In Paris, world leaders debated how much global CO2 emissions could be reduced, who would pay for it and how could they trust each other to follow through.
This top-down, regulatory approach to addressing a highly distributed problem is a necessary but insufficient step to make a dent in rising global temperatures. In a recent peer-reviewed research paper, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center suggests all the carbon-cutting promises countries committed to ahead of Paris would cut global temperatures by just 0.05°C (0.09°F) by 2100.
Policies and international treaties are important to address climate change, and they push the conversation forward in the right direction. Unfortunately, they often lack the teeth to hold countries accountable and enforce adherence to the lofty goals they set forth.
While the Paris Climate Agreement is historic and gives reason to celebrate, without follow-through by the collective populations of those countries, any goal is unattainable. Top-down policy can be swayed and derailed by a presidential election, as we’ve seen in Australia and the U.K. in recent years. But a groundswell of individual and community action has the momentum to persist.
Climate change rests on our shoulders
This is why each one of us is personally responsible for the outcome of these talks. We all laud the efforts and strides made over the course of the agreement, but measurable action ultimately falls upon the shoulders of citizens who demand and manifest it within their own lives.
As the zeitgeist clearly shifts its focus to climate change, it follows a similar arc to the anti-smoking movement of previous decades in the U.S. Scientific research and government regulation only advanced the anti-smoking agenda so far, but this harmful habit only truly began to decline when individuals, communities and businesses enacted changes to quit smoking, prohibit smoking in public places, increase the product costs and reduce the visibility of its advertising.
A social stigma developed as we recognized that smoking was no longer simply a personal choice, but a clear danger to the public good in the form of reduced life expectancy, increased healthcare costs, secondhand smoke and childhood vulnerability.
The power to follow through on the Paris climate talks rests more in our hands than we realize.
“Dirty energy” must similarly become a social stigma if we are going to truly limit the effects of climate change. For us to successfully address such an existential challenge, every person needs to take pause and give a second thought before using energy from unsustainable sources. Every person must be given a choice to either use dirty energy or choose to avoid it.
The most immediate challenges to this notion are visibility and personal empowerment. Most people are not aware of the tools at their disposal to understand when and why they’re using dirty and unsustainable energy. With the proliferation of smart meters taking place across the U.S. this past decade, the data is floating out there in the aether waiting to be put to use. Many companies dedicate their efforts to unearth and package this data in consumer-friendly formats.
Residents can install ultra-efficient lighting, such as the Philips Hue, use energy-monitoring devices, such as Chai or Rainforest, replace their appliances with new low-consumption versions and even install large capacity battery arrays to soak up excess power from solar, the most visible and commonly recognized clean technology.
A less familiar and unfortunate side effect of solar is that it is “intermittent.” This is energy-speak that means occasionally, a cloud might drift overhead and we experience a shortfall in the energy we expected to have on hand. To make up for these unexpected shortfalls, the grid currently uses “peaker plants.”
These are inefficient and incredibly damaging power plants used to meet peak demand temporarily, and spew far more local particulate pollution and greenhouse gases than baseload power plants do. When there is a shortfall in electricity, they are currently the only viable and widespread method for managing the intermittency of renewable energy, which we so desperately need to proliferate.
What we need is a solution that every home can use. One that empowers every person to choose whether they use “dirty energy” and one with a clear cause-effect relationship to climate change.
Every person must be given a choice to either use dirty energy or choose to avoid it.
What if, when we experienced a shortfall in energy supply, whether caused by clouds, a windless day or a surge in demand, every person knew that these most damaging power plants were going to turn on? We could choose whether or not to collectively reduce our energy use to prevent the damage done by those power plants. Every person in that community would be empowered to say “no” as quickly as responding to a text message, and their community’s dirtiest energy polluters would be taken offline.
Organizing people to use less energy from these dirty “peaker plants” is not something that comes from Paris policymakers. It comes from individual action; actions that say “no” to dirty power and “yes” to further building our solar, wind and renewable infrastructure. That’s a compelling proposition.
Smart energy proliferates in smart states
There is continually growing awareness and pent-up demand for people to take individual action on climate change. Here in California we know firsthand that residents seize the opportunity to participate in a community reduction when it’s using energy from dirty power plants — an energy “sit-in” if you will. Once all of California participates in such micro-reductions, we can reduce California’s greenhouse gas footprint by one billion pounds per year.
Beyond the California state line, there’s massive opportunity for other states to take on what currently sets California and a few other states apart: innovative energy frameworks that empower and even incentivize individuals to participate in these small reductions that add up to big impact.
Other states, like Texas and the energy market known as the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland (PJM) Interconnection, are also moving in this direction, which enable innovative companies to transform inefficient grids into smart energy platforms that make dirty energy obsolete.
The power to follow through on the Paris climate talks rests more in our hands than we realize. We can use technology, our collective action and the power of the Internet to hack climate change. All it takes is the will to do so.