Climate change essay
Climate of Denial By Al Gore (Rolling Stone)
- June 22, 2011
The first time I remember hearing the question “is it real?”
was when I went as a young boy to see a traveling show put on by “professional
wrestlers” one summer evening in the gym of the Forks River Elementary
School in Elmwood, Tennessee.
The evidence that it was real was palpable: “They’re really hurting each other! That’s real blood! Look a’there! They can’t fake that!” On the other hand, there was clearly a script (or in today’s language, a “narrative”), with good guys to cheer and bad guys to boo.
But the most unusual and in some ways most interesting character in these dramas was the referee: Whenever the bad guy committed a gross and obvious violation of the “rules” — such as they were — like using a metal folding chair to smack the good guy in the head, the referee always seemed to be preoccupied with one of the cornermen, or looking the other way. Yet whenever the good guy — after absorbing more abuse and unfairness than any reasonable person could tolerate — committed the slightest infraction, the referee was all over him. The answer to the question “Is it real?” seemed connected to the question of whether the referee was somehow confused about his role: Was he too an entertainer?
That is pretty much the role now being played by most of the news
media in refereeing the current wrestling match over whether global warming
is “real,” and whether it has any connection to the constant dumping
of 90 million tons of heat-trapping emissions into the Earth’s thin shell
of atmosphere every 24 hours. Admittedly, the contest over global warming is
a challenge for the referee because it’s a tag-team match, a real free-for-all.
In one corner of the ring are Science and Reason. In the other corner: Poisonous
Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues. The referee — in this analogy, the
news media — seems confused about whether he is in the news business or
the entertainment business. Is he responsible for ensuring a fair match? Or
is he part of the show, selling tickets and building the audience? The referee
certainly seems distracted: by Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, the latest reality
show — the list of serial obsessions is too long to enumerate here.
But whatever the cause, the referee appears not to notice that
the Polluters and Ideologues are trampling all over the “rules”
of democratic discourse. They are financing pseudoscientists whose job is to
manufacture doubt about what is true and what is false; buying elected officials
wholesale with bribes that the politicians themselves have made “legal”
and can now be made in secret; spending hundreds of millions of dollars each
year on misleading advertisements in the mass media; hiring four anti-climate
lobbyists for every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
(Question: Would Michael Jordan have been a star if he was covered by four defensive
players every step he took on the basketball court?)
This script, of course, is not entirely new: A half-century ago,
when Science and Reason established the linkage between cigarettes and lung
diseases, the tobacco industry hired actors, dressed them up as doctors, and
paid them to look into television cameras and tell people that the linkage revealed
in the Surgeon General’s Report was not real at all. The show went on
for decades, with more Americans killed each year by cigarettes than all of
the U.S. soldiers killed in all of World War II.
This time, the scientific consensus is even stronger. It has been endorsed by every National Academy of science of every major country on the planet, every major professional scientific society related to the study of global warming and 98 percent of climate scientists throughout the world. In the latest and most authoritative study by 3,000 of the very best scientific experts in the world, the evidence was judged “unequivocal.”
But wait! The good guys transgressed the rules of decorum, as
evidenced in their private e-mails that were stolen and put on the Internet.
The referee is all over it: Penalty! Go to your corner! And in their 3,000-page
report, the scientists made some mistakes! Another penalty!
And if more of the audience is left confused about whether the climate crisis is real? Well, the show must go on. After all, it’s entertainment. There are tickets to be sold, eyeballs to glue to the screen.
Part of the script for this show was leaked to The New York Times
as early as 1991. In an internal document, a consortium of the largest global-warming
polluters spelled out their principal strategy: “Reposition global warming
as theory, rather than fact.” Ever since, they have been sowing doubt
even more effectively than the tobacco companies before them.
To sell their false narrative, the Polluters and Ideologues have
found it essential to undermine the public’s respect for Science and Reason
by attacking the integrity of the climate scientists. That is why the scientists
are regularly accused of falsifying evidence and exaggerating its implications
in a greedy effort to win more research grants, or secretly pursuing a hidden
political agenda to expand the power of government. Such slanderous insults
are deeply ironic: extremist ideologues — many financed or employed by
carbon polluters — accusing scientists of being greedy extremist ideologues.
After World War II, a philosopher studying the impact of organized
propaganda on the quality of democratic debate wrote, “The conversion
of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart
of the distinction between true and false.”
Is the climate crisis real? Yes, of course it is. Pause for a
moment to consider these events of just the past 12 months:
• Heat. According to NASA, 2010 was tied with 2005 as the hottest year measured since instruments were first used systematically in the 1880s. Nineteen countries set all-time high temperature records. One city in Pakistan, Mohenjo-Daro, reached 128.3 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest temperature ever measured in an Asian city. Nine of the 10 hottest years in history have occurred in the last 13 years. The past decade was the hottest ever measured, even though half of that decade represented a “solar minimum” — the low ebb in the natural cycle of solar energy emanating from the sun.
• Floods. Megafloods displaced 20 million people in Pakistan, further destabilizing a nuclear-armed country; inundated an area of Australia larger than Germany and France combined; flooded 28 of the 32 districts that make up Colombia, where it has rained almost continuously for the past year; caused a “thousand-year” flood in my home city of Nashville; and led to all-time record flood levels in the Mississippi River Valley. Many places around the world are now experiencing larger and more frequent extreme downpours and snowstorms; last year’s “Snowmaggedon” in the northeastern United States is part of the same pattern, notwithstanding the guffaws of deniers.
• Drought. Historic drought and fires in Russia killed an estimated 56,000 people and caused wheat and other food crops in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to be removed from the global market, contributing to a record spike in food prices. “Practically everything is burning,” Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared. “What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us.” The drought level in much of Texas has been raised from “extreme” to “exceptional,” the highest category. This spring the majority of the counties in Texas were on fire, and Gov. Rick Perry requested a major disaster declaration for all but two of the state’s 254 counties. Arizona is now fighting the largest fire in its history. Since 1970, the fire season throughout the American West has increased by 78 days. Extreme droughts in central China and northern France are currently drying up reservoirs and killing crops.
• Melting Ice. An enormous mass of ice, four times larger than the island of Manhattan, broke off from northern Greenland last year and slipped into the sea. The acceleration of ice loss in both Greenland and Antarctica has caused another upward revision of global sea-level rise and the numbers of refugees expected from low-lying coastal areas. The Arctic ice cap, which reached a record low volume last year, has lost as much as 40 percent of its area during summer in just 30 years.
These extreme events are happening in real time. It is not uncommon
for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.
Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to
the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there
are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other. A Fox News
executive, in an internal e-mail to the network’s reporters and editors
that later became public, questioned the “veracity of climate change data”
and ordered the journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet
has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out
that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.”
