On January 12th, 2009, a week before the US Presidential Inauguration, Peter Senge(author of ‘The Fifth Dimension’ and well respected as a systems thinker) wrote a letter to Barack Obama and he also posted it on his blog. I include here an excerpt of that letter talking about shared responsibility for healing our planet. Hopefully the President is a systems thinker, too, and will gain support from these words….
….. “I have the good fortune of spending some part of every year in China, and I firmly believe that now is the time for working together on key global challenges like accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels.
Last year, China passed the US as the number one emitter of carbon dioxide. But China’s (gross) manufacturing export flow is over thirty percent of its GDP, almost half of which go to the U.S. So, a large share of China’s greenhouse gas emissions are really contributions to greenhouse gases driven by U.S. businesses and consumer demand. That the emissions are generated outside our boundaries hardly absolves us of responsibility in the matter. Who should be accountable for reducing these emissions when it comes time to commit to global emissions reductions targets in December? Is it the producers alone or the producers and their customers together? (Obviously, a similar argument applies to many other countries who purchase products produced in China, or who purchase services produced India)
So it is disingenuous at the least to point the finger at China and not recognize the three other fingers pointing back at ourselves.
If we approach climate change as a problem created by us all, very different approaches could be devised that would drive collaborative innovation – such as an agreed upon system of carbon labeling that would inform all regarding the embedded carbon in all products. Combined with effective mechanisms for pricing carbon emissions (such as in emerging cap and trade schemes), this could create consistent economic signals linking carbon producers and customers in reducing emissions.
Similarly, both our countries face powerful entrenched political interests aligned behind keeping fossil fuel energy prices artificially low. But businesses and customers alike are awakening to the foolhardiness of these policies. Just as the price of cigarettes hardly reflect their true cost, no one today can think that the low Chinese or US prices of gasoline at the pump or electricity at the socket reflect true cost – neither the costs of US troops in the Middle East nor those, current or prospective, of climate change, which the UK’s Stern report predicted could be comparable to the costs of WWII in the coming decades. Committing to higher fossil energy prices would take immense political courage, but it would create the consistent signals needed to drive innovation in alternatives. (This could be done, for example, by setting a floor under effective prices and taxing the difference if global market prices for fossil fuel energy fall below that floor, using revenues so generated to support investment in energy efficiency, alternative energy, and assisting the poor in adjusting to higher costs.)
And it is the pace and scale of this innovation that will tell the tale – and it is hard to imagine two countries better positioned to co-create this innovation. Together, the markets of these two countries combined for both energy efficiency and alternative energy dwarf the rest of the world. Rising environmentalism is one of the most powerful political forces in China. Rising green entrepreneurialism is one of the most powerful economic forces in the US. (“Cleantech” investment in green energy is already among the largest venture capital flows in the US – some say the largest). No country is better positioned than China to ramp up manufacture of alternative energy, and come down the corresponding cost curves – because of the enormous scale of future energy demand and its equally enormous need for distributed energy production that can slow the tide of mass urbanization (and Westernization) in favor of more balanced and distributed economic development. Just as the U.S. will need to create millions of Greentech jobs to reduce the carbon footprint of our urban and suburban population, almost three quarters of China’s population is still rural and will never be efficiently well served by centralized coal fired power plants.
In a nutshell, there is immense potential for partnerships between our two countries to accelerate the inevitable transition to a regenerative economy. This is what the Chinese call the “circular economy,” one modeled on the principles of the larger living world, versus the linear “take-make-waste” industrial-age paradigm.
It is understandable at times like this for a new President to call upon Americans to step forward and contribute to solving the problems we face. But, I also believe it is a time to reach out to other nations and say that now is the time when we must all step forward to solve the problems that we have all created.
The world has gotten used to an arrogant America. Rather than a sign of weakness, asking for help and partnership might just be the signal of hope that the world is looking for. “