Unmitigated climate change poses an existential threat to our way of life.
A major economic study projects a long-term 20 percent reduction in global gross domestic product from climate change. To avoid such unprecedented declines, we must reduce our greenhouse emissions in the U.S. by 80 percent by 2050. This goal is realistic, but a major undertaking that requires deliberate action.
Numerous economic models demonstrate that transitioning to renewable energy is likely to result in a net economic gain for our society. That does not mean that every individual will benefit, nor that the transition with be without pain, but it does mean that the transition is likely to result in more jobs and a more efficient and resilient electricity system. A recent study by the Risky Business Project provides a framework for an approach that is both technically and economically feasible. It is based on three principal transitions: shifting from fossil fuels to electricity, generating electricity from low- and zero-carbon sources and using all energy more efficiently.
The shift from fossil fuels to electricity includes the gradual adoption of electric vehicles, electric and geothermal heat pumps, and electricity in industrial processes. The shift to renewable electricity production requires a rapid transition to zero-carbon sources, like wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear, along with an expansion of energy-storage technologies and a redesigned grid to reduce the variability impacts of wind and solar. The potential for increased efficiency in energy use is significant, as we lose about half of all electricity generated in the U.S. to system losses. A redesigned distributed generation grid could dramatically reduce those losses.
The cost of this particular plan would be around $320 billion a year from 2020 to 2050, but the returns over the life of the transition would be substantially larger and would continue indefinitely. The savings would start at around $65 billion a year in the 2020s, increasing to over $700 billion a year in the 2040s. Around 1 million additional jobs would be created during the 30-year transition, with many of the largest gains being in the domestic construction and utilities sectors. While other approaches may offer greater or fewer costs or benefits, the important point is that the renewable energy transition can be a win-win proposition for our economy.
The free exchange of ideas is central to the values of a liberal arts education: Colleges and universities should be places where ideas are contested and challenged, not suppressed or shut out.
At Kenyon, our faculty has endorsed this concept with a resolution on the value and importance of free expression, emphasizing that we must be open to hearing ideas that are inconsistent with shared institutional values.
But how do colleges resolve the tension between their institutional charge to promote freedom of speech and expression on the one hand, and to establish a site of civil discourse on the other?
There are two components to consider. One is that speech or expression may be permitted, but that does not mean that it comes without consequences. Freedom of speech is not freedom from rebuke. In fact, if one follows the “marketplace of ideas” concept of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the rebuke is essential, since it is in the public challenge and battle over speech that our cultural norms of civility get established.
The other component is that institutions can and must set ground rules to ensure that free speech occurs within some bounds of acceptable civil discourse. Do you have the right to protest on campus? Yes, but the institution has the right to set the rules to make sure that all voices can be heard.
Today’s political climate dictates that the tension between free speech and civil discourse will continue in national conversation, and undoubtedly college campuses will continue to be flash points in these discussions. If we think of society as a marketplace of ideas, college campuses are the sites of market disruption — where new ideas challenge (and at times overthrow) old ones, new paradigms get established, and the battles over defining civility get waged.
Yes, let’s be unafraid to exchange ideas freely on campus. But when speech or actions disrupt accepted notions of civility, let’s also be unafraid to call attention to that with clear rebuke or rejection. This tension between civility and free speech will lead the way to progress.