Why does the public largely lack a sense of urgency on climate? Maybe because most opinion leaders also lack that sense of urgency. To mark its 150th Anniversary, the Atlantic Monthly (subs. reqd) ... ... invited an eclectic group of thinkers who have had cause to consider the American idea to describe its future and the greatest challenges to it. Now this one is real easy -- you don't have to be scientifically literate or read the work of James Hansen, you just have to have seen Al Gore's movie or maybe read Time magazine (reading the Atlantic itself is, however, no help, as previously noted). By far the greatest challenge to the American idea (i.e., unlimited abundance, supreme optimism about the future, global moral leadership, and our special place in the world -- OK, that one's a bit tarnished already -- is global warming. In fact, if we don't adopt something close to Barack Obama's extraordinary climate plan within the next few years -- and I suspect conservatives will block such an ambitious, albeit necessary, approach as too "big-government" -- then global warming will destroy the American idea, perhaps for a millennium or more. Global warming means we move from great abundance to oppressive scarcity, from optimism to pessimism (especially if we cross carbon-cycle tipping points that cause an accelerating greenhouse effect in the second half of this century), and finally, as I wrote in my book: For decades, the United States has been the moral, economic, and military leader of the free world. What will happen when we end up in Planetary Purgatory, facing 20 or more feet of sea level rise, and the rest of the world blames our inaction and obstructionism, blames the wealthiest nation on Earth for refusing to embrace even cost-effective solutions that could spare the planet from millennia of misery? The indispensable nation will become a global pariah. The Atlantic assembled a who's who of the intelligentsia -- who in the main, though very thoughtful, just don't get it:
This will, hopefully, be the last post devoted to debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus. As noted, S&N spend far more time attacking the environmental community and Al Gore (and even Rachel Carson!) than they do proposing a viable solution. Worse, they don't even attack the real environmental community -- they create a strawman that is mostly a right-wing stereotype of environmentalists. Now it turns out they support the exact same thing the environmental community -- and energy technologists like me -- have been pushing for many years: an aggressive and intelligent regulatory strategy coupled with a significant increase in the energy R&D budget. To my great surprise, they have taken up my challenge and endorsed Barack Obama's terrific climate plan. So why are we fighting? Only because S&N keep attacking, keep trying to rewrite history. S&N claim over and over again that environmentalists don't support increases in clean energy budgets. They even claim I don't support an increase in the budget of the very office I ran at the Energy Department -- and that "'experts' like Romm" shift our analysis "after the political winds changed direction." Silly (and petty). In this post, I will set the record straight.
The Washington Post has at least had the decency to run a rebuttal to the absurd Bjørn Lomborg piece they ran on Sunday (also debunked here and here). They chose one of the top climate scientists in the country -- Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I count her a friend, having interviewed her for my book and having spent a couple of days in Florida with her giving joint talks -- she on hurricanes and climate (with her colleague Peter Webster), and me on climate solutions. I recommend anything she writes (here is a great piece on the science and politics of the hurricanes and global warming debate [PDF]). You can read the whole piece debunking Lomborg, "Cooler Heads and Climate Change," here. One point in particular bears repeating:
The prospects for a successful reconciling of the House and Senate energy bills remain as iffy today as they were last month. How sad such failure would be at a time of record oil prices and a growing consensus of the need for urgent action on climate change. The big obstacle right now is that Senate Republicans oppose a House-Senate conference. E&E News (subs. reqd.) reports: "It looks like Senate Republicans are not going to agree to a conference, so we will probably see the same process on this bill that we saw with several other pieces of legislation this year," [Henry] Waxman [D-Calif.] told reporters after the meeting. What is this alternative process? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) intends to reconcile the House and Senate energy bills without convening a formal conference committee. Even this approach is no guarantee of success, as many roadblocks remain in Congress and the White House:
Canada has about as much recoverable oil in its tar sands as Saudi Arabia has conventional oil. They should leave most of it in the ground. Tar sands are pretty much the heavy gunk they sound like, and making liquid fuels from them requires huge amounts of energy for steam injection and refining. Canada is currently producing about one million barrels of oil a day from the tar sands, and that is projected to triple over the next two decades. The tar sands are doubly dirty. On the one hand, the energy-intensive conversion of the tar sands directly generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil. On the other hand, Canada's increasing use of natural gas to exploit the tar sands is one reason that its exports of natural gas to U.S. are projected to shrink in the coming years. So instead of selling clean-burning natural gas to this country, which we could use to stop the growth of carbon-intensive coal generation, Canada will provide us with a more carbon-intensive oil product to burn in our cars. That's lose-lose.
