This piece, which appears in the October 11, 2007, issue of the New York Review of Books, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.

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CAN ANYONE STOP IT?
Bill McKibben

Break Through:
From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.
Houghton Mifflin, 344 pp., $25.00
What We Know About Climate Change
by Kerry Emanuel.
MIT Press, 85 pp., $14.95
Climate Change:
What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren

edited by Joseph F.C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman.
MIT Press, 217 pp., $19.95 (paper)

During the last year, momentum has finally begun to build for taking action against global warming by putting limits on carbon emissions and then reducing them. Driven by ever-more-dire scientific reports, Congress has, for the first time, begun debating ambitious targets for carbon reduction. Al Gore, in his recent Live Earth concerts, announced that he will work to see an international treaty signed by the end of 2009. Even President Bush has recently reversed his previous opposition and summoned the leaders of all the top carbon-emitting countries to a series of conferences designed to yield some form of limits on CO2.

The authors of the first two books under review have some doubts about a strategy that emphasizes limits on carbon emissions, Lomborg for economic reasons and Nordhaus and Shellenberger for political ones. Since any transition away from fossil fuel is likely to be the dominant global project of the first half of the twenty-first century, it’s worth taking those qualms seriously.

Cool ItIn his earlier book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, attacked the scientific establishment on a number of topics, including global warming, and concluded that things were generally improving here on earth. The book was warmly received on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, but most scientists were unimpressed. Scientific American published scathing rebuttals from leading researchers, and its editor concluded in a note to readers that “in its purpose of describing the real state of the world, the book is a failure.” A review in Nature compared it to “bad term papers,” and called it heavily reliant on secondary sources and “at times … fictional.” E.O. Wilson, who has over the years been attacked by the left (for sociobiology) and the right (for his work on nature conservation), and usually responded only with a bemused detachment, sent Lomborg a public note that called his book a “sordid mess.” Lomborg replied to all of this vigorously and at great length,1 and then went on, with the help of The Economist magazine, to convene a “dream team” of eight economists including three Nobel laureates and ask them to consider the costs and benefits of dealing with various world problems. According to his panel, dealing with malaria ranked higher than controlling carbon emissions, though again some observers felt the panel had been stacked and one of the economists who took part told reporters that “climate change was set up to fail.” Lomborg later conducted a similar exercise with “youth leaders” and with ambassadors to the United Nations, including the former U.S. emissary John Bolton, with similar results.

In his new book, Cool It, Lomborg begins by saying that the consensus scientific position on climate change — that we face a rise in temperature of about five degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end — is correct, but that it’s not that big a deal. “Many other issues are much more important than global warming.” In fact, he argues, it would be a great mistake either to impose stiff caps on carbon or to spend large sums of money — he mentions $25 billion worldwide annually on R&D as an upper bound — trying to dramatically reduce emissions because global warming won’t be all that bad. The effort to cut emissions won’t work very well, and we could better spend the money on other projects like giving out bed nets to prevent malaria.

Lomborg casts himself as the voice of reason in this debate, contending with well-meaning but woolly-headed scientists, bureaucrats, environmentalists, politicians, and reporters. I got a preview of some of these arguments in May when we engaged in a dialogue at Middlebury College in Vermont2; they struck me then, and strike me now in written form, as tendentious and partisan in particularly narrow ways. Lomborg has appeared regularly on right-wing radio and TV programs, and been summoned to offer helpful testimony by, for instance, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, famous for his claim that global warming is a hoax. That Lomborg disagrees with him and finds much of the scientific analysis of global warming accurate doesn’t matter to Inhofe; for his purposes, it is sufficient that Lomborg opposes doing much of anything about it.

But Lomborg’s actual arguments turn out to be weak, a farrago of straw men and carefully selected, shopworn data that holds up poorly in light of the most recent research, both scientific and economic. He calculates at great length, for instance, his claim that the decline in the number of people dying from cold weather will outweigh the increase in the number of people dying from the heat, leading him to the genial conclusion that a main effect of global warming may be that “we just notice people wearing slightly fewer layers of winter clothes on a winter’s evening.” But in April 2007, Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the panel of experts whose scientific data he prefers to cite, released a report showing, among many other things, that fewer deaths from cold exposure “will be outweighed by the negative health effects of rising temperatures world-wide, especially in developing countries.”