But in the “real” world, the record droughts, fires, floods and mudslides continue to increase in severity and frequency. Leading climate scientists like Jim Hansen and Kevin Trenberth now say that events like these would almost certainly not be occurring without the influence of man-made global warming. And that’s a shift in the way they frame these impacts. Scientists used to caution that we were increasing the probability of such extreme events by “loading the dice” — pumping more carbon into the atmosphere. Now the scientists go much further, warning that we are “painting more dots on the dice.” We are not only more likely to roll 12s; we are now rolling 13s and 14s. In other words, the biggest storms are not only becoming more frequent, they are getting bigger, stronger and more destructive.
“The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related
catastrophes is climate change,” Munich Re, one of the two largest reinsurance
companies in the world, recently stated. “The view that weather extremes
are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current
state of scientific knowledge.”
Many of the extreme and destructive events are the result of the
rapid increase in the amount of heat energy from the sun that is trapped in
the atmosphere, which is radically disrupting the planet’s water cycle.
More heat energy evaporates more water into the air, and the warmer air holds
a lot more moisture. This has huge consequences that we now see all around the
When a storm unleashes a downpour of rain or snow, the precipitation does not originate just in the part of the sky directly above where it falls. Storms reach out — sometimes as far as 2,000 miles — to suck in water vapor from large areas of the sky, including the skies above oceans, where water vapor has increased by four percent in just the last 30 years. (Scientists often compare this phenomenon to what happens in a bathtub when you open the drain; the water rushing out comes from the whole tub, not just from the part of the tub directly above the drain. And when the tub is filled with more water, more goes down the drain. In the same way, when the warmer sky is filled with a lot more water vapor, there are bigger downpours when a storm cell opens the “drain.”)
In many areas, these bigger downpours also mean longer periods between storms — at the same time that the extra heat in the air is also drying out the soil. That is part of the reason so many areas have been experiencing both record floods and deeper, longer-lasting droughts.
Moreover, the scientists have been warning us for quite some time
— in increasingly urgent tones — that things will get much, much
worse if we continue the reckless dumping of more and more heat-trapping pollution
into the atmosphere. Drought is projected to spread across significant, highly
populated areas of the globe throughout this century. Look at what the scientists
say is in store for the Mediterranean nations. Should we care about the loss
of Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Tunisia? Look at what they say
is in store for Mexico. Should we notice? Should we care?
Maybe it’s just easier, psychologically, to swallow the lie that these scientists who devote their lives to their work are actually greedy deceivers and left-wing extremists — and that we should instead put our faith in the pseudoscientists financed by large carbon polluters whose business plans depend on their continued use of the atmospheric commons as a place to dump their gaseous, heat-trapping waste without limit or constraint, free of charge.
The truth is this: What we are doing is functionally insane. If
we do not change this pattern, we will condemn our children and all future generations
to struggle with ecological curses for several millennia to come. Twenty percent
of the global-warming pollution we spew into the sky each day will still be
there 20,000 years from now!
We do have another choice. Renewable energy sources are coming
into their own. Both solar and wind will soon produce power at costs that are
competitive with fossil fuels; indications are that twice as many solar installations
were erected worldwide last year as compared to 2009. The reductions in cost
and the improvements in efficiency of photovoltaic cells over the past decade
appear to be following an exponential curve that resembles a less dramatic but
still startling version of what happened with computer chips over the past 50
Enhanced geothermal energy is potentially a nearly limitless source of competitive electricity. Increased energy efficiency is already saving businesses money and reducing emissions significantly. New generations of biomass energy — ones that do not rely on food crops, unlike the mistaken strategy of making ethanol from corn — are extremely promising. Sustainable forestry and agriculture both make economic as well as environmental sense. And all of these options would spread even more rapidly if we stopped subsidizing Big Oil and Coal and put a price on carbon that reflected the true cost of fossil energy — either through the much-maligned cap-and-trade approach, or through a revenue-neutral tax swap.
All over the world, the grassroots movement in favor of changing
public policies to confront the climate crisis and build a more prosperous,
sustainable future is growing rapidly. But most governments remain paralyzed,
unable to take action — even after years of volatile gasoline prices,
repeated wars in the Persian Gulf, one energy-related disaster after another,
and a seemingly endless stream of unprecedented and lethal weather disasters.
Continuing on our current course would be suicidal for global
civilization. But the key question is: How do we drive home that fact in a democratic
society when questions of truth have been converted into questions of power?
When the distinction between what is true and what is false is being attacked
relentlessly, and when the referee in the contest between truth and falsehood
has become an entertainer selling tickets to a phony wrestling match?
The “wrestling ring” in this metaphor is the conversation
of democracy. It used to be called the “public square.” In ancient
Athens, it was the Agora. In the Roman Republic, it was the Forum. In the Egypt
of the recent Arab Spring, “Tahrir Square” was both real and metaphorical
— encompassing Facebook, Twitter, Al-Jazeera and texting.
In the America of the late-18th century, the conversation that
led to our own “Spring” took place in printed words: pamphlets,
newsprint, books, the “Republic of Letters.” It represented the
fullest flower of the Enlightenment, during which the oligarchic power of the
monarchies, the feudal lords and the Medieval Church was overthrown and replaced
with a new sovereign: the Rule of Reason.
The public square that gave birth to the new consciousness of the Enlightenment emerged in the dozen generations following he invention of the printing press — “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” the scholar Marshall McLuhan called it — a space in which the conversation of democracy was almost equally accessible to every literate person. Individuals could both find the knowledge that had previously been restricted to elites and contribute their own ideas.
Ideas that found resonance with others rose in prominence much the way Google searches do today, finding an ever larger audience and becoming a source of political power for individuals with neither wealth nor force of arms. Thomas Paine, to take one example, emigrated from England to Philadelphia with no wealth, no family connections and no power other than that which came from his ability to think and write clearly — yet his Common Sense became the Harry Potter of Revolutionary America. The “public interest” mattered, was actively discussed and pursued.
But the “public square” that gave birth to America
has been transformed beyond all recognition. The conversation that matters most
to the shaping of the “public mind” now takes place on television.
Newspapers and magazines are in decline. The Internet, still in its early days,
will one day support business models that make true journalism profitable —
but up until now, the only successful news websites aggregate content from struggling
print publications. Web versions of the newspapers themselves are, with few
exceptions, not yet making money. They bring to mind the classic image of Wile
E. Coyote running furiously in midair just beyond the edge of the cliff, before
plummeting to the desert floor far beneath him.
The average American, meanwhile, is watching television an astonishing
five hours a day. In the average household, at least one television set is turned
on more than eight hours a day. Moreover, approximately 75 percent of those
using the Internet frequently watch television at the same time that they are
Unlike access to the “public square” of early America, access to television requires large amounts of money. Thomas Paine could walk out of his front door in Philadelphia and find a dozen competing, low-cost print shops within blocks of his home. Today, if he traveled to the nearest TV station, or to the headquarters of nearby Comcast — the dominant television provider in America — and tried to deliver his new ideas to the American people, he would be laughed off the premises. The public square that used to be a commons has been refeudalized, and the gatekeepers charge large rents for the privilege of communicating to the American people over the only medium that really affects their thinking. “Citizens” are now referred to more commonly as “consumers” or “the audience.”