Conservative carping aside, Al Gore is a perfect candidate for three reasons: The award has always gone to people who have done more than just promote "peace," such as Albert Schweitzer, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. The award has recently (2004) gone to an environmental leader, the great Wangari Maathai, who "founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots environmental nongovernmental organization, which has now planted over 30 million trees across Kenya to prevent soil erosion." Global warming is a grave threat to future peace and security -- as more and more experts are acknowledging. Global warming creates the possibility of millions of refugees, spurred terrorism, sea-level rise, and food and water shortages -- water being a major source of conflict. Indeed, climate change may already have been a key factor in the Darfur crisis (see here and here). If we avoid catastrophic global warming, Al Gore's tireless efforts to educate the nation and the world will be a major reason. He will have prevented untold humanitarian crises and countless regional conflicts. Gore would bring honor to the award.
Looks like I'm not the only one who sees a scary similarity between the messages in their respective books, Cool It and Break Through. The San Francisco Chronicle just ran a double review by Robert Collier, a visiting scholar at the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. The review ends pointedly: [T]he arguments of Nordhaus and Shellenberger attain an intellectual pretense that could almost pass for brilliant if their urgings weren't so patently empty. The closing chapter calls for "greatness," but, like the rest of the book, it offers little in the way of substantive proposals to back up its rhetorical thunder. Perhaps that's for their next book. Or perhaps real solutions, rather than pretentious sniping, are not the authors' purpose. Nordhaus and Shellenberger, like Lomborg, will get plenty of attention in Washington from those who want to preserve the status quo. But for those who recognize the urgent need to transform the national and world economies and save the planet as we know it, they are ultimately irrelevant. Precisely.
We have already seen that British Conservatives "get" global warming -- both the danger of inaction and the economic opportunity of a "green revolution." Now the right wing cheese-eating surrender monkeys are also putting their American political counterparts to shame. As Nature reports about the new conservative French president: Sarkozy made the greening of France a major plank of his election campaign this year. He has since created a superministry for ecology, biodiversity and sustainable development, with responsibility for the powerful sectors of transport, energy and construction -- a first in France, where ecology was previously off the political radar. Yet it seems inconceivable a U.S. conservative politician could take such action, or agree to the following remarkable proposals now under active consideration in France:
On Sunday, Bjørn Lomborg wrote: And while the delegations first fly into Kangerlussuaq, about 100 miles to the south, they all change planes to go straight to Ilulissat -- perhaps because the Kangerlussuaq glacier is inconveniently growing. But is it? I questioned this claim -- and asked readers for the relevant citation, which they provided. The key article from which he is drawing this claim is "Rapid Changes in Ice Discharge from Greenland Outlet Glaciers" from Science in March of this year. The article begins by noting ominously: The recent, marked increase in ice discharge from many of Greenland's large outlet glaciers has upended the conventional view that variations in ice-sheet mass balance are dominated on short time scales by variations in surface balance, rather than ice dynamics. Beginning in the late 1990s and continuing through the past several years, the ice-flow speed of many tidewater outlet glaciers south of 72° North increased by up to 100%, increasing the ice sheet's contribution to sea-level rise by more than 0.25 mm/year. The synchronous and multiregional scale of this change and the recent increase in Arctic air and ocean temperatures suggest that these changes are linked to climate warming.