Why latest failure of global warming talks may be a success

The weak outcome of the climate change talks in Doha only add to the momentum toward solutions at the local level, where values on the common good are more easily shared.

Mike Blake / Reuters
A parking structure at the University of California San Diego uses innovative solar trees to collect renewable energy from the Sun.

Another worldwide conference on climate change – the 18th one since 1992 – ended last Saturday with little to show for it. The minimal result – an extension of the largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol – has added to growing pessimism over the ability of nations to agree on a new treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet this gloom has an upside. It is reinforcing attention on the ways that individuals are banding together to combat global warming. In fact, many activists now argue that local efforts – in which people with similar values toward managing Earth’s resources join in collective action – may be a strong viable solution.

“We desperately need to combine action by regions, municipalities, citizens with this global approach. That is becoming more and more evident,” said Denmark’s Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard after the meeting in Doha, Qatar.

Take, for example, the fact that the United States has no explicit mandate on individuals to reduce carbon emissions. Yet more than 1,000 mayors and 30 states have climate action plans. And tens of thousands of groups have sprung up to promote changes in behavior, from buying local food to using solar panels to biking to work.

The secret? The smaller the community, the more people are knitted socially to pool their moral inclinations toward ending human-caused warming. Or, to turn around a famous quote by Aristotle about human selfishness in taking from a common good: The most care will be bestowed on our common environment if the maximum care is bestowed on each person’s role in it.

To climate scientists, this grass-roots version of social engineering on energy use may not arrive fast enough. Global emissions of carbon dioxide hit a record high in 2011.

Yet no one really knows if enough local actions might create a strong feedback loop and soon tip a massive change in behavior, similar to the decline of littering in the 1960s or smoking in public in the 1990s. The 2011 Arab Spring also reinforced the notion that good ideas can quickly cascade into reality when enough individuals adopt them.

This bottom-up approach could help overcome many political divisions, such as the current one in climate-change negotiations that pits poor and rich nations against each other. In many poor countries, for example, private investments in solar and wind power make more sense than those in fossil fuels. In fact, investment in renewable energy worldwide has exceeded that in coal, gas, and oil over the past three years.

Individual, voluntary decisions in energy use can make a cumulative difference on climate change far greater than government mandates. They rely on people making moral choices, ones that see a greater good in not emitting gases that can harm others. Any rules about energy use need to be built on shared values embedded in a community.

The more that the United Nations-led climate talks fail, the more the need for this local action becomes evident.

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