A Radical Reframing of the Climate Paradigm

In Review: The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success, by Mark Jaccard

This book should have been named The Highly Technical Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success. That’s not a bad thing. Climate change awareness is at an all-time high. But I suspect this book will be unpalatable reading for recent climate converts or readers in search of comforting bromides. This is climate policy, distilled, chilled, and served straight up. To the knowledgeable, it will be a refreshing tonic. To those looking for easy answers, it will be bitter medicine.

Author Mark Jaccard is a professor of sustainable energy at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. His expertise has led to a second career as an advisor to politicians, government panels, and international organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Drawing on this experience, Jaccard uses his latest book to radically reframe the climate paradigm as one in which meaningful change can only be effected by a handful of top-down, legislative solutions at the national level.

In his view, only government-led decarbonization of the electricity generation and transportation sectors will have a measurable impact on carbon emissions. By implementing flexible regulations that reduce carbon emissions through renewable portfolio and low carbon fuel standards and then progressing toward more explicit (and more politically inconvenient) carbon pricing, renewable development will be incentivized and major emitters phased out. The most direct route to decarbonizing the transportation sector is the implementation of a zero emission vehicle standard (ZEV) requiring that electric vehicles comprise a certain percentage of sales. ZEVs may provide credits that subsidize the development of more cost-efficient versions of this technology. Thus, its availability will increase.

“Climate-sincere politicians implement rising stringency carbon pricing or regulations or a combination of the two,” Jaccard writes.

Jaccard’s bracingly pragmatic critiques and cost-benefit analyses relentlessly strip away the emphasis on individual action that defines popular climate change literature. Effecting real change is more difficult than simply buying a hybrid vehicle or purchasing “carbon neutral” products and services. This is a collective action problem.

Citizens “need to work hard to identify and then convince fellow citizens to elect climate-sincere politicians. With that happening, change your vehicle and home heating-cooling to zero emissions electricity and perhaps biofuels,” Jaccard says by email. “That’s it.” The rest has to happen at the governmental level.

image of Citizen's Guide to Climate Success Book Cover

He explains that many of the well-intentioned behavioral changes advocated by environmentalists — energy efficiency at home, planting trees — have been cynically exploited by the petroleum lobby in an effort to forestall meaningful legislation. If politicians can be convinced that the responsibility for mitigating climate change lies with individual citizens, they are less likely to effect it through politically risky legislation. Telling people to purchase LED light bulbs is a lot easier than cracking down on coal plants.

Of course, the oil industry exploits other myths as well. Deploying semantic sleights of hand, lobbyists are able to use such terms as “peak oil,” “clean coal,” and “capture ready” to evade regulation or slide new projects under the radar. But they all contain hidden meanings with major consequences for the climate.

“This project can be an exception because it is more ethical or will reduce emissions elsewhere or will earn more money but not expand oil production,” he says. So the fossil fuel industry’s reasoning goes, according to Jaccard.

Jaccard also turns his ruthless logic to renewables and the notion that they will save the day on their own.

“The oil industry is greatly aided by [the myth] that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels,” Jaccard says. If oil is already on the way out, why regulate it? It’s true that renewables are becoming more affordable, but this has largely been the result of carbon regulation that incentivized research and development in solar, hydro, and wind power. Further, the cost savings are relegated to developed countries. For developing nations, he argues, fossil fuels will always be cheaper, which is yet another reason for national-level policy phasing out oil and gas.

The need is all the more pronounced given that the international climate agreements of the last several decades have been non-binding. Because of this, it is incumbent on developed countries to implement their own policies, both domestic and foreign, and join with like-minded nations in forming climate clubs that enforce them. It is an order of magnitude less difficult for individual countries to implement their own legislation. This in turn allows them to put climate-related trade pressure on developing countries in the form of tariffs as well as assist them in implementing gradual decarbonization.

These hard truths represent an important contribution to popular climate change literature, crystallizing climate policy into a shot of something potent. Something that, while harsh and unpleasant, puts a bit of fire in the belly. If you’re like me and need something to cut through the information fog, this book is well worth checking out.

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