In fact, the IPCC poses a serious problem for Lomborg. He accepts this international conclave of scientists and other experts early on in his book as the arbiter of fact on questions of global warming.3 Unfortunately for Lomborg, just as he was wrapping up this book the IPCC published, quite apart from the report of its April panel, its most recent five-year update on the economics and engineering of climate change solutions, which undercuts his main argument.

Consider Lomborg’s central idea that we can’t do much about global warming, and that anything we do attempt will be outrageously expensive. Lomborg bases his analyses on studies of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated a decade ago. He argues that that protocol would make only the slightest dent during this century in how much the planet warms. This is a debater’s point to begin with — the Kyoto Protocol was only supposed to last through 2012; everyone knew it was at best a first step, and this first step was further weakened after attacks from conservative economists claiming that it would bankrupt the earth (attacks that kept the U.S. from ever signing on).

As it turns out, they were almost certainly wrong. Working Group III of the IPCC, which reported at the beginning of May, said at great length that in fact it was technically feasible to reduce emissions to the point where temperature rise could be held below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius — the point where many climate scientists now believe global warming may turn from a miserable problem into a catastrophe. As the IPCC said:

Both bottom-up and top-down studies indicate that there is substantial economic potential for the mitigation of global GHG emissions over the coming decades, that could offset the projected growth of global emissions or reduce emissions below current levels.

The technologies cited as examples are numerous and varied, and reflect the immense amount of research into alternatives that has been conducted in the decade since Lomborg’s estimates based on Kyoto data. They include hybrid cars, combined heat and power plants, better lighting, improved crop-plowing techniques, better forestry, higher-efficiency aircraft, and tidal energy, among others. These reflect precisely the kinds of human ingenuity that Lomborg says he wants to encourage, and they undermine the idea that we can’t possibly get emissions under control. By contrast, the report shows that following the Lomborg path — which essentially calls for some more funding for research and no governmental action — will see carbon emissions rise as much as 90 percent worldwide by 2030. The IPCC conclusions, it should be said, were compiled by 168 lead authors, 84 contributing authors, and 485 expert peer reviewers, spanning a huge variety of relevant disciplines. This seems to me more convincing than Lomborg’s “dream team” of eight economists gathered for a few days in Copenhagen.

Moreover, the IPCC team made it clear in their May report that it was not only feasible to make these changes but economically possible as well. They calculated that if we made this energy transition, the economy would grow very slightly more slowly than before — about 0.12 percent more slowly annually, or 3 percent total by 2030. In other words, our children would have to wait until Thanksgiving 2030 to be as rich as they would otherwise have been on New Year’s Day of that year.

This seems to me very good news — I’ve long worried that the cost would be substantially higher. But it also makes a good deal of sense. Remember how, say, the auto industry warned that first seatbelts and then airbags would cripple them economically? As soon as the government mandated their use, manufacturers figured out how to make them more cheaply and easily than we would have guessed. We’ve seen the same results with other pollutants.

The IPCC report, to put it bluntly, eviscerates Lomborg’s argument; maybe that’s why he devotes but a single paragraph to it in the book, scoffing at “several commentators” who called the estimated reduction of 3 percent by 2030 “negligible.” But though Lomborg will doubtless eventually produce a long disquisition on why he knows better than the 737 experts collaborating on the IPCC project, his bluff has been called. Consider the reaction of his old colleagues at The Economist, which only a few short years ago was underwriting his Copenhagen Consensus work. “Just as mankind caused the problem,” the editors said, “so mankind can stop it — and at a reasonable cost.” The 0.12 percent a year drag on GDP? “The world would barely notice such figures,” said the magazine, hardly noted for its casual attitude about economic growth.