That is why up to 80 percent of the campaign budgets for candidates in both major political parties is devoted to the purchase of 30-second TV ads. Since the rates charged for these commercials increase each year, the candidates are forced to raise more and more money in each two-year campaign cycle.
Of course, the only reliable sources from which such large sums
can be raised continuously are business lobbies. Organized labor, a shadow of
its former self, struggles to compete, and individuals are limited by law to
making small contributions. During the 2008 campaign, there was a bubble of
hope that Internet-based fundraising might even the scales, but in the end,
Democrats as well as Republicans relied far more on traditional sources of large
contributions. Moreover, the recent deregulation of unlimited — and secret
— donations by wealthy corporations has made the imbalance even worse.
In the new ecology of political discourse, special-interest contributors
of the large sums of money now required for the privilege of addressing voters
on a wholesale basis are not squeamish about asking for the quo they expect
in return for their quid. Politicians who don’t acquiesce don’t
get the money they need to be elected and re-elected. And the impact is doubled
when special interests make clear — usually bluntly — that the money
they are withholding will go instead to opponents who are more than happy to
pledge the desired quo. Politicians have been racing to the bottom for some
time, and are presently tunneling to new depths. It is now commonplace for congressmen
and senators first elected decades ago — as I was — to comment in
private that the whole process has become unbelievably crass, degrading and
horribly destructive to the core values of American democracy.
Largely as a result, the concerns of the wealthiest individuals and corporations routinely trump the concerns of average Americans and small businesses. There are a ridiculously large number of examples: eliminating the inheritance tax paid by the wealthiest one percent of families is considered a much higher priority than addressing the suffering of the millions of long-term unemployed; Wall Street’s interest in legalizing gambling in trillions of dollars of “derivatives” was considered way more important than protecting the integrity of the financial system and the interests of middle-income home buyers. It’s a long list.
Almost every group organized to promote and protect the “public interest” has been backpedaling and on the defensive. By sharp contrast, when a coalition of powerful special interests sets out to manipulate U.S. policy, their impact can be startling — and the damage to the true national interest can be devastating.
In 2002, for example, the feverish desire to invade Iraq required
convincing the American people that Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for
attacking the United States on September 11th, 2001, and that he was preparing
to attack us again, perhaps with nuclear weapons. When the evidence —
the “facts” — stood in the way of that effort to shape the
public mind, they were ridiculed, maligned and ignored. Behind the scenes, the
intelligence was manipulated and the public was intentionally deceived. Allies
were pressured to adopt the same approach with their publics. A recent inquiry
in the U.K. confirmed this yet again. “We knew at the time that the purpose
of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out
the available intelligence,” Maj. Gen. Michael Laurie testified. “To
make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence, the wording was developed
with care.” Why? As British intelligence put it, the overthrow of Saddam
was “a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies.”
That goal — the real goal — could have been debated on its own terms. But as Bush administration officials have acknowledged, a truly candid presentation would not have resulted in sufficient public support for the launching of a new war. They knew that because they had studied it and polled it. So they manipulated the debate, downplayed the real motive for the invasion, and made a different case to the public — one based on falsehoods.
And the “referee” — the news media — looked the other way. Some, like Fox News, were hyperactive cheerleaders. Others were intimidated into going along by the vitriol heaped on any who asked inconvenient questions. (They know it; many now acknowledge it, sheepishly and apologetically.)
Senators themselves fell, with a few honorable exceptions, into
the same two camps. A few weeks before the United States invaded Iraq, the late
Robert Byrd — God rest his soul — thundered on the Senate floor
about the pitiful quality of the debate over the choice between war and peace:
“Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent — ominously, dreadfully
silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation
the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.”
The chamber was silent, in part, because many senators were somewhere else — attending cocktail parties and receptions, largely with special-interest donors, raising money to buy TV ads for their next campaigns. Nowadays, in fact, the scheduling of many special-interest fundraisers mirrors the schedule of votes pending in the House and Senate.
By the time we invaded Iraq, polls showed, nearly three-quarters
of the American people were convinced that the person responsible for the planes
flying into the World Trade Center Towers was indeed Saddam Hussein. The rest
is history — though, as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead.
It’s not even past.” Because of that distortion of the truth in
the past, we are still in Iraq; and because the bulk of our troops and intelligence
assets were abruptly diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq, we are also still in
In the same way, because the banks had their way with Congress
when it came to gambling on unregulated derivatives and recklessly endangering
credit markets with subprime mortgages, we still have almost double-digit unemployment,
historic deficits, Greece and possibly other European countries teetering on
the edge of default, and the threat of a double-dip recession. Even the potential
default of the United States of America is now being treated by many politicians
and too many in the media as yet another phony wrestling match, a political
game. Are the potential economic consequences of a U.S. default “real”?
Of course they are! Have we gone completely nuts?
We haven’t gone nuts — but the “conversation
of democracy” has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make
intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American
history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality
of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations
in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions
that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what
is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically
attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially
important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no
longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and
honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.
That is exactly what is happening with U.S. decisions regarding
the climate crisis. The best available evidence demonstrates beyond any reasonable
doubt that the reckless spewing of global-warming pollution in obscene quantities
into the atmospheric commons is having exactly the consequences long predicted
by scientists who have analyzed the known facts according to the laws of physics.
The emergence of the climate crisis seems sudden only because of a relatively recent discontinuity in the relationship between human civilization and the planet’s ecological system. In the past century, we have quadrupled global population while relying on the burning of carbon-based fuels — coal, oil and gas — for 85 percent of the world’s energy. We are also cutting and burning forests that would otherwise help remove some of the added CO2 from the atmosphere, and have converted agriculture to an industrial model that also runs on carbon-based fuels and strip-mines carbon-rich soils.
The cumulative result is a radically new reality — and since
human nature makes us vulnerable to confusing the unprecedented with the improbable,
it naturally seems difficult to accept. Moreover, since this new reality is
painful to contemplate, and requires big changes in policy and behavior that
are at the outer limit of our ability, it is all too easy to fall into the psychological
state of denial. As with financial issues like subprime mortgages and credit
default swaps, the climate crisis can seem too complex to worry about, especially
when the shills for the polluters constantly claim it’s all a hoax anyway.
And since the early impacts of climatic disruption are distributed globally,
they masquerade as an abstraction that is safe to ignore.
These vulnerabilities, rooted in our human nature, are being manipulated by the tag-team of Polluters and Ideologues who are trying to deceive us. And the referee — the news media — is once again distracted. As with the invasion of Iraq, some are hyperactive cheerleaders for the deception, while others are intimidated into complicity, timidity and silence by the astonishing vitriol heaped upon those who dare to present the best evidence in a professional manner. Just as TV networks who beat the drums of war prior to the Iraq invasion were rewarded with higher ratings, networks now seem reluctant to present the truth about the link between carbon pollution and global warming out of fear that conservative viewers will change the channel — and fear that they will receive a torrent of flame e-mails from deniers.
