Climate Change and Europe

Traveling in Europe, last week, I got a first hand impression of the urgency with which Europeans view the climate change issue. While climate change is just now breaking through as an important political concern in the US, in Europe it is a mainstream concern, popping up in advertising in the London Tube, on television in France and in speeches across the continent. Europeans are--after years of wringing their hands--optimistic if not ecstatic that with the three leading US presidential candidates, Obama, Clinton and McCain all favoring major action on climate change, the US will again engage on this issue.

At the ULI Europe conference in Paris, former UK chief scientist, David King spoke about the multi-billion dollar investments, the UK is making in flood and drainage control in anticipation of erratic weather and a new billion dollar private-public fund to develop technologies to combat climate change. The author of the forthcoming book, The Hot Topic, King, like others I spoke with, is optimistic that the US is now poised to reassume a leadership role. Some of the points he raises are indeed alarming. The summer size of the Arctic ice cap is now a fraction of what it was a mere 20 years ago. Seeing the thousands of square miles of former summer ice that are now open water on a map brings the magnitude of warming home. While the melting of the northern ice cap is alarming, since the ice is formed from ocean water, it is unlikely to have the devastating impact of the melting of the Greenland Ice Shelf which would send land-trapped water flowing into the ocean, raising sea levels by many meters, but that too is accelerating. Were the shelf to melt, some of the largest cities in the world, among them New York, but also many of the megacities of Asia would become uninhabitable. What King's work shows is that even at current levels of carbon dioxide production, there is a 20% chance of disaster. Major action is needed to reverse far worse odds. Thus the importance of the US again showing leadership on this issue.

Key members of the environmental community such as Michael Jacobs, Gordon Brown's special advisor on climate change whom I met with at 10 Downing Street, view US engagement as critical to a globally integrated approach to reducing emissions. The European cap and trade system which got off to a rocky start is, nonetheless now up and running and central to European climate change policy. Trading of carbon permits has created about five thousand financial jobs in London, according to one knowledgeable observer. Environmentalists I spoke with suggested a number of ways that a US system such as the ones proposed for California, the Northeast and, even for the US as a whole in the Warner Lieberman legislation, might learn from the European example. For example, they stressed the importance of auctioning off credits-as opposed to handing them out to polluters--and imposing tight limits. Both Senators Obama and Clinton support the 80% reduction by 2050 and full auctioning of credits recommended by the environmental community.

European environmentalists also support outright mandates and a carbon tax of the type recently endorsed by Vice President Gore.

In coming months, I am excited to be leading NDN's Green project to create a policy framework to combat climate change and working with the NDN community, the emerging clean technology community and other stakeholders to achieve real results. Please email me at with your ideas and suggestions.

The other thing one notices visiting Europe after a hiatus, is the comparative absence of sprawl. With high speed rail now ubiquitous on the continent and gas about twice the price here in the States, the spawl gap between Europe and the US could not be more striking. The Eurostar linking Paris and London now makes the trip in just over two hours. Traveling from Paris to Nice or Bordeaux, once an eight hour tip, is now a two hour blur. Paris has municipal mountain bikes for rent using a credit card at stands across the city. The first half hour is free. In cafes, waiters print out receipts using a handheld printer at your table rather than walking back to a cash register. Half size smart cars from Mercedes that one can easily park and maneuver are the rage.

One is reminded that while the US has been preoccupied with the Iraq war over the last eight years, Europe has been investing and advancing. Nothing stands still and, if the US is to regain its leadership position, it must again discover the future.