A review of recent climate science findings finds that Jim Hansen’s bright-line standard and timeframe for global action [1.0ºC limit on further increase in global temperature / 475 ppm cap on atmospheric carbon with <10 years for global action] is, if anything, not conservative enough. A rash of recent reports identify major climate forcings wholly unaccounted for in IPCC models — such as a five-fold increase in methane releases from Siberian peat bogs — that support the view of rapid, discontinuous climate change predicted by Hansen.

Energy market projections show that current climate policies will barely dent the ramp-up of fossil fuel use and emissions. U.S. Energy Information Administration (DOE) International Energy Outlook 2006 projects energy-related carbon emissions to increase by 57%, from 25,028 million metric tons in 2003 to 43,676 million metric tons in 2030. Emissions reductions attributable to national environmental policies adopted in furtherance of the Kyoto agreement reduce the EIA reference case by just 58 million metric tons (<1%). Energy market sector leader emissions projections are in the same range; Exxon-Mobil projects an increase from 28 billion to 40 billion tons in the next 25 years (43%).

An increase in carbon emissions in the range 43-57% is more than sufficient to push global temperature above the bright line, roughly between 2020-2030. When the level of atmospheric carbon passes 475 ppm on an upward trajectory, we must assume that Hansen’s simple and terrible story — rapid collapse in Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves, resulting in sea level rise too high and too fast for either civilization or most species to adapt — will be initiated within the lifetime of our children.

Every effort to envision a way out of this predicament — the “first world leap-frog,” private sector initiatives, and incremental tightening of international emissions limits, for example — rests on flimsy logic unsupported by the evidence. In the most seductive story, China and India are expected to bypass the archaic, polluting technologies of the first world and achieve rapid, pollution free growth with renewable and efficiency technologies. The 2006 Worldwatch Report put the story front and center:

“… the choices these two countries make in the next few years will lead the world either toward growing ecological and political instability — or down a development path based on efficiency and better stewardship of resources.”

The core problems in making a leap from fossil fuel to renewable energy are not addressed. Unless it is assumed that emerging nations will impose (or re-impose) centralized planning to restrict fossil fuel use and establish economies of scale for renewables — which seems improbable — it is difficult to see why either nation would be in any better position than the U.S. or EU to make such a transition.

The spread of environmental values and commitment to forging an alternative energy future — particularly in China, where U.S. environmental organizations and foundations have invested in a number of climate programs — tends to be overstated, as U.S. EIA projections (2006 International Outlook, which projects renewable energy to make up < 1% of energy supply by 2025 in both India and China) make clear. It is very difficult to imagine any scenario where the emerging Chinese middle classes adopt an ethos of restraint, passing up the freedom and comfort of personal cars and detached single family homes and foregoing the enticements of a consumer culture, especially if U.S. entertainment exports continue to showcase these same luxuries. Nor does it seem likely that market solutions that have won little support in the U.S. private sector will be embraced in the rough and tumble capitalism of emerging nations.

No significant steps to taper off fossil fuel will be taken in the near term — not because reasonable people do not want to avert cataclysm, but because our institutions and economic systems will not permit it. BP, for example, has endorsed the UK Stern Commission recommendation of 450-525 ppm cap on atmospheric carbon [“I believe that is the right target,” Lord Browne, BP Group Chief Executive, remarks to Columbia Business School, New York, 17 Nov. 2006], yet the company is pursuing an aggressive oil and gas extraction plan indistinguishable from Exxon-Mobil, the bette nôire of environmentalists.

Advancing a solution to abrupt climate change at this late date is a Herculean task. It will require that the world’s largest corporations be regulated or restructured, and that low-carbon emitting products, acceptable to first world consumers and appealing to the emerging middle classes of developing nations, be swiftly developed. Agreement must also be won from the world’s most powerful nations that known reserves of oil, gas, and coal must remain in the ground.

These unlikely actions are only conceivable when things are thrown off kilter — when climate change impacts have started to wreck, rather than merely damage, the structures of civilization. When the prospect that nation states can be shaken loose from their moorings becomes real, then the world will turn in earnest to a crash program of response. We cannot know whether there will be time to take effective action between the onset of climate change impacts of sufficient severity to rearrange global politics and the bright line. Aiming for this small chance, however, fits better with human experience and history than our present agenda.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond’s exhaustive study of why societies faced with catastrophe often take no action, Diamond identifies four stages of inadequate response, which he terms failures to anticipate, perceive, act, or solve catastrophic risk. Climate change was detected early enough to take action, and its effects have been documented and so perceived. We are now poised between Diamond’s third step, “refusal to try to solve a perceived problem,” and onset of abrupt climate change, which cannot be solved once initiated. Refusing to take action in the face of cataclysm may be viewed as rational, where “maintenance of the problem is good for some people,” or inaction, may be irrational, driven by a number of confused but very human reasons and reactions.

The present U.S. debate on climate change is best understood as a conflict between rational and irrational responses to cataclysm. Most nation states and the private sector have concluded that the certain benefits to be derived from a rapidly expanding, fossil fuel-driven global economy are worth the risk of abrupt climate change. Their decision not to advance a functional solution to climate change is, therefore, rational. Climate scientists operating from the precautionary principle, who are calling for vigorous global action, are also acting rationally. As Michael Oppenheimer put it, because ice shelf collapse and rapid sea level rise “are effectively irreversible, policy decisions need to be made based on the information in hand, which argues that deglaciation could be triggered by a modest warming.

By participating in what amounts to a consensual public policy hallucination that abrupt climate change can be addressed without great conflict, in measured steps, by reducing U.S. domestic emissions alone, however, U.S. environmentalists are acting irrationally. U.S. environmentalists are free to advance an inadequate solution because we focus on individual climate science findings and ignore climate science conclusions. Hansen’s standard was proposed in 2004, but it has yet to be adopted by any U.S. environmental organization or foundation climate program. Our agenda is developed in the abstract, without reference to any objective standard. This is an extraordinary lacuna, difficult to reconcile with the policy orientation of the major U.S. climate programs and a flat contradiction of the precautionary principle. How do we explain it?

The deliberate decision a decade ago to downplay climate change risk in the interests of presenting a sober, optimistic image to potential donors, maintaining access to decision-makers, and operating within the constraints of private foundations has blown back on us. By emphasizing specific solutions and avoiding definitions that might appear alarmist, we inadvertently fed a dumbed-down, Readers Digest version of climate change to our staff and environmentalist core. Now, as we scramble to keep up with climate scientists, we discover that we have paid a hefty price. Humanity has <10 years to avert cataclysm and most U.S. environmentalists simply don’t believe it.

If we did believe it, we would be acting very differently. Why do we continue, in our materials and on our web sites, to present climate as one of any number of apparently equally important issues? Why, if we really believe that the fate of the world will be decided within a few years, haven’t our organizations liquidated assets, shut down non-essential program and invested everything in one final effort? Why, given the crushing circumstances, is there essentially no internal debate or challenge to our inadequate course of action? Why, for that matter, aren’t environmentalists all working weekends?

These are not gratuitous questions. Environmentalists are not immune from the social and cognitive barriers that make it difficult for almost every individual, institution, society, and nation to come to terms with the threat of cataclysm. However, the whole point of environmentalism is to anticipate precisely the conditions in which we now find ourselves. The purpose of the precautionary principle is to encourage the long view, “out even to the 7th generation,” and the ethos of environmentalism is a fundamental challenge to the dominant paradigm. Our values and principles are supposed to buck us up when, as individuals, we lose our way.

There are many reasons why our beliefs have become attenuated. Anyone who has worked as an environmental lobbyist or advocate is well aware of the fine line that must be walked between “political hack” and “eco-extremist.” To participate in American civic life in the last decade required environmentalists to suppress the very instincts and emotions that brought us to the effort in the first place. Such necessary and largely unconscious accommodations, however, are now our greatest liability.

Fredrick Douglas, observed biographer David Reynolds, was “astonished by [John] Brown’s empathy for blacks, unmatched by any other white person he knew” [John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, D. Reynolds, 2005]. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, “solutions” to slavery including sending freed slaves back to Africa and establishing reservations where former slaves, believed unable to fend for themselves, could be cared for. So long as Americans of African descent were considered lesser or non-human by Abolitionists, ending slavery remained a greater good worth advancing, but without immediacy or urgency. John Brown was driven to take desperate measures by an acute awareness that millions of people were held in horrific servitude and that the nation carried an immense moral burden, shared by non-slave holders who acquiesced by their silence no less than slavers.

The desperate measures required to advance a functional climate change solution at this late date (pursued by principled, non-violent means) can only be conceived and advanced by individuals who accept climate change realities and take the <10 year timeframe seriously. If we do not believe it, then we will continue to present a demeanor that may inelegantly be described as “unterrified.” We are not acting like people and organizations who genuinely believe that the world is at risk. Therefore, we cannot take the measures required, nor can we be effective leaders.

In passing over climate science, we have been forced to offer tortured justifications. The creeping irrationality of our approach is neatly illustrated by comparing Al Gore’s two books. In Earth in the Balance (1982), Gore issued a ringing call to environmentalist climate action on barely any evidence, and outlined a practical solution — a U.S.-led Global Marshall Plan — around which political support might be rallied.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006), on the other hand, is devoted almost entirely to data sets from which no overall conclusion is drawn. No reference to Hansen’s bright line or any other global standard of action is offered. In place of a global, U.S.-led, Marshall Plan, Gore offers a national agenda of domestic emissions reductions, relying on NRDC’s U.S.-only revision of the global stabilization wedges concept developed by Socolow and Pacala, et. al. Gore does not call on Americans to build a movement around the “central organizing principle,” he invites us to address cataclysm by emailing Congress, contributing to the environmental organization of our choice, and changing our light bulbs.

U.S. environmentalists must address the disconnect between climate science and our climate agenda, immediately endorse Hansen’s standard of action (the only other option is to refute it), and launch an intensive review of our climate policy and approach. Our challenge is to reinvest climate action with the simplicity, rationality, pointed urgency, and principled call to action of Earth in the Balance.