The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming myths that hinder progress

By Noel Keough

by Mark Jaccard
Cambridge university press
2020/$22.95/296 pp.

If I were allowed one recommendation on climate change policy it would be Mark Jaccard’s The Citizens’ Guide to Climate Success. It is a clearheaded, concise, information-packed effort by a world-class scientist. Jaccard also has three decades in the climate change policy trenches, and even a coal train blockade on his resumé. He addresses “climate-concerned citizens.” In my opinion, the climate curious, the skeptics with open minds and every other Albertan needs to read this book.

Jaccard’s core message is a “simple path to success.” He counsels citizens to not be distracted by action-hindering myths but to focus on deep decarbonization—identify and elect sincere politicians and push them to act on regulatory change and tax instruments in the key domestic sectors of transportation and electric power. Game-changing innovation (“moonshots”) aren’t necessary; we can succeed with proven technology. Both voluntarism and the search for complete global consensus have failed. Carbon clubs—what we might call coalitions of the willing—of progressive countries (Canada among them) can and should act immediately.

Jaccard identifies several climate change myths, debunking them chapter by chapter. Among the myths: New fossil fuel projects have a role to play; we can’t do it without carbon pricing; peak oil will solve the problem; we must change individual behaviour; energy efficiency is profitable; and through market forces renewable energy technologies will quickly displace fossil fuels. He argues that not only do these myths obfuscate the simple path to carbon reduction, they play into the hands of climate deniers, fossil fuel companies and “insincere politicians.”

The book includes an excellent overview of relevant behavioural science—why we believe what we believe and do what we do and our propensity for self-delusion and cognitive bias with economic self-interest at stake. Jaccard writes unequivocally that “more oil pipelines lead to more oil sands production,” that “we can only burn a small percentage of the remaining fossil fuels” and that “every energy investment must be in CO2-free technology and fuels.”

Jaccard at times cheekily enlivens his subject matter with stories of fanatical survivalists, cosmetic surgery and the study of status-enhancing and sexual-insecurity-compensatory devices—a.k.a. cars. In a critical passage on greenwashing he recounts a former student’s research into the carbon footprint of sex practices and paraphernalia, reminding us “we are not going to buy our way out of this one.”

For novice and adept alike, the book contains concise, plain-language explanations of key concepts such as carbon offsets, cap and trade, rebound effects, the Jevons paradox, capacity utilization and dispatchable electricity, as well as compact and informative short histories of climate science and policy.

There is one Jaccardian myth, however, that for me does not persuade. He is obviously not impressed with Naomi Klein’s assertion, in This Changes Everything, that climate change success requires the abolition of capitalism. I don’t take exception to his critiques with respect to Klein’s interpretations of climate science, but his argument is weak with respect to a critical understanding of capitalism and politics. Jaccard prescribes a simple solution under the assertion that attempts to change the economic and political status quo are too difficult. Maybe so, but what if dysfunctional politics and capitalist economics are overwhelming impediments to enacting the very policy solutions he proposes? Even as we do everything in our power to realize Jaccard’s action plan, in his own words, “we cannot be rigid about solutions.”

As with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change is what Jaccard calls a “global collective action problem.” These are challenging times. Pick up a copy of The Citizen’s Guide and engage your fellow citizens about what comes next.

Noel Keough is an associate professor in the school of architecture, planning and landscape at the University of Calgary.

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