding of the dimensions of the problem or the failure to take an overview of its myriad aspects – or because of conflicting agendas between, say, developed and developing nations or vested interests and the public good.

The numerous partial solutions include proposals for abandoning fossil fuels and adopting new energy sources ranging from solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy to nuclear power; assorted plans for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions including taxing “carbon” and burning “clean coal”; dubious schemes for atmospheric geoengineering; manufacturing more electric cars; increasing rail service; deploying artificial trees; burying biochar; and on and on.

Given enough time, humanity might have the luxury of allowing these proposals to develop, compete, evolve and coalesce into (pardon the phrase) a new world order that addresses global warming and its underlying socioeconomic causes in a pervasive, beneficial fashion. But we don’t have the luxury of allowing such “creative destruction” to act out for the century or more that would be needed to yield tangible results.

We need to formulate a comprehensive plan now that will address global warming within the next 20 years, while we still have a chance of curbing its worst effects or, ideally, reversing it to some extent. We should start by laying out the parameters for a realistic plan that could ultimately meet with success.

The objective is straightforward enough: to reduce the causes and curb the effects of global warming by means that can be implemented with affordable, appropriate technology; are scalable and therefore “democratic”; can work with or without government support; are environmentally nurturing and regenerative; and will advance a relatively smooth transition to sustainable economic and cultural institutions worldwide.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s not necessarily an impossibly tall order. If you look at some of the key concepts – affordable, appropriate, scalable, regenerative, smooth – you’ll see that it’s a minimalist approach to the problem, seeking to do the most with the least.

For example, my three-step proposal for fighting global warming, to be elaborated on in my next column, involves energy conservation, growing plants (mostly trees) to sequester greenhouse gases and adopting regionally appropriate energy and agricultural technologies and practices to displace our current unsustainable modes.

Note that there is no call for “developing new energy sources to meet our growing needs” in developed countries. That’s because numerous studies have shown that energy conservation and efficiency measures can reduce U.S. energy consumption by 15 to 23 percent, without even counting the transportation sector. The reductions can save us over a trillion dollars, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and obviate the need for new energy development in the near future. Since it takes energy to get energy, we need to conserve the energy we have as our first priority, while simultaneously converting to renewable energy sources.

The “scalable and therefore ‘democratic’” parameter means that the measures can be undertaken by individuals or communities or scaled upward to national or multinational efforts. A homeowner can choose to insulate her house, a state can mandate stringent “green” building codes, the world’s nations can agree to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Working with or without government means that individuals, NGOs or companies can initiate projects – massive tree plantings, for example – when government help is restricted by funding or the inability to formulate policy.

Everyone can fight our common problem, global warming, at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website,