Many politicians, unfortunately, also fall into the same two categories:
those who cheerlead for the deniers and those who cower before them. The latter
group now includes several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination
who have felt it necessary to abandon their previous support for action on the
climate crisis; at least one has been apologizing profusely to the deniers and
begging for their forgiveness.
“Intimidation” and “timidity” are connected by more than a shared word root. The first is designed to produce the second. As Yeats wrote almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Barack Obama’s approach to the climate crisis represents
a special case that requires careful analysis. His election was accompanied
by intense hope that many things in need of change would change. Some things
have, but others have not. Climate policy, unfortunately, is in the second category.
First of all, anyone who honestly examines the incredible challenges confronting President Obama when he took office has to feel enormous empathy for him: the Great Recession, with the high unemployment and the enormous public and private indebtedness it produced; two seemingly interminable wars; an intractable political opposition whose true leaders — entertainers masquerading as pundits — openly declared that their objective was to ensure that the new president failed; a badly broken Senate that is almost completely paralyzed by the threat of filibuster and is controlled lock, stock and barrel by the oil and coal industries; a contingent of nominal supporters in Congress who are indentured servants of the same special interests that control most of the Republican Party; and a ferocious, well-financed and dishonest campaign poised to vilify anyone who dares offer leadership for the reduction of global-warming pollution.
In spite of these obstacles, President Obama included significant
climate-friendly initiatives in the economic stimulus package he presented to
Congress during his first month in office. With the skillful leadership of House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee chairmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, he helped
secure passage of a cap-and-trade measure in the House a few months later. He
implemented historic improvements in fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles,
and instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward on the regulation
of global-warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. He appointed many excellent
men and women to key positions, and they, in turn, have made hundreds of changes
in environmental and energy policy that have helped move the country forward
slightly on the climate issue. During his first six months, he clearly articulated
the link between environmental security, economic security and national security
— making the case that a national commitment to renewable energy could
simultaneously reduce unemployment, dependence on foreign oil and vulnerability
to the disruption of oil markets dominated by the Persian Gulf reserves. And
more recently, as the issue of long-term debt has forced discussion of new revenue,
he proposed the elimination of unnecessary and expensive subsidies for oil and
But in spite of these and other achievements, President Obama
has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action
on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he
did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House
passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority.
Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when
the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for
anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling
in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those
who argue speciously that “drill, baby, drill” is the answer to
our growing dependence on foreign oil.
The failure to pass legislation to limit global-warming pollution ensured that the much-anticipated Copenhagen summit on a global treaty in 2009 would also end in failure. The president showed courage in attending the summit and securing a rhetorical agreement to prevent a complete collapse of the international process, but that’s all it was — a rhetorical agreement. During the final years of the Bush-Cheney administration, the rest of the world was waiting for a new president who would aggressively tackle the climate crisis — and when it became clear that there would be no real change from the Bush era, the agenda at Copenhagen changed from “How do we complete this historic breakthrough?” to “How can we paper over this embarrassing disappointment?”
Some concluded from the failure in Copenhagen that it was time to give up on the entire U.N.-sponsored process for seeking an international agreement to reduce both global-warming pollution and deforestation. Ultimately, however, the only way to address the climate crisis will be with a global agreement that in one way or another puts a price on carbon. And whatever approach is eventually chosen, the U.S. simply must provide leadership by changing our own policy.
Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on
making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real
power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.”
Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude
of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not
defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor
has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including
our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before
Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance
that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant
or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation
that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the
only person who can rally the United States.
Many political advisers assume that a president has to deal with
the world of politics as he finds it, and that it is unwise to risk political
capital on an effort to actually lead the country toward a new understanding
of the real threats and real opportunities we face. Concentrate on the politics
of re-election, they say. Don’t take chances.
All that might be completely understandable and make perfect sense in a world where the climate crisis wasn’t “real.” Those of us who support and admire President Obama understand how difficult the politics of this issue are in the context of the massive opposition to doing anything at all — or even to recognizing that there is a crisis. And assuming that the Republicans come to their senses and avoid nominating a clown, his re-election is likely to involve a hard-fought battle with high stakes for the country. All of his supporters understand that it would be self-defeating to weaken Obama and heighten the risk of another step backward. Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context.
But in this case, the President has reality on his side. The scientific consensus is far stronger today than at any time in the past. Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act.
Those who profit from the unconstrained pollution that is the
primary cause of climate change are determined to block our perception of this
reality. They have help from many sides: from the private sector, which is now
free to make unlimited and secret campaign contributions; from politicians who
have conflated their tenures in office with the pursuit of the people’s
best interests; and — tragically — from the press itself, which
treats deception and falsehood on the same plane as scientific fact, and calls
it objective reporting of alternative opinions.
All things are not equally true. It is time to face reality. We
ignored reality in the marketplace and nearly destroyed the world economic system.
We are likewise ignoring reality in the environment, and the consequences could
be several orders of magnitude worse. Determining what is real can be a challenge
in our culture, but in order to make wise choices in the presence of such grave
risks, we must use common sense and the rule of reason in coming to an agreement
on what is true.
So how can we make it happen? How can we as individuals make a
difference? In five basic ways:
First, become a committed advocate for solving the crisis. You can start with something simple: Speak up whenever the subject of climate arises. When a friend or acquaintance expresses doubt that the crisis is real, or that it’s some sort of hoax, don’t let the opportunity pass to put down your personal marker. The civil rights revolution may have been driven by activists who put their lives on the line, but it was partly won by average Americans who began to challenge racist comments in everyday conversations.
Second, deepen your commitment by making consumer choices that reduce energy use and reduce your impact on the environment. The demand by individuals for change in the marketplace has already led many businesses to take truly significant steps to reduce their global-warming pollution. Some of the corporate changes are more symbolic than real — “green-washing,” as it’s called — but a surprising amount of real progress is taking place. Walmart, to pick one example, is moving aggressively to cut its carbon footprint by 20 million metric tons, in part by pressuring its suppliers to cut down on wasteful packaging and use lower-carbon transportation alternatives. Reward those companies that are providing leadership.
Third, join an organization committed to action on this issue. The Alliance for Climate Protection (climateprotect.org), which I chair, has grassroots action plans for the summer and fall that spell out lots of ways to fight effectively for the policy changes we need. We can also enable you to host a slide show in your community on solutions to the climate crisis — presented by one of the 4,000 volunteers we have trained. Invite your friends and neighbors to come and then enlist them to join the cause.
Fourth, contact your local newspapers and television stations when they put out claptrap on climate — and let them know you’re fed up with their stubborn and cowardly resistance to reporting the facts of this issue. One of the main reasons they are so wimpy and irresponsible about global warming is that they’re frightened of the reaction they get from the deniers when they report the science objectively. So let them know that deniers are not the only ones in town with game. Stay on them! Don’t let up! It’s true that some media outlets are getting instructions from their owners on this issue, and that others are influenced by big advertisers, but many of them are surprisingly responsive to a genuine outpouring of opinion from their viewers and readers. It is way past time for the ref to do his job.