Doubtless scientists and economists will spend many hours working their way through Cool It, flagging the distortions and half-truths as they did with Lomborg’s earlier book. In fact, though, its real political intent soon becomes clear, which is to try to paint those who wish to control carbon emissions as well-meaning fools who will inadvertently block improvements in the life of the poor. Just ask yourself this question: Why has Lomborg decided to compare the efficacy of (largely theoretical) funding to stop global warming with his other priorities, like fighting malaria or ensuring clean water? If fighting malaria was his real goal, he could as easily have asked the question: Why don’t we divert to it some of the (large and nontheoretical) sums spent on, say, the military? The answer he gave when I asked this question at our dialogue was that he thought military spending was bad and that therefore it made more sense to compare global warming dollars with other “good” spending. But of course this makes less sense. If he thought that money spent for the military was doing damage, then he could kill two birds with one stone by diverting some of it to his other projects. Proposing that, though, would lose him much of the right-wing support that made his earlier book a best seller — he’d no longer be able to count on even The Wall Street Journal editorial page.4

In its editorial celebrating the IPCC report, The Economist adds a caveat. Though the new data make clear that “the technology and the economics of this problem are easily soluble,” the politics of the situation are much harder. “The problem, of course, is that the numbers work only if they are applied globally … All the world’s big emitters need to do it,” and each of them will be tempted to take a pass.

Break ThroughIt’s in this light that the new book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger is of interest, for they address the question of how to persuade Americans to take action on climate change. In October 2004, they collaborated on a provocative essay called “The Death of Environmentalism.” Naming names (and quoting Martin Heidegger, Zen koans, and Abraham Lincoln), they accused the environmental movement of failing to deliver progress on global warming for a variety of reasons both structural and philosophical. The authors distributed their views at the annual meeting of the philanthropists who underwrite many of the groups they were attacking. The nastiness that followed was predictable — a certain notoriety for the authors and a great deal of defensive reaction from leaders of environmental organizations.

Now they’ve produced a book that develops the same argument in much greater depth. It is unremittingly interesting, sharp, and wide-ranging, and it provides a great deal of thoughtful comment for anyone trying to figure out how to rally public support behind action on climate change, or indeed behind any progressive change. It goes much deeper than George Lakoff‘s widely touted book on reframing issues, Don’t Think of an Elephant.5 It also has certain important limitations that stem in part, I think, from the authors’ background as survey researchers.

They work as managing directors of something called American Environics, an offshoot of a Canadian firm that conducts in-depth interviews with North Americans about their attitudes. Much of the research is used by businesses looking for market strategies, but Shellenberger and Nordhaus have put it to use for nonprofit groups as well. Their surveys study attitudes on topics like work, violence, gender, and class, and also on a wide variety of particular issues. They find, for example, that between 1992 and 2004, the percentage of Americans who agreed with the statement “The father of the family must be the master in his own house” went from 42 to 52 percent. But at the same time, the percentage who agreed that “taking care of the home and kids is as much a man’s work as women’s work” rose from 86 percent in 1992 to 89 percent in 2004. Their synthesis of this huge pile of data leads them to believe that Americans see themselves (as objectively they should) as materially affluent, so that efforts to persuade people to understand themselves (or others) as victims will fail. Americans have simultaneously become more insecure about health care, employment, and retirement, however, as wage growth has stagnated — resulting in an “insecure affluence” that they argue has usually led to more individualism, not to more community solidarity.

In this kind of atmosphere, they argue, progressives must break away from the scripts of the New Deal and the 1960s:

The time is ripe for the Democratic Party to embrace a new story about America, one focused more on aspiration than complaint, on assets than deficits, and on possibility than limits.

This would not be easy for the liberal wing of the party to accept, and both in their essay and in this book the authors spend plenty of time lampooning the efforts of those they view as anachronistic.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger mount a spirited attack, for instance, on Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading environmentalist — but also a leading opponent of developing wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. It’s not just that he’s a rich man who doesn’t want to look at windmills off the deck of his summer home, they insist; for them, he’s a telling reminder of the problems that arise "when one imagines that there is a thing called nature or the environment that is separate from and superior to humans, and that this ‘thing’ is best represented by those who live nearest to it."

Environmentalists become, in this telling, champions of the static. Opponents of windmills such as Kennedy "end up functionally championing the continued dependence of Cape Cod and other Massachusetts communities on a nineteenth-century fuel source to heat their homes and generate electricity."

