The greatest failure of thought in human history

To solve climate change, we must overcome "systems blindness."

"Cap and trade" is the rage today as a primary solution to global warming. But the European Union's struggle with this approach indicates it has an uncertain future. This is because global warming, at its core, is not a technology or policy problem. It is the greatest failure of thought in human history.

Attempts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will fail unless people first alter their thinking and behavior.

Earth is warming because humans, primarily in industrialized nations, suffer from systems blindness. We have failed to recognize the effects of our insatiable use of fossil fuels, massive resource consumption, and huge emission of waste, including greenhouse gasses, on the ecological and social systems we depend on for life. That blindness threatens all life forms today and in the future.

Overcoming systems blindness requires a shift to what can be called "sustainable thinking." A growing number of private and public organizations and everyday citizens have shown that it is possible to think sustainably. They use a four-step process: discover, dream, design, and act.

Their first step is to discover the greenhouse gas emissions produced through all aspects of their activities. They start by assessing the emissions directly produced through their home and business energy use, travel, and waste. They then identify the emissions they create indirectly, including those generated throughout the entire life cycle of the goods and services, including food, purchased or used.

Discovery is often a life-changing experience. People become aware of the profound impacts of their activities on the climate and other people.

Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore., have completed greenhouse-gas "inventories" of the amount and sources of emissions generated directly through internal city operations and by the broader community. Some cities have begun to assess the emissions from products manufactured elsewhere that are used locally.

Xerox and DuPont are just two of the many private companies that use "life-cycle assessments" to quantify their carbon footprint.

Regular people are also doing it, such as those that attend the Climate Master program developed by my organization at the University of Oregon. Through this 10-week program, participants are taught how to think systemically and discover the full range of their emissions. Small towns such as Corvallis, Ore., big cities such as Denver, and individual groups in Maryland are now considering launching Climate Master programs.

The next step is to dream of new ways to lower our carbon footprint. Dreaming starts by envisioning what an ideal low or carbon-free condition would look and function like.

Dreaming leads to the design stage, where innovative ways of achieving the ideal are planned. Albuquerque established the nation's first municipal capital budget set-aside specifically dedicated to energy reduction and renewable energy projects. Portland developed a climate action plan through extensive community involvement. Xerox established the "Energy Challenge 2012," which involves the entire company, engages its full business value chain, and integrates climate protection into core business strategies and practices.

The last stage is acting. Start by increasing energy conservation and efficiency. Make behavioral changes – such as turning off unused lights, TVs, and computers – routine. Add extra building insulation. Use public transportation or walk more. Install green technologies, from CFL or LED bulbs to more efficient motors. After all possible efficiencies have been captured, shift to renewable energy.

In Portland, more than 40 high-performance green buildings have been constructed and more than 10,000 multifamily units and 800 homes have been weatherized. Albuquerque now gets 20 percent of its energy from wind.

Thinking sustainably produces impressive results. Emissions from city operations in Albuquerque have been reduced by 58 percent; Portland's have dropped 16 percent since 1990, Xerox's by 18 percent through 2006, and DuPont's by 67 percent. Climate Masters has slashed emissions by an average of two tons per person.

Hundreds of other organizations are beginning to think sustainably. The State of Florida, for example, recently completed a statewide emissions assessment. More than 850 mayors have signed the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement that, among other actions, commits cities to inventory their emissions. IBM and Bayer have each reduced emissions by at least 60 percent since the early 1990s, collectively saving more than $4 billion.

Stabilizing the climate will ultimately require an 80 percent cut in emissions, so emissions trading and many other reduction strategies will be needed. But, no matter what the approach, these pioneers have shown that success ultimately depends on overcoming systems blindness and thinking sustainably.

Bob Doppelt is director of the Climate Leadership Initiative at the University of Oregon, writes a global warming column for two Oregon newspapers, and is the author of "The Power of Sustainable Thinking: How to Create a Positive Future for the Climate, The Planet, Your Organization and Your Life."

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