Finally, and above all, don’t give up on the political system.
Even though it is rigged by special interests, it is not so far gone that candidates
and elected officials don’t have to pay attention to persistent, engaged
and committed individuals. President Franklin Roosevelt once told civil rights
leaders who were pressing him for change that he agreed with them about the
need for greater equality for black Americans. Then, as the story goes, he added
with a wry smile, “Now go out and make me do it.”
To make our elected leaders take action to solve the climate crisis, we must forcefully communicate the following message: “I care a lot about global warming; I am paying very careful attention to the way you vote and what you say about it; if you are on the wrong side, I am not only going to vote against you, I will work hard to defeat you — regardless of party. If you are on the right side, I will work hard to elect you.”
Why do you think President Obama and Congress changed their game on “don’t ask, don’t tell?” It happened because enough Americans delivered exactly that tough message to candidates who wanted their votes. When enough people care passionately enough to drive that message home on the climate crisis, politicians will look at their hole cards, and enough of them will change their game to make all the difference we need.
This is not naive; trust me on this. It may take more individual
voters to beat the Polluters and Ideologues now than it once did — when
special-interest money was less dominant. But when enough people speak this
way to candidates, and convince them that they are dead serious about it, change
will happen — both in Congress and in the White House. As the great abolitionist
leader Frederick Douglass once observed, “Power concedes nothing without
a demand. It never did, and it never will.”
What is now at risk in the climate debate is nothing less than our ability to communicate with one another according to a protocol that binds all participants to seek reason and evaluate facts honestly. The ability to perceive reality is a prerequisite for self-governance. Wishful thinking and denial lead to dead ends. When it works, the democratic process helps clear the way toward reality, by exposing false argumentation to the best available evidence. That is why the Constitution affords such unique protection to freedom of the press and of speech.
The climate crisis, in reality, is a struggle for the soul of America. It is about whether or not we are still capable — given the ill health of our democracy and the current dominance of wealth over reason — of perceiving important and complex realities clearly enough to promote and protect the sustainable well-being of the many. What hangs in the balance is the future of civilization as we know it.
Published on Thursday, July 14, 2011 by TomDispatch.com
The Great American Carbon Bomb
It’s Yes or No For a Climate-Killing Oil Pipeline -- and Obama Gets to Make the Call
by Bill McKibben
The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real
in the last 18 months. Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday,
we’ve got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona
on fire. First Pakistan suffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went
underwater, and this spring and summer, it’s the Midwest that’s
flooding at historic levels.
"If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands," writes McKibben, "you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature."
The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States. Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history. Jeff Masters, probably the world’s most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.
Since we’re the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here’s his prognosis: “The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.”
There’s another shift, too, and that’s in the response
from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming
era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science
that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade
agreement that died in Congress in 2010. These were attempts to solve the problem
of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices
or regulations. They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed,
at every turn, to dilute or defang them.Clearly the current Congress is in no
mood for real regulation, so -- for the moment anyway -- the complicated planning
is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and
natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard
to defang: Keep it in the ground!
Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists,
myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada’s plans to massively
expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta. We set up a new website,
tarsandsaction.org, and judging from the early response, it could result in
the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement’s
history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists
converge on the White House in August. They’ll risk arrest to demand something
simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license
for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would
vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the
exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will only increase.
Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You
can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline.
It’s wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline
could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America.
(Last week’s Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what
There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb. Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.
If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d
run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current
390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently
seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then
at least a world with a similar temperature. It won’t happen overnight,
thank God, but according to the planet’s most important climatologist,
James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was
“essentially game over” for the climate of this planet.
Halting that pipeline wouldn’t solve all tar sands problems.
The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely
ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer and that, at least,
would be a start. Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the
Republican majority in the House of Representatives can’t get in the way.
The president alone decides if the pipeline is “in the national interest.”
There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration.
Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela
Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reported that, in 2009, the State Department's
"energy envoy" was already instructing Alberta's fossil-fuel barons
in how to improve their "oil sands messaging," including "increasing
visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories." This is the
government version of Murdochian-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to
think that the new pipeline is already a done deal.
Still, the president can say no. If he does, then no pipeline
-- and in the words of Alberta’s oil minister, his province will be “landlocked
in bitumen” (the basic substance from which tar-sands oil is extracted).
Even energy-hungry China, eager as it is for new sources of fossil fuels, may
not be able to save him, since native tribes are doing a remarkable job of blocking
another proposed pipeline to the Canadian Pacific. Oil, oil everywhere, and
nary a drop to sell. (Unfortunately that’s not quite true, but at least
there won’t be a big new straw in this milkshake.)
An Obama thumbs-down on the pipeline could change the economics of the tar sands in striking ways. “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary.
Faced with that prospect, Canada’s oilmen are growing desperate.
Earlier this month, in a classic sleight of hand, they announced plans for a
giant “carbon capture and sequestration” scheme at the tar sands.
That’s because when it comes to global warming, tar sands oil is even
worse than, say, Saudi oil because it’s a tarry muck, not a liquid, and
so you have to burn a lot of natural gas to make it flow in the first place.
Now, the oil industry is proposing to capture some of the extra
carbon from that cooking process and store it underground. This is an untested
method, and the accounting scheme Alberta has adopted for it may actually increase
the province's emmissions. Even if it turns out to work perfectly and captures
the carbon from that natural gas that would have escaped into the atmosphere,
the oil they’re proposing to ship south for use in our gas tanks would
still be exactly as bad for the atmosphere as Saudi crude. In other words, in
the long run it would still be “essentially game over” for the climate.
The Saudis, of course, built their oil empire long before we knew
that there was anything wrong with burning oil. The Canadians -- with American
help, if Obama obliges the oil lobby -- are building theirs in the teeth of
the greatest threat the world has ever faced. We can’t unbuild those Saudi
Arabian fields, though happily their supplies are starting to slowly dwindle.
What we can still do, though, is prevent North America from becoming the next
So there will be a battle, and there will be nothing complicated or abstract about it. It will be based on one question: Does that carbon stay in the earth, or does it pour into the atmosphere? Given the trillions of dollars at stake it will be a hard fight, and there’s no guarantee of victory. But at least there’s no fog here, no maze of technicalities.
The last climate bill, the one the Senate punted on, was thousands of pages long. This time there’s a single sheet of paper, which Obama signs… or not.
© 2011 Bill McKibben
GOP Climate Zombies Are Blocking Creation Of NOAA Climate
By Brad Johnson on Jun 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm
The Obama administration is fighting anti-science Republicans to create a Climate Service within the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA Climate Service would consolidate NOAA’s existing, widely dispersed, climate capabilities under a single management structure to meet America’s rising demand for authoritative and timely climate information. Tea Party Republicans successfully included a rider preventing its establishment in the FY 2011 continuing resolution, but now the fight is over the FY 2012 budget, which includes a budget-neutral provision for the new climate division.
