Seeing the Lessons in the News

America’s power plant operators have slashed carbon dioxide emissions by dumping coal. Talk about a “teachable moment!” The question is: are we learning the right lesson?

Last Friday I wrote about finding the “teachable moment” in this summer’s extreme weather. Teachable moments are opportunities to gain useful insights from current events. Just as my comments were being posted, another teachable moment popped up.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions dropped 8 percent in the first quarter of this year to their lowest level since 1992.

This is very big news, especially because nobody saw it coming.

Why the sudden drop? The EIA credits a mild winter and reduced demand for gasoline, but said a steep decline in coal-fired electricity generation was the most significant factor. The cost of natural gas fell so low that power plant operators switched from coal to cleaner-burning gas in droves. Between 2005 and 2012, coal went from producing one-half to one-third of the nation’s electricity.

An Associated Press story quoted University of Colorado scientist Roger Pielke Jr. as saying, “There is a very clear lesson here. What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources.” He’s right. Unfortunately, a barrage of less inspiring comments virtually buried his insight:

  • “Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the CO2 problem.”
  • “Natural gas has been very volatile historically. Whether shale gas has really changed that—the jury is still out.”
  • “Without sufficient oversight and protections, we have no way of knowing how much dangerous pollution is being released into America’s air and water by the gas industry.”
  • “Some worry that cheap gas could hurt renewable energy efforts.”

Each and every one of these statements is absolutely correct, yet they obscure the most important lesson in the news. This CO2 reduction happened swiftly in what is widely seen as an entrenched industry.

The EIA report shows that we can, in fact, respond to global warming with lightning speed. This should be the primary take-away lesson.

In fact, it is the same lesson we should be taking from the well-worn World War II analogy. Climate communicators talk a lot about America’s reluctance to enter WWII, and the pivotal role played by the attack on Pearl Harbor in galvanizing public support. Alas, we say, global warming is unlikely deliver a “Pearl Harbor Moment.” But here’s the more useful observation: when Americans finally did enter the war, they mobilized their entire society and put the nation on a new industrial footing almost overnight. Things can change fast, even when entrenched social systems are involved.

It is quite possible—even likely—that gloomy projections about our incapacity to meet the global warming challenge simply underestimate us. Who says we can’t beat the global warming clock? Power plant operators just proved, once again, that we can.

Nobody is suggesting that gas is the ultimate solution. Gas has always been seen as a steppingstone toward renewable energy. This is still true. In fact, the switch from coal to gas took place in a very narrow context: power plant operators were simply choosing between their fossil fuel options.

The lesson is that a lot of them made a new choice, and they made it surprisingly quickly.

If power plant operators can cut energy-related CO2 emissions to 1992 levels this swiftly simply by switching to a marginally cleaner and cheaper fuel, and if a small business like mine can save money while slashing its greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds just as quickly, then our nation has enormous untapped potential to reduce the threat of global warming before it’s “too late.”

Perhaps we spend too much time cautiously analyzing society’s capacity to change under normal conditions instead of asking ourselves how rapidly things can and do change under the right conditions.

Fortunately for all of us, the pessimistic view that says we can’t get the job done in time simply doesn’t square with the facts.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.