Climate action requires leadership beyond political ‘reasonableness’
Let’s face it: The Bush Administration has made a mess of things, as noted in “Hog heaven, part 1.” It is now clear, if it hasn’t been all along, that by the time George Bush leaves office, the White House will have wasted eight years of leadership on the Mother of All Issues.
If those eight years are a profound disappointment looking backward, then they are a profound tragedy looking forward. The head of the IPCC is spreading the message that the world community has seven short years to act decisively to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Dr. John Holdren is among the prestigious U.S. scientists who now say more openly that the effects of climate change already are upon us. Dr. Jim Hansen now estimates that atmospheric concentrations of carbon must level off at 350 ppm, nearly 30 percent lower than everyone thought was needed to keep climate change at “safe” levels. Anyone who’s paying attention sees that the impacts of global warming are occurring much faster than predicted.
If this year’s weather extremes are a sample of climate change, how much worse will they be 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years from now, as today’s rising and accumulating emissions take their toll?
The president’s and vice president’s puerile behavior would be laughable if they weren’t the president and vice President, and they weren’t acting like frat boys with the nation’s future. Dick Cheney neutralizes EPA’s climate findings by refusing to open his e-mail? George Bush laughs, punches the air and brags to world leaders that he’s the “world’s biggest polluter“?
All that’s left is to hunker down and hold our noses for six more months, and to hope that John McCain or Barack Obama will face the climate problem like adults, using the power of the office to protect America’s security in its fullest sense — our health, our health costs, our energy supplies, our economy and jobs, our safety from floods and fires and tornadoes, our relief from resource wars. These are not things for a president to joke about.
Is it realistic to hope that the next president will give us bold leadership on the conjoined issues of energy and climate security? Some who watch the messy policy-making process inside the Beltway are not optimistic. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.) gives this assessment in Mother Jones:
The president will have advisers who will be whispering cautions about the risks of committing the prestige of any administration to aggressive energy goals. Those advisers will say with some credibility that a president can appear forward-looking on energy with a few carefully chosen initiatives and occasional optimistic rhetoric promoting alternative sources. They will say that the voting public’s overwhelming energy concern is high prices for gasoline and home heating, and that as long as the president appears attentive to those concerns they can cover their political bases without asking for sacrifices or risking the possible failure of a more controversial energy policy.
In a splendid essay published on July 4 (splendid because I completely agree with it), Australian businessman David Spratt and Philip Sutton of the Greenleap Strategic Institute make a similar point — not only about political leaders, but also about environmental leaders. A few excerpts:
Why has climate policy moved in such a painfully slow manner? … It seems as if there are two great tectonic plates — scientific necessity and political pragmatism — that meet very uneasily at a fault line …
We see reluctance on the part of organizations and people to go beyond the bounds of perceived acceptability. This results in the advocacy of solutions that, even if fully implemented, would not actually solve the problem. There is a sense that many of the climate policy professionals — in government, research, community organizations and advocacy — have established boundaries around their public discourse that are guided by a primary concern for “reasonableness”, rather that by a concern for achieving environmental and social sustainability.
In other words, we spend too much time asking what’s possible rather than what’s necessary. When courage is needed, pragmatism is the enemy. Or as the authors put it:
A pragmatic interdependency links many of these players in a cycle of low expectations and poor outcomes … It seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to break the cycle; but how can this be done? Part of the problem seems to be fear: those who are the first to move to a tougher position are worried about becoming isolated or losing credibility.
Or losing office. Or campaign contributions. Or a political appointment. Or the respect of more “pragmatic” colleagues.
One timid and time-tested approach might be called “incremental courage” — trying the minimum solution first and, if it fails, going to the next level of boldness. That approach won’t work anymore, Spratt and Sutton contend.
With global warming, we do not have the luxury of learning by trail and error. We have left the climate problem unattended for so long that we now have just one chance to get things right by applying a “no major trade-off” approach without a trial run. It will be a particular challenge for decision-makers, who have grown up in a political culture of compromise.
For those who have, in the past, downplayed the risks, changing position is now a matter of urgency, because what now needs to be done is not incrementally reasonable.
We’ve run out of time for a gradual retreat from denial. We can’t wait for another mega-disaster, then another, then another, to give increasingly deadly evidence that climate change is a clear and present danger, and to drive Americans to accept bold leadership from Washington. We need leaders who drive public opinion rather than being driven by it, who watch the road rather than the fuzz-buster.
Maybe the American people sense that. Maybe that’s why we’ve responded so strongly to Sen. Obama’s theme of change.
I’ve heard that there’s a plaque on the wall of Wal-Mart headquarters, inscribed with a quote from Sam Walton. It says: “Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy. We don’t want continuous improvement, we want radical change.”
Indeed we do.