On Wednesday, the House science committee is holding a hearing
on the proposed climate service, with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and
Robert S. Winokur, Deputy and Technical Director, Office of the Oceanographer
of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, scheduled to testify.
NOAA’s climate information provides long-range forecasting
ranging from two weeks, to seasons, to decades out. Climate services help the
public to make informed decisions to prepare for and become more resilient to
the new reality of our changing world. Individuals, businesses, and local governments
rely heavily on this information – the rapid increase in climate disasters
and extreme weather has only increased the demand for these forecasts. Even
without a coordinated approach, NOAA’s climate information directly benefits
the American people:
– NOAA’s climate forecasts, from seasonal precipitation
outlooks to weekly on-the-ground U.S. Drought Monitor assessments, are helping
firefighters in Texas to prepare for and respond to a record extreme wildfire
– NOAA’s climate information is being used by the
U.S. home building industry, which estimates savings of over $300 million per
year in construction costs alone from using just one of NOAA’s climate
– Insurance companies rely on climate data such as the normal
(mean) temperature, precipitation, height above sea level, and storm frequency
to calculate insurance premiums and coverage based on catastrophe models.
NOAA’s climate services are currently distributed across
five line offices. As carbon pollution destabilizes the climate, demand has
outpaced NOAA’s capacity to effectively deliver requested products and
information and exceeded its ability to meet or be responsive to future needs.
The reorganization would significantly boost the agency’s efficiency,
strengthen science across NOAA, and improve delivery of vital weather and climate
forecasts – at no additional cost to the taxpayer.
Nothing less than the full mobilization of the nation’s resources will allow us to survive the changing threats of our polluted climate. However, the Tea Party has a policy of science denial. The formation of this service threatens the know-nothings within the Republican Party who deny that the fossil fuel industry is creating a dangerous world — so they are preventing the government from protecting the American people.
Published on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 by Rolling Stone
Global Warming's Terrifying New Math
Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is
by Bill McKibben
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't
convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers
about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across
the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern
Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the
entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring
by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number
of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever
recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much
that it represented the "largest temperature departure from average of
any season on record." The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it
had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour
in the planet's history.
Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world's nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn't even attend. It was "a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago," the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls "once thronged by multitudes." Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.
When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend
to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of
our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy
and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts
in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals,
but it hasn't yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends
most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows
us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless
– position with three simple numbers.
The First Number: 2° Celsius
If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the Copenhagen climate
conference in 2009 would have marked the culmination of the global fight to
slow a changing climate. The world's nations had gathered in the December gloom
of the Danish capital for what a leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern
of Britain, called the "most important gathering since the Second World
War, given what is at stake." As Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard,
who presided over the conference, declared at the time: "This is our chance.
If we miss it, it could take years before we get a new and better one. If ever."
In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen failed spectacularly.
Neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for
40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions,
and so the conference drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders jetted
in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, President Obama took the lead
in drafting a face-saving "Copenhagen Accord" that fooled very few.
Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one to anything, and even if countries
signaled their intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no enforcement
mechanism. "Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight," an angry Greenpeace
official declared, "with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport."
Headline writers were equally brutal: COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? asked
The accord did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius." And in the very next paragraph, it declared that "we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required... so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius." By insisting on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then the German minister of the environment and now the center-right chancellor of the nation.
Some context: So far, we've raised the average temperature of
the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage
than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone,
the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor
than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter,
loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many
scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.
"Any number much above one degree involves a gamble," writes Kerry
Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, "and the odds become
less and less favorable as the temperature goes up." Thomas Lovejoy, once
the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: "If we're
seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply
too much." NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet's most prominent climatologist,
is even blunter: "The target that has been talked about in international
negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term
disaster." At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations
warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will
flat-out disappear." When delegates from developing nations were warned
that two degrees would represent a "suicide pact" for drought-stricken
Africa, many of them started chanting, "One degree, one Africa."
Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested
scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed,
it's fair to say that it's the only thing about climate change the world has
settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of
the world's carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing
the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including
Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes
most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of
planet Earth at the moment is that we can't raise the temperature more than
two degrees Celsius – it's become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.
The Second Number: 565 Gigatons
Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. ("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)
This idea of a global "carbon budget" emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we've increased the Earth's temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we're currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.
How good are these numbers? No one is insisting that they're exact,
but few dispute that they're generally right. The 565-gigaton figure was derived
from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been
built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades. And
the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate-simulation models
currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change. "Looking at them as they come in, they hardly
differ at all," says Tom Wigley, an Australian climatologist at the National
Center for Atmospheric Research. "There's maybe 40 models in the data set
now, compared with 20 before. But so far the numbers are pretty much the same.
We're just fine-tuning things. I don't think much has changed over the last
decade." William Collins, a senior climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory, agrees. "I think the results of this round of simulations
will be quite similar," he says. "We're not getting any free lunch
from additional understanding of the climate system."
We're not getting any free lunch from the world's economies, either.
With only a single year's lull in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis,
we've continued to pour record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, year after
year. In late May, the International Energy Agency published its latest figures
– CO2 emissions last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 percent from the
year before. America had a warm winter and converted more coal-fired power plants
to natural gas, so its emissions fell slightly; China kept booming, so its carbon
output (which recently surpassed the U.S.) rose 9.3 percent; the Japanese shut
down their fleet of nukes post-Fukushima, so their emissions edged up 2.4 percent.
"There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy
efficiency," said Corinne Le Quéré, who runs England's Tyndall
Centre for Climate Change Research. "But what this shows is that so far
the effects have been marginal." In fact, study after study predicts that
carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and
at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around
the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school. "The
new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is
about to close," said Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist. In fact,
he continued, "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line
with a temperature increase of about six degrees." That's almost 11 degrees
Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.
So, new data in hand, everyone at the Rio conference renewed their ritual calls for serious international action to move us back to a two-degree trajectory. The charade will continue in November, when the next Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes in Qatar. This will be COP 18 – COP 1 was held in Berlin in 1995, and since then the process has accomplished essentially nothing. Even scientists, who are notoriously reluctant to speak out, are slowly overcoming their natural preference to simply provide data. "The message has been consistent for close to 30 years now," Collins says with a wry laugh, "and we have the instrumentation and the computer power required to present the evidence in detail. If we choose to continue on our present course of action, it should be done with a full evaluation of the evidence the scientific community has presented." He pauses, suddenly conscious of being on the record. "I should say, a fuller evaluation of the evidence."
So far, though, such calls have had little effect. We're in the same position we've been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction. Among scientists speaking off the record, disgusted candor is the rule. One senior scientist told me, "You know those new cigarette packs, where governments make them put a picture of someone with a hole in their throats? Gas pumps should have something like that."