In the same way, other groups worried about views or noise or density "end up blocking the transformation of American communities into vibrant, creative, and high-density cities like New York that are far more sustainable and livable than endless megalopolises like Los Angeles."

Scornful of well-heeled environmentalists, they also attack advocates of “environmental justice” who have complained that their communities are the victims of disproportionate pollution. They contest the data, and argue that smoking and eating bad food are much bigger problems for minority communities. In dealing with asthma, for example, the authors, instead of concentrating on emissions from diesel buses, recommend working to improve “housing, health care, daycare, parenting classes, and violence prevention,” which may actually do more to reduce the problem. Such reforms would deal more directly with the goals that residents of the inner city cited when questioned in the surveys of Nordhaus and Shellenberger: “jobs, crime, health care, housing.” Over and over again, in a wide variety of settings, they make the same point: environmentalists have to take a much wider view of the world. If you don’t want the rainforest in Brazil cut down, you need to be working in the favelas of São Paulo to prevent the conditions that cause people to migrate toward the Amazon in search of a better life.

This is an important point, marred by overstatement. Kennedy, for instance, is a strong supporter of environmental causes who made a bad call on the windmills near his house — and as Nordhaus and Shellenberger note, many environmentalists in the region have effectively organized to support the turbines, which seem likely to be built. Environmental organizers in urban neighborhoods have in fact already emerged as champions of precisely the kind of campaigns the authors encourage. Not ten miles from where they live, Van Jones, the former head of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, has launched the most tenacious drive yet for precisely the kind of Green Jobs campaign the authors envision. Their caricature of the environmental movement is increasingly out of date, and it will grow more so because of the simple fact that carbon dioxide, the main gas involved in global warming, is so different from older forms of pollution. Carbon monoxide — carbon with one oxygen atom — killed you when you breathed it in. If you put a filter on the back of your car, it disappears from the exhaust stream. There’s no filter for carbon dioxide; it’s the inevitable result of the combustion of fossil fuel. To deal with it, you need to deal with the dependence on fossil fuel, which means dealing with the economy as a whole, which means dealing with how we live.

The question becomes how best to do that. Citing their research that shows Americans are “aspirational,” they advise against anything that smacks of limits. It’s when economic growth is really booming, they insist, that we become confident enough to do things like control pollution. They summarize at some length Benjamin Friedman’s powerful recent argument for economic expansion, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,6 with its conclusion that good times bring out empathy and generosity in Americans, and that in fact environmental progress has traditionally been a product of surplus — when we felt rich, we’d spend money on cleaning the air.

Unfortunately, at the moment growth means burning more fossil fuel. As Friedman acknowledged (though Nordhaus and Shellenberger don’t include this crucial quote in their retelling), CO2 is “the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise.” How can that fact be faced? How to have growth that Americans want, but without limits that they instinctively oppose, and still reduce carbon emissions? Their answer is: investments in new technology. Acknowledge that America “is great at imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future,” and then start spending. They cite examples ranging from the nuclear weapons program to the invention of the Internet to show what government money can do, and argue that too many clean-energy advocates focus on caps instead:

Neither Democratic leaders in Congress nor Democratic presidential candidates can convincingly speak to American greatness as long as they refuse to put their money where their mouths are.

The need for new technology is obviously urgent — it’s precisely what the IPCC economists are counting on in the data cited above. The question is how best to mobilize that investment. Some of it can and should come from government spending, but there’s probably as much or more to be realized by setting the private sector to work. That is precisely what the series of caps on carbon now under consideration are supposed to do. If we say that next year American industry will only be able to produce 98 percent of the carbon it produced this year, and the year after that the number will be 95 percent and the year after that 91 percent, and if we let industries trade among themselves the carbon allotments they buy at auction — buying it, in effect, from we the people who each own some share of the atmosphere — then we should see the logic of the market start to wring those carbon reductions out of the economy relatively quickly. As The Economist makes clear, this system will work much better once it is international — once, that is, some expanded form of Kyoto is adopted by treaty, something that can’t happen until the greatest carbon culprit, the U.S., leads by taking serious action here at home. Government can and should invest, especially to make sure that the energy transition produces the kind of jobs that many Americans really need, but its larger role is to set in place the caps that will speed the whole process. And speed is of the essence because, pace Lomborg, each new round of scientific analysis makes clear just how fast global warming is coming at us.

