Most Read: Local

Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/22/2008

Freedman: A Harsh Climate for Optimism

While there are many reasons to be enthusiastic about environmental progress on this Earth Day week, it's difficult for people in the climate science community to be in a celebratory mood at the moment. Despite the abundant attention devoted to climate change since the last Earth Day, many climate scientists and activists seem to be suffering from what psychologists would term a mild "mixed state," or one in which the symptoms of depression, with its associated despair and listlessness, and mania, with its excess energy and confidence, are present at the same time.

The depression stems from the wide gulf that exists between the perception of climate change as an urgent issue in the scientific community and the slow pace of political action to address the root causes of the problem. The mania results from a growing recognition of the many benefits that may be realized from shifting to cleaner energy technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, from enhanced national security to an economic windfall for certain sectors of the economy. The mixture of these disparate emotions is a recipe for frustration.

This frustration spilled over last week in the wake of President Bush's climate change speech on April 16.

Speaking from the Rose Garden last week, President Bush committed the nation to stopping the growth in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and reversing it thereafter. Bush also clearly stated for the first time that the U.S. would accept binding emissions restrictions if developing countries such as China and India were to make comparable commitments of their own.

Critics of Bush's proposal pounced on the announcement, dismissing it as completely inadequate considering the urgency and scale of the climate change problem. Actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are required, critics argued, rather than only reductions in the rate at which emissions are increasing from year to year. By and large, the scientific community tended to side with the critics, and some in fact were among Bush's harshest reviewers.

Scientific criticisms of the speech were rooted in the mixed state emotional backdrop of the climate issue.

On the one hand, many recent studies have shown that climate change is a more serious threat than was thought to be the case only a few years ago, which adds a palpable sense of urgency to scientific work on the subject. But this urgency so far has not survived its journey across the science/policy divide intact, thereby leading some climate scientists and activists to feel a degree of hopelessness and despair.

For example, negotiations on a new climate change treaty are inching ahead far slower than mountaintop glaciers are melting, while the current treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, may not even be fulfilled due to increasing emissions in some countries that signed on to cut them (I'm looking at you, Canada).

On the other hand, there are also grounds for optimism. Global civil society is becoming increasingly motivated and organized to confront climate change, and some economic studies are now pointing to the benefits that could be realized by transitioning to cleaner energy technologies.

In a speech at a Yale University conference of governors on climate change on April 18, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri summarized much of the criticism of Bush's views by delivering a thinly-veiled rebuke of Bush's speech given only two days before. He also revealed a great deal about how the chief representative of an authoritative body on climate change science views the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the opportunities for economic benefits involved in such efforts.

In his speech, Pachauri lamented the lack of U.S. leadership on climate change, but he stopped short of directly criticizing the Bush Administration, which might have seriously undermined his position as chief scientific spokesperson for the climate science community. Instead, he offered slightly more oblique rebuttals.

He said there may be as little as seven years in which to make dramatic headway on the climate issue in order to avert the most far-reaching consequences of climate change, including public health impacts, rising sea levels, and major alterations in the distribution of water around the world.

Pachauri took particularly close aim on those who argue that cutting emissions below recent levels would harm the economy. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Bush made that very argument in his Rose Garden speech, when he said that the "wrong way" to address climate change "is to raise taxes, duplicate mandates, or demand sudden and drastic emissions cuts that have no chance of being realized and every chance of hurting our economy."

Pachauri took the opposite view. "If people tell you that the cost of mitigation is going to be very high, then I think they need to be disputed," he stated.

Pachauri claimed that mitigation carries a variety of co-benefits that would be helpful to an economy, such as job creation and more efficient production methods. Such plus sides might make mitigation a "negative costs" option, he said.

Pachauri lauded the governors of states such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Kansas, each of which were seated on the stage behind him, for enacting ambitious policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of federal government action. According to the Center for Climate Strategies, 27 states have developed or are currently developing climate change action plans. Officials from 18 states signed onto a declaration calling for a federal/state partnership to address climate change, with the active participation of the presidential candidates.

At times it sounded like state-level actions are what have kept Pachauri from falling into a deep depression over the U.S. approach to climate change.

"I'm always able to provide comfort by saying look at California, look at Connecticut" and the other states that are taking action, Pachauri said.

Pachauri also offered a pointed rebuttal to critics who continue to assail climate science with charges that the problem is not manmade. "Climate change is not really scientific theory, it's something that we can observe now," he said. He said someone would have to be "totally naïve or totally unable to see things around him to say that climate change is merely a myth."

It's a fair bet that with the presidential election between now and Earth Day 2009, Pachauri and others in the climate change field will become less mixed, and more decidedly optimistic about translating climate science into federal policy in the United States.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 04/22/2008

Categories:  Freedman, Freedman

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company