The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons
This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first
time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was
highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial
analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate
investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock
portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the
proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries
(think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's
the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that
this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative – led by James Leaton, an environmentalist who served as an adviser at the accounting giant PriceWaterhouseCoopers – combed through proprietary databases to figure out how much oil, gas and coal the world's major energy companies hold in reserve. The numbers aren't perfect – they don't fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas, and they don't accurately reflect coal reserves, which are subject to less stringent reporting requirements than oil and gas. But for the biggest companies, the figures are quite exact: If you burned everything in the inventories of Russia's Lukoil and America's ExxonMobil, for instance, which lead the list of oil and gas companies, each would release more than 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such
a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit –
equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with
driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay
below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening.
And the 2,795 gigatons? That's the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has
on the table, already opened and ready to pour.
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as
climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those
reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers,
our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil.
But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices,
companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on
the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel
companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide –
those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies
their value. It's why they've worked so hard these past years to figure out
how to unlock the oil in Canada's tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the
sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the
climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies
would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now
runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today's market value, those 2,795
gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say,
if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground,
you'd be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren't exact, of course,
but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It
won't necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which
case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have
a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet –
but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can't have both. Do the
math: 2,795 is five times 565. That's how the story ends.
So far, as I said at the start, environmental efforts to tackle
global warming have failed. The planet's emissions of carbon dioxide continue
to soar, especially as developing countries emulate (and supplant) the industries
of the West. Even in rich countries, small reductions in emissions offer no
sign of the real break with the status quo we'd need to upend the iron logic
of these three numbers. Germany is one of the only big countries that has actually
tried hard to change its energy mix; on one sunny Saturday in late May, that
northern-latitude nation generated nearly half its power from solar panels within
its borders. That's a small miracle – and it demonstrates that we have
the technology to solve our problems. But we lack the will. So far, Germany's
the exception; the rule is ever more carbon.
This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies
don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change
individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the
millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most
of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights
to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else
is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap
fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement
against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed
entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.
People perceive – correctly – that their individual
actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration
of CO2; by 2010, a poll found that "while recycling is widespread in America
and 73 percent of those polled are paying bills online in order to save paper,"
only four percent had reduced their utility use and only three percent had purchased
hybrid cars. Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles
enough to matter – but time is precisely what we lack.
A more efficient method, of course, would be to work through the
political system, and environmentalists have tried that, too, with the same
limited success. They've patiently lobbied leaders, trying to convince them
of our peril and assuming that politicians would heed the warnings. Sometimes
it has seemed to work. Barack Obama, for instance, campaigned more aggressively
about climate change than any president before him – the night he won
the nomination, he told supporters that his election would mark the moment "the
rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal." And he
has achieved one significant change: a steady increase in the fuel efficiency
mandated for automobiles. It's the kind of measure, adopted a quarter-century
ago, that would have helped enormously. But in light of the numbers I've just
described, it's obviously a very small start indeed.
At this point, effective action would require actually keeping
most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil,
not just changing slightly the speed at which it's burned. And there the president,
apparently haunted by the still-echoing cry of "Drill, baby, drill,"
has gone out of his way to frack and mine. His secretary of interior, for instance,
opened up a huge swath of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for coal extraction:
The total basin contains some 67.5 gigatons worth of carbon (or more than 10
percent of the available atmospheric space). He's doing the same thing with
Arctic and offshore drilling; in fact, as he explained on the stump in March,
"You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can... That's
a commitment that I make." The next day, in a yard full of oil pipe in
Cushing, Oklahoma, the president promised to work on wind and solar energy but,
at the same time, to speed up fossil-fuel development: "Producing more
oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part
of an all-of-the-above energy strategy." That is, he's committed to finding
even more stock to add to the 2,795-gigaton inventory of unburned carbon.
Sometimes the irony is almost Borat-scale obvious: In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. "Many of the predictions about warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data," she said, describing the sight as "sobering." But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that's more than 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessible as the Arctic ice melts. Last month, the Obama administration indicated that it would give Shell permission to start drilling in sections of the Arctic.
Almost every government with deposits of hydrocarbons straddles
the same divide. Canada, for instance, is a liberal democracy renowned for its
internationalism – no wonder, then, that it signed on to the Kyoto treaty,
promising to cut its carbon emissions substantially by 2012. But the rising
price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta economically attractive
– and since, as NASA climatologist James Hansen pointed out in May, they
contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon (or almost half of the available space
if we take the 565 limit seriously), that meant Canada's commitment to Kyoto
was nonsense. In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty
before it faced fines for failing to meet its commitments.
The same kind of hypocrisy applies across the ideological board:
In his speech to the Copenhagen conference, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez quoted Rosa
Luxemburg, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and "Christ the Redeemer," insisting
that "climate change is undoubtedly the most devastating environmental
problem of this century." But the next spring, in the Simon Bolivar Hall
of the state-run oil company, he signed an agreement with a consortium of international
players to develop the vast Orinoco tar sands as "the most significant
engine for a comprehensive development of the entire territory and Venezuelan
population." The Orinoco deposits are larger than Alberta's – taken
together, they'd fill up the whole available atmospheric space.
So: the paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far
produced only gradual, halting shifts. A rapid, transformative change would
require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy
put it, "The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He's
helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln." And enemies are what climate change
But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. "Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices," says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. "But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."
According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current
reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric
space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by
the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which
would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms,
of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter
of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads
the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody.
The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone,
holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they're
planning to use it.
They're clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world's best scientists, after all, and they're bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice. And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons – in early March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.
There's not a more reckless man on the planet than Tillerson.
Late last month, on the same day the Colorado fires reached their height, he
told a New York audience that global warming is real, but dismissed it as an
"engineering problem" that has "engineering solutions."
Such as? "Changes to weather patterns that move crop-production areas around
– we'll adapt to that." This in a week when Kentucky farmers were
reporting that corn kernels were "aborting" in record heat, threatening
a spike in global food prices. "The fear factor that people want to throw
out there to say, 'We just have to stop this,' I do not accept," Tillerson
said. Of course not – if he did accept it, he'd have to keep his reserves
in the ground. Which would cost him money. It's not an engineering problem,
in other words – it's a greed problem.
You could argue that this is simply in the nature of these companies
– that having found a profitable vein, they're compelled to keep mining
it, more like efficient automatons than people with free will. But as the Supreme
Court has made clear, they are people of a sort. In fact, thanks to the size
of its bankroll, the fossil-fuel industry has far more free will than the rest
of us. These companies don't simply exist in a world whose hungers they fulfill
– they help create the boundaries of that world.
Left to our own devices, citizens might decide to regulate carbon
and stop short of the brink; according to a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of
Americans would back an international agreement that cut carbon emissions 90
percent by 2050. But we aren't left to our own devices. The Koch brothers, for
instance, have a combined wealth of $50 billion, meaning they trail only Bill
Gates on the list of richest Americans. They've made most of their money in
hydrocarbons, they know any system to regulate carbon would cut those profits,
and they reportedly plan to lavish as much as $200 million on this year's elections.
