Let The Games Begin!


When Presidents Obama and Xi met for dinner recently to discuss the new climate change agreement between their two nations, the Chinese president used the metaphor “a pool begins with many drops of water” to describe the potential for the two nations to collaborate in substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the agreement—game-changing some are calling it—is also a wager between the two nations that between them produce over forty percent of the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Which nation will achieve its goals first…or which one will fail altogether? Or will both? 

The reduction goals set out in the agreement—China peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 with a goal of 20 percent of its energy coming from renewables, and the US aiming to emit up to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005—are ambitious, particularly on the Chinese side. As Secretary of State Kerry summarized:

To meet its goal, China will need to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other renewable generation capacity by 2030—an enormous amount, about the same as all the coal-fired power plants in China today, and nearly as much as the total electricity generation capacity of the United States.
But the challenge is enormous on the US side as well. While the Secretary boasts that wind energy has tripled and solar energy has increased tenfold since the president took office, the two combined account for less than five percent of electricity generated in the US—4.15% wind, 0.23% solar—which amount to a few drops in the bucket.

The climate agreement between the US and China, worked out in secret, is meant to help prime the pump for upcoming international Council of Parties (COP) negotiations in Lima, Peru, this December and Paris in late 2015.

While success stories like Denmark, which is aiming to derive 100% of its energy from carbon-free sources, and California, which may be on track toward an 80% reduction of emissions by 2050, suggest these goals are not unreasonable, there is no doubt that it won’t be easy to achieve them, particularly given the inevitable foot-dragging, manufactured doubt, and solutions aversion that will be perpetuated in certain sectors. 

As a wager, this agreement sets up an international competition of high stakes, and the world will be watching. Who has the advantage?

It may be China, which is motivated to addressing the choking pollution from burning coal (some of which is consumed to manufacture goods for the rest of the world). They certainly have the advantage of being a top-down, authoritarian system that has been envisioning a low-carbon “eco-civilization,” going so far as to establish a blueprint for how they plan to achieve this gargantuan undertaking.

They also have the advantage of education: Chinese students understand the basic science and international context of climate negotiations. US students, not so much.

One survey conducted by Eric Jamelske and his colleagues—“Comparing climate change awareness, perceptions, and beliefs of college students in the United States and China”—found that students in the U.S. were substantially less likely to believe anthropogenic climate change is happening than Chinese students, and that “within the US, there are significant differences in climate change public opinion between those with conservative and liberal political ideologies for almost every variable studied.”

No surprise here. As prior research has shown (and as we reaffirm regularly!), because climate change generally isn’t taught in any department in the US—unlike, say, China, where at least the educated decision-makers know the basics—teens and adults here end up patching together opinions and bits of information from sometimes contradictory sources, with ideology trumping their, well, patchy understanding of the science.  

We could change this “I’m not a scientist” meme (and the related “I never learned about this in school” meme), which has been popular in some quarters recently. We’d have to start by admitting that most of the 76 million K-16 students in the US aren’t learning much about the causes, effects, and risks of, and possible responses to, human-caused climate change. 

Then we could look at the high-quality resources that are available through web portals like CLEAN and the terrific programs like ACE that can be customized and scaled. We could, in theory, transform all of the 140,000 schools in the nation into inspiring, climate-smart, energy-wise living laboratories over the coming decade. 

But will we?  

The inequities between schools and districts, largely due to how public schools are financed, doesn’t bode well for such a wholesale transformation. Wealthy districts and private schools may well be able to transform themselves, but without substantial help, others will struggle with outdated, sometimes unsafe and unhealthy schools. 

There have been far too many missed opportunities and disconnects that we’ll need to address if we are serious about tackling this enormous societal change. Green Schools and environmental education efforts have sometimes steered around or altogether avoided discussing climate change, much as the Obama administration tried to finesse the term by focusing on “green, clean energy jobs” in order to avoid the dreaded term “climate change.”

This amounts to a kind of denial by omission that can only really be addressed by directly conveying through effective education, communication, and outreach what we’re really talking about: the serious human impacts on the planet’s climate and environmental systems, which can be minimized in large measure by decarbonizing our energy infrastructure. 

There are clearly many intangibles on both sides of the equation: will the “I’m not a scientist” crowd be able to continue to delay, derail, and otherwise scuttle these efforts? Will we be able to work through the inevitable technical, environmental, and economic issues to do what needs to be done?  And perhaps the bottom line: will people be educated on the essentials of climate, energy, and global change and then be willing to make appropriate informed choices based on the implications of the science?

Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.