350 vs. 450There has never been a civic dispute as precisely quantified as climate. Most U.S. environmental organizations endorse the Waxman-Markey climate bill with the stated goal of keeping atmospheric greenhouse gases below 450 parts per million. The conservative position enunciated by Jim Hansen, advanced by Bill McKibben and 350.org, and endorsed by a handful of climate advocates (none of them mainstream environmental organizations) is defined as an immediate return below 300-350 ppm.

The two numbers are not staging points on a gradual curve of escalating climate impacts, a fact that does not seem to be acknowledged in the present debate. Each goal is the product of an entirely different calculus. 300-350 ppm is derived by climate scientists working backwards from a definition of the problem. 450 ppm represents a consensus of U.S. environmentalists on what may feasibly be advanced within present political conditions. The two positions are fundamentally distinct and irreconcilable.

  • 300-350 ppm is the minimum necessary result of global climate action necessary to backpedal from tipping points already breached in order to avoid the global point of no return. It accepts that climate change is abrupt and irreversible and acknowledges that action by humanity must similarly be quick, vast, blunt, and global.
  • 450 ppm is a political compromise considered necessary to maintain momentum in the U.S. It obscures the reality of abrupt climate change in order to maintain belief in the efficacy of incremental reform and assumes that there is time for several waves of national legislation and international climate negotiations.

The stories may be summarized …

300-350. The world floods and dries in millennial cycles, with rapid periods of change ushering new ice ages and temperature periods. If we do not return quickly below 300-350 ppm, the breakup of ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica already underway will accelerate and sea levels will rise fast and high enough to devastate life and wreck civilization. The challenge to humanity is immense, with roadblocks of power, desire, and inertia difficult to imagine overcoming in the short time left, but humanity has both the means to avert cataclysm and the capacity for abrupt social and political change.

Here precautionary advocates split ways, divided by differences in understanding human nature. “Aspirationalists,” led by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenburger, believe that the public (and therefore government) can only be energized by a positive vision of a transformed world weaned from reliance on fossil fuels and the benefits — in employment, energy independence, and a new, bustling economy — that it promises. Cataclysmists — Jim Hansen, Ross Gelbspan, and Gus Speth, to name but a few — also point to the do-ability and numerous benefits of shifting our global course, but their bottom-line argument is that if fail to do so, the world as we know it ends, probably within our children’s lifetime.

450. Pragmatists accept that Hansen et. al. are right (though for form’s sake, refrain from endorsing 350 ppm), but believe that staking out an uncompromising position outside the present civic debate will lose environmentalists a seat at the table (the devil’s in the details), and guarantee that no immediate action is taken in what looks to be our best opportunity to move the U.S. to decisive action. Forward motion is better than an outright loss, and the essential framework of cap and trade is sound. Accepting weaker-than-precautionary goals is not ideal but acceptable in order to maintain momentum, put the U.S. in a position of international leadership, and achieve what immediate reductions can be won.

The 300-350 position accords with science and common sense. To address a mammoth problem that cannot be solved in the ordinary course of things, it is necessary that business-as-usual be halted. The fact that the odds of accomplishing this are vanishingly low does not negate the assumption.

The question that Waxman-Markey advocates have yet to answer is: How would we get from here to there in the time left to us? Waxman-Markey advocates cannot provide an answer because the “pragmatist” perspective is illusory and self-contradictory.

It is illusory in that it assumes wholesale transformation of global institutions and structures without explaining how the most powerful nations and international corporations in the world will be prevented from finding, mining, and pumping the greatest trove of riches humanity has ever imagined unless this trajectory is tackled head-on.

It is internally contradictory because it claims that harping on the swiftly rising threat of cataclysm is counter-productive, but holds that immediate action must be taken at any cost because we have no time to do otherwise. It promotes the befuddling logic that passing a weak U.S. measure is acceptable because it may be strengthened later, contrary to history and experience, which shows that federal action on second-tier problems relieves whatever political head of steam has been built up, suppressing further immediate action.

If environmentalists do not really disagree with the precautionary view — and I would argue that any individual or group who does not accept the precautionary assessment is, ipso facto, not an environmentalist — then the question before us us not whether Waxman-Markey is better than nothing (or whether it was a mistake not to push a carbon tax).

The question before us is: Which losing, short-term strategy puts us in the best position to advance a functional solution when things get bad enough for one to be demanded?

If we assume that rapidly worsening climate impacts will continue to change the political calculus (as tacitly acknowledged by Waxman-Markey advocates who argue that a weak measure passed now can immediately be strengthened), then why not press now for the functional solution?

The answer to that, I think, is two-fold: first, there is no functional solution on the table; and second, the internal logic of our institutions prevents consideration of any non-linear, non-incremental action. Both roadblocks will be considered in upcoming posts.