By Rolf Nordstrom
In case you have not been paying attention, early next month representatives of the world's nations will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to decide what to do about climate change.
It's easy to get lost in the weeds on this issue, and few of us are deeply knowledgeable about how U.N. agreements are reached, so it's especially important to keep your eye on the fundamentals:
Climate change demystified. Carbon is a core building block for nearly all life. If you remember your high school biology, a natural carbon cycle has evolved that is in rough equilibrium. Humans and other animals breathe out carbon dioxide, and plants take it up in order to grow. We have upset this cycle by adding billions of tons of carbon that used to be underground.
The carbon that nature safely tucked away over millennia -- in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, the products of very old plant matter -- we have been busy digging up and dispersing back into the atmosphere. And we haven't done this over thousands of years, but instead in a few hundred, the geologic blink of an eye.
Physics tells us that adding that much extra carbon to the atmosphere traps more of the sun's radiation, which is why people originally called this phenomenon "the greenhouse effect."
What we have done since the launch of the industrial revolution is a bit like starting a fire in your fireplace without opening the flue. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gotten higher and higher over time, just as the concentration of smoke would build up in your house.
So if you are flummoxed by all the charges and counter-charges about climate change, just remember that it comes down to physics. You can't keep adding carbon to the atmosphere and expect no impact.
Instead of trying to calculate exactly how much the planet can take, we should be asking, "Can we allow the concentrations of carbon to build up forever?" And if the answer is no, then we should reduce them. That's what Copenhagen is about.
What will happen in Copenhagen in December? The international negotiating process on climate change takes place through a series of meetings. Each meeting is called a "Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change" (or COP for short). The one in Copenhagen will be COP15.
High-level ministers and negotiators from all over the world meet every year to review the implementation of the overall convention, which was signed back in 1992 in New York. The big four questions in Copenhagen are:
1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?
2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?
3. How is the help needed by developing countries going to be financed?
4. How is that money going to be managed?
Why should you care? The planet would survive even if we did nothing about climate change, but humans and many other forms of life would suffer enormously. Life as we know it would be dramatically altered.
Allowing greenhouse gases to build up indefinitely also risks reaching physical tipping points (e.g., melting the polar ice caps, which is already well underway) beyond which we may not be able to put the horses back in the barn.
This is, at the end of the day, an issue of self-preservation, and a moral issue about the kind of world we pass along to our kids, and to theirs.
So, with that short primer, here are two other reasons to care about what happens in Copenhagen, and why the Midwest matters so much in the broader climate debate.
Without a deal in Copenhagen (or as soon as possible), the U.S. in general, and the Midwest in particular, will continue to be handicapped by regulatory uncertainty around greenhouse gases. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that the U.S. should not take action on climate issues until China does, but China needs no additional price signal or regulatory framework to innovate.
China is already becoming home to the next generation of low-carbon energy technologies, from solar to underground coal gasification and everything in between.
Ironically, U.S. industry needs a deal in Copenhagen more than China does. U.S. industry needs regulatory certainty to innovate. Without it, Americans won't know what is safe to invest in, and countries like China will seize the advantage. To delay a binding regulatory framework only prolongs the uncertainty. And business hates uncertainty.
The Midwest has a political significance disproportionate to its population size. North Dakota, for example, has roughly 640,000 people, but its two Democratic senators are likely essential to passing any sort of climate policy at the national level. States with large agricultural and coal industries are pivotal "swing states" for U.S. climate policy.
As the U.S. goes, so goes the world. So what happens in Copenhagen will shape the future of the Midwest; and what we do here in the Midwest will influence what happens for the rest of the world.
The good news is that tackling climate change and transforming our energy system are perhaps the greatest economic opportunities humanity has ever known. The Midwest has the resource base and the manufacturing and intellectual capital to lead a new, eco-industrial revolution.
Rolf Nordstrom is executive director of the Great Plains Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit corporation based in Minneapolis dedicated to accelerating the transition to a sustainable and prosperous low-carbon economy.