In the summer of 2007, sea ice in the Arctic began to melt dramatically, many decades ahead of the schedule that scientists had previously predicted. Before the summer was out, there was about a quarter less ice at the pole than ever before in human history. That scared scientists, who began revising their calculations of how fast we would need to move to stay ahead of global warming. And this growing understanding has, in turn, changed the political demands on policymakers very dramatically. Obama, for instance, had initially campaigned on a pledge to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 80 percent by mid-century, and the Waxman-Markey legislation was designed to, more or less, meet that goal. All of a sudden, that target didn't seem like enough to meet the demands of the new science--researchers were now throwing around numbers like 40 percent cuts by 2020 in the developed world, which would require not a speedy conversion to renewable energy, but a forced march reminiscent of the rapid buildup at the start of World War II. On a global scale, the old goal--still embraced by the Obama administration--was to aim for a planet where atmospheric carbon dioxide topped out at 450 parts per million (ppm), and the temperature didn't rise more than two degrees Celsius. Under the old estimates, that would have been enough to stave off "catastrophic change." But what 2007 showed was that our current level of 390 ppm and a one-degree rise in temperature was enough to melt the Arctic. And it wasn't just the Arctic--scientists were reporting that high-altitude glaciers, flood and drought cycles, and even the chemistry of seawater were all showing the same kind of ahead-of-schedule change. In January of 2008, NASA's James Hansen--at the very least, the most prestigious climatologist employed by the U.S. government--released a paper setting a new target for staving off catastrophe: 350 ppm. It was embraced that year by Al Gore and, this August, by the chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri. That is, the two men who have been awarded Nobel prizes for their work on global warming say that we need to be aiming for far lower emission levels than what Washington currently intends.
So here's the politics. In Washington, and in Copenhagen, political realism dictates reaching some kind of deal. And the pressure from vested interests--mostly the fossil-fuel lobby--combined with the political fear of annoying voters with higher gas prices or lifestyle shifts means that the incentive for anyone who has to run for office anytime soon is to take the easiest possible deal. Look at Waxman-Markey, which has been revised to cut emissions just 17 percent by 2020--and even that comes loaded with loopholes written to win over particular congressmen with particular coal mines. And it barely passed--by seven votes. Scientific realism demands much more.
The best case for swallowing hard and accepting an insufficient bill comes from Fred Krupp, longtime head of the Environmental Defense Fund. His argument: Our emissions reduction goals are critically important, but the most important thing is to get started now. If we set the ball in motion, industry will quickly find that it's cheaper than it thinks to move toward clean energy, and the ball will roll far faster than politicians expect. Case in point: the reductions of sulfur dioxide under the Clean Air Act, which turned out to be far cheaper than opponents had predicted--even Bush 43 kept right on pushing for deeper cuts, because there was no real reason not to.
Eighty-nine governments have embraced the 350 ppm target, albeit the smallest and most vulnerable nations on earth. A number of them see it as matter of survival--I was in The Maldives recently when President Mohammed Nasheed declared that a pact like the one envisioned by the West was a "death warrant" for his nation, which lies just a meter or two above sea level. Not only are the poor nations of the world demanding compensation for the damage we've caused, and expensive technical assistance to help them build a renewable energy future ("Trillions of dollars might not be enough" for Africa alone, the acting director of the African Union's economy and agriculture department said in August), but they're also asking for truly steep cuts in Western emissions to head off warming so great that they won't be capable of adaptation at any price. Governments will try to finesse these huge gulfs.
And, even if [Obama] does make [saving millions of lives from climate change] a priority, there's still the question of how hard he will push--whether he'll be talking old science (450 ppm) or the new, harder targets (350 ppm)
Alas, there will be no political imperative driving him to push for the toughest measures. He's already done more on global warming than the previous four presidents combined. He's not going to lose large numbers of votes for going easy on climate targets; if anything, the opposite will happen.
On the other hand, there are legacies, and then there are legacies. If, as many scientists believe, we're at the last possible moment to make a major turn, then Obama's decision may resonate in geological time. Eight months has been enough to teach us that Obama is a political realist, always unwilling to make the perfect the enemy of the good. What we'll find out soon is if he's a scientific realist, too, and therefore willing to make the necessary the enemy of the convenient.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Bill McKibben: Earth to Obama: (via)
Posted by Matt Christie at 7:31 AM