The antipathy of Shellenberger and Nordhaus to placing limits on carbon emissions, an antipathy based on their fervent belief in what they hear in their surveys, locks them into accepting slower progress than is necessary and possible. No one thinks we can stop global warming, but the IPCC data makes it clear that it is still possible — if we begin immediately and take dramatic steps to limit carbon emissions — to hold it below the thresholds that signal catastrophe. The authors concede too much to the enemies of regulation, a concession they’re willing to make partly because they’ve convinced themselves that clinging to the static biological world we were born into is impossibly conservative. Global warming, they write, "will force human societies to adapt in all sorts of ways, not the least of which could be bioengineering ourselves and our environments to survive and thrive on an increasingly hot and potentially less hospitable planet."

This is improbable; indeed it sounds flaky.

But in the reams of analysis provided by Nordhaus and Shellenberger, there are also many kernels of hope for even faster progress than technology alone can provide. From their surveys, they find that Americans not only desire more choice and autonomy and individualism, but also want some kind of functioning community and support system (their analysis of the rise of evangelical churches is particularly strong).

The first group of attitudes, favoring individual choice, may make the acceptance of limits more difficult; but the second group holds out some real possibilities — and it jibes with much new research from economists, psychologists, and sociologists about the dissatisfaction evident among increasingly alienated and disconnected Americans. Consider the fact that the average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American (and hence produces half as much CO2). Half is a big proportion, especially when you consider that it comes not from any new technology but instead from somewhat different social arrangements. Europeans have decided to, say, invest in building cities that draw people in instead of flinging them out to sprawling suburbs, and invest in mass transit that people then actually take. This kind of investment may produce quicker returns than high-tech R&D; at the very least, it’s urgently important that these kinds of societies (where reported rates of human satisfaction are sharply higher than in the U.S.) be held up to China, India, and the rest of the developing world, in place of our careening model. In addition, given that we will certainly be facing a disrupted planet, tighter human communities are probably a better bet for “surviving and thriving” than bioengineering to achieve different kinds of bodies.

After grappling with these weighty treatises, it’s a relief to read two short books that cover less ground. Kerry Emanuel is the foremost hurricane scientist in the U.S.; his original research has helped us understand and demonstrate the link between global warming and storminess. In an epic feat of concision, he manages in eighty-five very small pages to explain the state of the science of climate change, concluding on the optimistic note that "the extremists [who deprecate the threat of climate change] are being exposed and relegated to the sidelines, and when the media stop amplifying their views, their political counterparts will have nothing left to stand on."

In the best essay from the collection edited by Joseph DiMento and Pamela Doughman, the New York Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin makes it clear that finally (and no small part thanks to his own reports) the press and television are starting to do exactly that. One of the most important jobs of journalists at the moment, he writes, is "to drive home that once a core body of understanding has accumulated over decades on an issue — as is the case with human-forced climate change — society can use it as a foundation for policies and choices."

Indeed.

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Footnotes:

1. His replies can be found at www.lomborg.com.

2. Readers wishing to view that encounter online may visit here.

3. He needs to do this because otherwise he would have to contend with the recent work of the NASA climatologist James Hansen, indicating that the ice sheets of Greenland and the West Antarctic may be sliding into the sea much faster than previously imagined and raising the possibility of a horrific rise in sea level during this century. The IPCC, which considers the peer-reviewed research of the previous five years, remains agnostic on Hansen’s new work and presumably won’t offer its opinion for another half-decade, which allows Lomborg in turn to ridicule Al Gore as a hysteric for publicizing it. See James Hansen, “The Threat to the Planet,” The New York Review, July 13, 2006.

4. Interestingly, the new owner of The Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch, rattled by an epochal drought in his native Australia, has announced that his entire empire will soon be carbon-neutral.

5. Chelsea Green, 2004.

6. Knopf, 2005.