We have technology to avert climate disaster. But do we have the political will? A leading environmentalist is cautiously optimistic we can save the earth.

By Nelson Graves

The world has all the technology it needs to prevent rising temperatures from destroying the earth, but societies around the world will have to demonstrate exceptional political courage to take steps that in the short term will punish some industries and workers, a leading environmentalist told a News-Decoder webinar.

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Tom Burke

Tom Burke, head of the London-based E3G environmental think tank, urged high school students in an online course organized by Global Online Academy (GOA) to get involved now in the fight against global warming by questioning political representatives, checking their schools’ energy efficiency and ensuring their families make smart decisions.

“The fate of the earth really is in our hands because if we don’t solve the climate problem, we won’t get a chance to solve all the other problems,” said Burke, an adviser to the Rio Tinto metals and mining giant.

“We already have the technology to deliver all the energy that people need at a price they can afford. But we will change very fundamentally the pattern of winners and losers in society. And that makes this a very difficult problem politically.”

Burke spoke to students and faculty from schools enrolled in an online course organized by GOA and News-Decoder that examines international challenges the next U.S. president will face. The Windward School in Los Angeles hosted the webinar, which followed earlier online sessions devoted to defense and security, the international economy and human rights.

“I’m optimistic about our abilities to solve these problems.”

Burke dismissed climate change doubters like U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, calling them as “uninformed of reality as those people who think the earth is flat.”

Whoever wins the November 8 U.S. presidential election will quickly have to grapple with climate change, he said. “This is a problem steaming right down the track directly towards the incoming president of the United States, whoever that might be.”

Burke said last year’s climate change deal reached in Paris showed that governments around the world are taking the problem more seriously than before. But major obstacles remain if we are to avoid disaster.

“The challenge is not the technology or indeed the economics. The challenge is, how do we agree to use the science we have, to use the technology we have, in ways which allow people to live decent lives, affordably, and that’s a really big political challenge,” Burke said.

“I’m not a wild-eyed optimist analytically about our chances of getting there, but I’m enormously optimistic about our abilities to solve these problems.”

Burke urged students at Windward School to get involved right away in efforts to fight climate change by checking on the school’s energy efficiency, making sure their families buy electric vehicles and getting involved politically by contacting their congressman.

“Anybody who thinks voting is a waste of time or a wasted thing to do is really undermining our capacity to address all of these problems. So whatever else you do, vote.”

“We’re not short of energy. We are short of smart choices.”

Burke said climate change posed the biggest threat to the poorest countries but that many of them will “leapfrog” developed economies into renewable energies. He recalled recently seeing Burmese in a remote region of Myanmar recharging smartphones with solar panels.

Asked if population increases pose a threat to the environment, Burke said the earth could support eight billion people provided they use energy-efficient renewables.

A coal miner in Welch, West Virginia. 11 May 2016 (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A coal miner in Welch, West Virginia. 11 May 2016 (AP Photo/David Goldman)

But if temperatures continue to rise, it will affect global health because mosquitoes carrying diseases such as zika, malaria and dengue will spread and food prices will rise because of declining agricultural productivity, he said.

Societies can harness all of the energy they need, but making the transition to renewables can be politically difficult, he said. He cited proposals to halt the production of coal in the U.S. state of West Virginia.

“Are you just going to walk away from them? Or are you going to do something to retrain them, to put other investment into those communities so they continue to have economic well-being?”

In the end, Burke said, it comes down to political choices.

“There is more energy arriving from the sun every day than we can ever possibly use,” he said.

“We’re not short of energy. We are short of smart choices about how we give people access to that energy.”

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