Exxonmobil, Shell and many other holders of carbon-intensive assets have argued, in essence, that they simply do not believe that elected national leaders around the world will ever reach an agreement to put a price on carbon pollution.
But a prospective global treaty (however likely or unlikely you think that might be) is only one of several routes to overturning the fossil-fuel economy. Rapid technological advances in renewable energy are stranding carbon investments; grassroots movements are building opposition to the holding of such assets; and new legal restrictions on collateral flows of pollution – like particulate air pollution in China and mercury pollution in the U.S. – are further reducing the value of coal, tar sands, and oil and gas assets.
In its series of reports to energy investors this spring, Citigroup questioned the feasibility of new coal plants not only in Europe and North America, but in China as well. Although there is clearly a political struggle under way in China between regional governments closely linked to carbon-energy generators, suppliers and users and the central government in Beijing – which is under growing pressure from citizens angry about pollution – the nation's new leadership appears to be determined to engineer a transition toward renewable energy. Only time will tell how successful they will be.
The stock exchanges in Johannesburg and São Paulo have decided to require the full integration of sustainability from all listed companies. Standard & Poor's announced this spring that some nations vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis may soon have their bonds downgraded because of the enhanced risk to holders of those assets.
A growing number of businesses around the world are implementing sustainability plans, as more and more consumers demand a more responsible approach from businesses they patronize. Significantly, many have been pleasantly surprised to find that adopting efficient, low-carbon approaches can lead to major cost savings.
And all the while, the surprising and relentless ongoing decline in the cost of renewable energy and efficiency improvements are driving the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Is there enough time? Yes. Damage has been done, and the period of consequences will continue for some time to come, but there is still time to avoid the catastrophes that most threaten our future. Each of the trends described above – in technology, business, economics and politics – represents a break from the past. Taken together, they add up to genuine and realistic hope that we are finally putting ourselves on a path to solve the climate crisis.
How long will it take? When Martin Luther King Jr. was asked that question during some of the bleakest hours of the U.S. civil rights revolution, he responded, "How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever. . . . How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
And so it is today: How long? Not long.
This story is from the July 3rd-17th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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