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April 14, 2013

Germany leads U.S. on climate change odyssey

NORMAN — Our country inspired the world with its civil rights transformation, sent a man to the moon, and led the personal computer revolution; we can and must do better on climate change. The scientific consensus is clear: global warming is happening and is human-caused. A recent review of nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed articles on the subject found that only 24 (0.17 percent) rejected climate change.  Yet in part because of disinformation campaigns funded by special interests, many people simply reject the science. Thus a crisis that threatens humanity as a whole has become here a partisan issue. A January CNN poll indicated that only 28 percent of Republicans acknowledge human-caused climate change. Compare that with the rest of the world: a 2012 Ipsos poll of 13,000 people in 13 countries (Eastern and Western, wealthy and poor) found that 77 percent overall recognize climate change as a proven scientific fact.

For the sake of perspective, it’s worth a look at Germany, which has been governed by conservative-led coalitions since 2005. 

A country once stereotyped as inflexible and pessimistic is now leading the globe in the transition to renewable energies while maintaining a healthy economy and strong support across the political spectrum. Here’s what that commitment looks like: in 1990 renewable sources accounted for 3 percent of Germany’s total electricity consumption; by 2012 renewable sources supplied 22 percent. The pledge for 2020 is 35 percent, for 2050 80 percent, which, in combination with other efforts, will result in a 95 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. The Germans, undeterred by their overcast skies, lead the world in solar capacity, largely through private investments. Meanwhile, conservation and the demand for new energy are driving extraordinary innovation. Germany stands to reap tremendous economic benefits, while our country is getting left behind.

Of course Germany has its own distinct circumstances shaping its response.

Like other European countries, it has had to face its finite land mass and natural resources and tends to plan carefully for the future.  Germany also has a traditional respect for science. Its politicians debate policy, not the legitimacy of scientific findings. But perhaps most importantly, the catastrophe of the Nazi period left Germans with a strong sense of social and moral urgency and a conviction that it is not acceptable to close one’s eyes to unfolding disaster. Germans who lived through that time were later asked by their children and grandchildren, “What did you do about it?”; Germans today expect to hear the same question from future generations about climate change. 

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