Phelan M. Ebenhack / The Washington Post / Getty Images

A clean climate must be a consumer commodity

To sustain a national movement, sell the public on the individual benefits of climate protection

September 24, 2014 6:00AM ET

Without a doubt, this week’s United Nations Climate Summit in New York City is a venue for important scientific releases highlighting the now well-established consensus on the severe consequences of inaction on global warming. These statements will bolster proposals to move nations toward common ground on a framework for action.

While these efforts are critically needed, they are not enough. Without greater attention to individual consumers, we are likely to continue down the ineffective path we’ve wandered for decades. Simply put, we must engage a national movement around the real benefits of a secure climate to each and every person.

Year after year, nations have struggled — and failed — to arrive at a broadly negotiated accord on climate protection. Political scientists warn that rarely do complex, broadly negotiated accords achieve significant advances. Instead, thoughtful efforts to clarify the individual benefits that stem from collective action have time and again proved more effective.

One only need look at success stories in the medical and biotechnology industries. An effort to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget began as a movement among Senate Republicans in 1999. Consensus built rapidly for dramatically increased federal funding, which was approved in 2003. A very simple premise drove this effort: Everyone values good health, and this investment held the promise of directly benefitting every American.

Similarly, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was created by a successful ballot initiative — Proposition 71 in 2004 — to make stem cell research a state priority. The initiative created a $5 billion taxpayer-funded entity, intended to advance public health by developing cures and treatments for paralysis, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses.

To be sure, the NIH and CIRM efforts have had their critics, but they underscore the power of direct individual benefits to motivate collective action.

Climate change is an even more critical collective issue, but to date, its advocates have been unable to capture the popular sentiment that supported political and financial action on health solutions.

Gone are the days when clean-energy investments were the socially responsible choice but cost more or were less effective than the dirty energy systems they replaced. Today there are ample avenues to clarify the public benefits of climate protection and to act on initiatives that will bring these benefits to U.S. citizens and to the global community.

All these actions directly benefit the individual bottom line, making climate protection a byproduct of smart consumerism.

Consumer products now exist that demonstrate the value of energy efficiency and clean energy. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, flashlights and headlights for cars are not just more efficient than incandescent lights but provide superior performance at lower cost. In developing nations, stand-alone lighting products with a small solar panel powering an array of LEDs, often accompanied by outlets for cellphone charging and even highly efficient flat screen televisions, are now the hub of the most dramatic increase in energy access we have seen in four decades. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative, started by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has adopted this technology platform as part of an effort to provide universal energy access by 2030 — an ambitious goal that smartly brings together quality of life and climate protection.

Research on carbon footprints by my laboratory and many others presents a very clear conclusion: Reducing carbon emissions saves money. Numerous companies now offer rooftop solar leases that reduce utility bills immediately. On Wall Street, the WilderHill Clean Energy Index is up 50 percent in per share value in the past 24 months.

At the state and national level, efforts to divest municipal, university, corporate and church financial portfolios illustrate the opportunities to take immediate steps that reduce financial risk and send clear political messages. The new math we must all accept is that unburned fossil fuels must stay unburned (or if burned, their emissions at least sequestered). This means that the valuation of many companies that have extensive fossil fuel assets still in the ground needs to change; those firms must take a valuation hit or at least acknowledge — to the public, which in many cases holds these stocks — the risk and damage that burning that fuel would cause. A carbon price as a business requirement or as a moral obligation would make these costs far more transparent.

Proposals to redirect revenue from regional carbon emission markets — such as in California, where the carbon market adds a price of $11 to each CO2 ton emitted due to energy sold to utilities and, starting in 2015, from transportation fuels as well — offer an important model for individual rebates that can in turn be invested in carbon- and money-saving opportunities.

All these actions directly benefit the individual bottom line, making climate protection a byproduct of smart consumerism. We need a global agreement on climate, but we must also make clear the immediate, personal benefits of sustainable energy and climate plans.

This week’s high-level talks are necessary, but they won’t get anywhere until a tandem message is clearly delivered: Climate protection begins at home, and it benefits the American household — just as investing in health did two decades ago.

Daniel M. Kammen is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where he directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. He served as the World Bank’s chief technical specialist for renewable energy, and today he serves the U.S. Department of State as a fellow of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. He contributes to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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