In 2009, for the first time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce surpassed both the
Republican and Democratic National Committees on political spending; the following
year, more than 90 percent of the Chamber's cash went to GOP candidates, many
of whom deny the existence of global warming. Not long ago, the Chamber even
filed a brief with the EPA urging the agency not to regulate carbon –
should the world's scientists turn out to be right and the planet heats up,
the Chamber advised, "populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via
a range of behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations." As
radical goes, demanding that we change our physiology seems right up there.
Environmentalists, understandably, have been loath to make the
fossil-fuel industry their enemy, respecting its political power and hoping
instead to convince these giants that they should turn away from coal, oil and
gas and transform themselves more broadly into "energy companies."
Sometimes that strategy appeared to be working – emphasis on appeared.
Around the turn of the century, for instance, BP made a brief attempt to restyle
itself as "Beyond Petroleum," adapting a logo that looked like the
sun and sticking solar panels on some of its gas stations. But its investments
in alternative energy were never more than a tiny fraction of its budget for
hydrocarbon exploration, and after a few years, many of those were wound down
as new CEOs insisted on returning to the company's "core business."
In December, BP finally closed its solar division. Shell shut down its solar
and wind efforts in 2009. The five biggest oil companies have made more than
$1 trillion in profits since the millennium – there's simply too much
money to be made on oil and gas and coal to go chasing after zephyrs and sunbeams.
Much of that profit stems from a single historical accident: Alone
among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste,
carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break – if you own a restaurant,
you have to pay someone to cart away your trash, since piling it in the street
would breed rats. But the fossil-fuel industry is different, and for sound historical
reasons: Until a quarter-century ago, almost no one knew that CO2 was dangerous.
But now that we understand that carbon is heating the planet and acidifying
the oceans, its price becomes the central issue.
If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods,
it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming. Once Exxon has
to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its
products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil
fuel – every time they stopped at the pump, they'd be reminded that you
don't need a semimilitary vehicle to go to the grocery store. The economic playing
field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources. And you could
do it all without bankrupting citizens – a so-called "fee-and-dividend"
scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up
the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share
of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people
would actually come out ahead.
There's only one problem: Putting a price on carbon would reduce
the profitability of the fossil-fuel industry. After all, the answer to the
question "How high should the price of carbon be?" is "High enough
to keep those carbon reserves that would take us past two degrees safely in
the ground." The higher the price on carbon, the more of those reserves
would be worthless. The fight, in the end, is about whether the industry will
succeed in its fight to keep its special pollution break alive past the point
of climate catastrophe, or whether, in the economists' parlance, we'll make
them internalize those externalities.
It's not clear, of course, that the power of the fossil-fuel industry
can be broken. The U.K. analysts who wrote the Carbon Tracker report and drew
attention to these numbers had a relatively modest goal – they simply
wanted to remind investors that climate change poses a very real risk to the
stock prices of energy companies. Say something so big finally happens (a giant
hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture) that
even the political power of the industry is inadequate to restrain legislators,
who manage to regulate carbon. Suddenly those Chevron reserves would be a lot
less valuable, and the stock would tank. Given that risk, the Carbon Tracker
report warned investors to lessen their exposure, hedge it with some big plays
in alternative energy.
"The regular process of economic evolution is that businesses are left with stranded assets all the time," says Nick Robins, who runs HSBC's Climate Change Centre. "Think of film cameras, or typewriters. The question is not whether this will happen. It will. Pension systems have been hit by the dot-com and credit crunch. They'll be hit by this." Still, it hasn't been easy to convince investors, who have shared in the oil industry's record profits. "The reason you get bubbles," sighs Leaton, "is that everyone thinks they're the best analyst – that they'll go to the edge of the cliff and then jump back when everyone else goes over."
So pure self-interest probably won't spark a transformative challenge
to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that's the real meaning
of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.
Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes. That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. "The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century," as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, "but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure," especially from "the divestment movement of the 1980s."
The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and
even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you'd still have to
figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect,
act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more
obvious in this case. If their college's endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel
stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee
they won't have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The
same logic applies to the world's largest investors, pension funds, which are
also theoretically interested in the future – that's when their members
will "enjoy their retirement.") "Given the severity of the climate
crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies
that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,"
says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor
Network on Climate Risk. "The message is simple: We have had enough. We
must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now."
Movements rarely have predictable outcomes. But any campaign that
weakens the fossil-fuel industry's political standing clearly increases the
chances of retiring its special breaks. Consider President Obama's signal achievement
in the climate fight, the large increase he won in mileage requirements for
cars. Scientists, environmentalists and engineers had advocated such policies
for decades, but until Detroit came under severe financial pressure, it was
politically powerful enough to fend them off. If people come to understand the
cold, mathematical truth – that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically
undermining the planet's physical systems – it might weaken it enough
to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a
fee-and-dividend solution; they might even decide to become true energy companies,
this time for real.
Even if such a campaign is possible, however, we may have waited
too long to start it. To make a real difference – to keep us under a temperature
increase of two degrees – you'd need to change carbon pricing in Washington,
and then use that victory to leverage similar shifts around the world. At this
point, what happens in the U.S. is most important for how it will influence
China and India, where emissions are growing fastest. (In early June, researchers
concluded that China has probably under-reported its emissions by up to 20 percent.)
The three numbers I've described are daunting – they may define an essentially
impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the
greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and
we know who's planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological
scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully
you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a
moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.
Meanwhile the tide of numbers continues. The week after the Rio
conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever
recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby
dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season's
fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in
New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's annals
claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week
before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding
that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat
and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke
records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest.
You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of
corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures
remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene,
the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.
© 2012 Rolling Stone
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Published on Thursday, May 10, 2012 by The New York Times
Game Over for the Climate
The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow
by James Hansen
Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That
is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in
Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast
tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”(Image: Johnny Selman)
If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for
Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.
That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.
The science of the situation is clear — it’s time
for the politics to follow.
If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.
The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random
weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981.
Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence
that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003,
which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused
by human-induced climate change.
We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in
the atmosphere. The right amount keeps the climate conducive to human life.
But add too much, as we are doing now, and temperatures will inevitably rise
too high. This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue. The
earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures
would normally be cooling. But they are rising — and it’s because
we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.
President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but
he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.
We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create
new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected
from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to
all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get
a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic
growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most
Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid
in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from
the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the
proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according
to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.
But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make
fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s
governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of
billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract
every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing,
tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.
President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but
he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course.
Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open,
honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership
and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History
has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership
The science of the situation is clear — it’s time
for the politics to follow. This is a plan that can unify conservatives and
liberals, environmentalists and business. Every major national science academy
in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans,
and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we
wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged
immoral by coming generations.
© 2012 James Hansen
Dr. James Hansen is director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University. He was the first scientist to warn the US Congress of the dangers of climate change and writes here as a private citizen. Hansen is the author of "Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity."