Welcome to the Climate Crisis

By Bill McKibben
Saturday, May 27, 2006

For those who have been working for decades to raise awareness about climate change, this is a moment charged with opportunity -- and with peril. A series of events -- beginning with Hurricane Katrina and continuing through the release of Al Gore's new movie -- has finally pushed the issue near the forefront of the public agenda. It doesn't yet rank quite up there with the war on terrorism or the high price of gasoline, but it's clear that the next bad storm season or prolonged drought will seal the deal; even as things stand now, there's no chance that it will simply be ignored in the next presidential campaign, not with evangelical leaders and Greenpeace activists taking turns pressing the question.

But here's the danger: 20 years of inaction, and especially the Bush administration's stupendous record of ignorance and neglect, have set the bar so low that any legislation at all may look like real progress. The utilities, the coal companies and Detroit may find themselves able to easily set the terms of any deal that will, in turn, set policy for the next 20 years -- and if it's a deal that's too modest in attempting to rein in carbon emissions, then it may be worse than no deal at all. Precisely because we've wasted the past two decades, we need real, not token, action now. So here's how to tell if your politicians really get global warming:

· Is it just one more issue on their list of topics, somewhere between trade policy and failing schools -- or do they understand it for what it really is: the first civilization-scale challenge that humans have yet faced? Newly emerging science (including some that the Bush administration tried to force NASA climatologist James Hansen to suppress) shows that we have underestimated the scale and urgency of the crisis. Everything frozen on Earth is melting fast, for instance, threatening to produce an inhospitable planet in the decades ahead and an unbearable one in the lifetime of those being born. Political rhetoric needs to reflect the stark fact that this is an emergency.

· Do their proposals come with big numbers -- 50 percent reductions in carbon emissions, say? They don't need to achieve those numbers overnight (the various European countries aim for them in the 2030-2050 range), but real reductions, as opposed to slower growth rates of emissions, need to begin within the next few years, according to the most recent science. This implies Defense Department-scale budgets for technology development and for implementation of those technologies we already know how to use -- wind turbines, say.

· Do they avoid a fixation with any one technology? The idea that nuclear or "clean coal" or, for that matter, wind, will by itself solve our energy gap is nonsense, and it usually masks an ideological argument from one side or the other. There are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot. Given the scale of the problem, the cheapest solutions (beginning with reducing the massive energy waste in our system) make the most sense. This implies a large role for markets -- but only once government policy has made the cost of fossil fuels truly reflect the damage they do.

· Do they understand that technological change alone cannot achieve the 70 percent reductions in fossil fuel use needed to stabilize climate? We'll also need real shifts in attitude, behavior and habit. These changes are possible (the average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American while leading a quality life), but they will take real political leadership on issues ranging from mass transit to sprawl to the size of cars.

· Do they avoid the temptation to scapegoat China and the rest of the developing world? This has been the safety hatch for politicians who wanted to avoid even baby steps such as the Kyoto treaty: They piously insist that the Chinese cut their carbon emissions alongside ours. But this makes no moral sense: The Chinese, who use an eighth as much energy per capita, are only beginning to burn fossil fuel in large quantities, and they're using it to pull people out of poverty, not indulge their taste for Lincoln Navigators. And it's politically hopeless: The Chinese, and the rest of the world, simply will not accept the idea that the atmosphere belonged to us, we filled it with carbon, and now they need to find a new strategy for development. Our only hope -- and the only just solution -- is a massive transfer of technology and resources to the global south so that those countries can develop differently.

There are schemes that would make all these items possible, even affordable: big taxes on fossil fuel rebated to citizens to reward lower energy use; small taxes on currency speculation to underwrite the cost of building windmills in China; a switch of subsidies from fossil fuel to future fuel. It's not ideas we're lacking; it's a prevailing sense of the mortal danger that we've wandered into, a danger that demands leadership willing to set the bar high.

Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the author of "The End of Nature," a book about global warming.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company