The Race Against Warming

By Bill McKibben
Saturday, September 29, 2007

It's the oldest and most cliched of metaphors, but when it comes to global warming, it's the only one that really works: We're in a desperate race. Politics is chasing reality, and the gap between them isn't closing nearly fast enough.

Consider the news from the real world, the one where change is measured with satellites and thermometers, not focus groups: Arctic ice is melting on an unbelievable scale -- an area the size of Britain disappeared each week in late summer as the record for minimum ice cover, set in 2005, was shattered by more than 400,000 square miles, meaning about a 27 percent loss. Forget the Petraeus report -- what historians will note about September 2007 is that the Northwest Passage was free of ice for the first time since humans started keeping track.

Shaken scientists see every prediction about the future surpassed by events. As Martin Parry, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told reporters this month, "We are all used to talking about these impacts coming in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Now we know that it's us."

The panel's chair, Rajendra Pachauri, offered the planet an absolute deadline: We need to be producing less carbon dioxide -- which is to say burning less coal, gas and oil -- by 2015 at the latest, and after that we would need "very sharp reductions" or else there is no hope of avoiding an eventual temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius and the accompanying prospect of catastrophe.

Such news has finally begun to penetrate the bubble of denial that has surrounded Washington for two decades. President Bush, after ignoring the issue for six years, has convened a conference of the major carbon-emitting nations to begin considering . . . something. Bush said in a speech yesterday that "we acknowledge there is a problem," but few expect the process to amount to much; cynics see it as a way to derail ongoing U.N.-sponsored talks for a firm agreement on reducing emissions.

On Capitol Hill, the situation is a little more interesting. The Democratic majority is finally beginning to move legislation that would commit the United States to long-term reductions in carbon dioxide emissions -- the first law Congress might actually pass in the years since global warming became an issue. But here, too, the legislative process is backing away from what science demands -- a strong bill put forward by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is in danger of being supplanted by half-measures proposed by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

The problem lies in how one defines reality. Physics and chemistry demand swift and deep cuts in carbon emissions; political realism says to move slowly. In that fight, there's really only one choice. The tax code can be amended, but the laws of nature can't.

The only real hope is for decisive legislation from Congress; activists are calling for a law that commits the United States to early cuts, closes all coal-fired power plants and auctions the right to pollute so that we can raise the revenue to fund the transformation of our energy system. President Bush won't sign such a law, so it doesn't have to pass this fall; we're working to set the stage for 2009, when a new leader takes over.

It will take a movement to force that kind of change -- a movement as urgent, and one to which people are as morally committed and willing to sacrifice, as the civil rights movement was a generation ago. Last spring, I worked with six college students to put together In the course of 12 weeks, with almost no money, we helped put together 1,400 rallies in all 50 states demanding action.

This fall we're trying again. People across the nation are holding demonstrations in places that honor great Americans -- the top of Mount Washington; Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace; the center named for civil rights pioneer Ella Baker in Oakland, Calif. Local organizers are inviting not just the presidential contenders but also every member of the House, every senator -- and every candidate for their jobs.

What we need to know, and soon, is: What does reality look like to you? Can you close the gap between science and politics? Who will lead on the great issue of our day?

After 20 years of inaction the race is finally underway. Global warming has a huge head start; the sprint to catch up is the story of our time.

The writer, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is co-founder ofStepItUp07.organd one of seven co-authors of "Fight Global Warming Now."

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