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Sochi's Last Winter Olympics

Don Kraus and Mona Funiciello - 17th February 2014

Don Kraus and Mona Funiciello explain the worrying extent to which climate change has an impact of our lives: no more natural snow in winter?

Are we witnessing the last Winter Olympics held in Sochi? The Russian games are already relying primarily on manmade snow. SMI Snowmakers, a Michigan-based company, has spent the last four years designing and installing a system that has blown the equivalent of 920 football fields of snow onto Sochi’s slopes.

Will other winter games sites — including Squaw Valley, Vancouver, and Grenoble — also fall victim to climate change-induced weather patterns that are literally melting down the list of available host venues? The answer, according to a recent study, is a resounding yes. In all but the lowest greenhouse gas emissions estimates, the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2° C will not be met. And as a result, warmer winters will mean less snow.

However, unless global climate solutions are rapidly agreed to and implemented, the damage done to winter sports will only be (pardon the pun) the tip of the iceberg. We’ll skip the doomsday scenarios for now, but in the words of President Obama at his State of the Union address, “the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.”

Obama is the latest world leader to connect a changing climate to “communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods.” He and his administration deserve a huge amount of credit for the work they have done to address this problem. However, despite his good news that since 2006 the United States has reduced its “total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth,” Obama is leaving out an important fact Americans and the world need to hear: It doesn’t matter how much the United States reduces its greenhouse gasses if other nations do not also cut theirs.

Some facts: Between 2000 and 2010, China’s emissions grew by about 57 percent while the United States was able to limit its growth to about one half of a percent (and actually showed a 2-percent decrease by 2011). India’s emissions grew by 33 percent. The European Union decreased its output by about 1 percent. The rest of the world’s carbon emissions grew by almost 20 percent, pumping out 80 percent of the combined total of China, the United States, the EU, and India. The bottom line is that the modest reductions that the United States and the EU have managed are not making a significant dent in global greenhouse gas reductions.

Obama and other well-meaning U.S. policymakers continue to talk about energy independence and U.S. greenhouse gas reduction as if that is all we need to do to solve this looming problem. But it’s not! No nation can solve this problem alone. Unless the United States and its lead spokesperson get serious about leading an effort for all nations to pitch in and work together, we will all suffer the consequences together.

Current UN-sponsored climate negotiations have had limited success. Developed nations like the United States want all nations to share in the cost of combating climate change. Developing nations believe that they should not have to pay for consequences of carbon pollution from wealthy nations. There seems to be a consensus that if a global agreement is not ready to go by the UN’s 2015 meeting in Paris, it is likely that we will reach a tipping point and risk going beyond a point of no return. Some say we have already passed that point.

But the 2013 UN climate meeting in Warsaw, Poland determined that countries’ individual commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be “nationally determined.” In other words, it seems like diplomats are crafting a weak global agreement with few rules or consequences. How can this possibly save the day?

It is past time for a new U.S.-led, coordinated approach. We propose that Obama dust off and update an old idea: a greenhouse gas tax. The concept behind this is simple. Get all nations to agree to tax carbon and other greenhouse gases at a common rate. Increasing the cost of carbon pollution will push the global market to adopt less expensive and less destructive sources of energy.

In the past this has been proposed as a global carbon tax, collected by a global entity. This will never be approved in Washington. Instead, each country or state would collect its own taxes and use most of the funds as needed: to reduce other taxes, retrain workers displaced by a changing economy, update their infrastructure, fortify coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels, or any other way they wanted to.

However, a small percentage of revenue, adjusted on a sliding scale, would go into the new Green Climate Fund to support developing countries’ ability to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

This is a simple solution where everyone pays and everyone benefits. Humanity is facing a crisis and we either pay now or pay much more later. The cost of a carbon pollution tax is small when compared to the amount we will pay to adapt to rising sea levels, new deserts, food shortages, resource wars, and the other horrors associated with out-of-control climate change. The United States is the only nation with the capacity and resources to lead this effort.

President Obama has already laid out the challenge, saying “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” And, we want to be able to say to them, “let the winter games begin.”

Don Kraus is the President and CEO of GlobalSolutions.org and the Global Solutions Action Network. Mona Funiciello is an independent consultant who specializes in climate change policy and strategy.

 

This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy in Focus.