Top 10

What events, actions, and findings had the most positive or negative impact on the likelihood that the nation and the world will act in time to avoid catastrophic warming?

Since the No. 1 story is way too obvious to generate any drama, I will start there and then go back and count down from No. 10 to No. 2.

1. Team without rivals. A year ago, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, desperately warned, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” That means the next president and his cabinet, more than any other group, will determine my future and your future and our children’s future, and perhaps the future of the next 50 generations to walk the earth. Fortunately, the American people rejected the old greenwasher and new denier nominated by the Drill, baby, Drill crowd — and now we will be led by the greenest, most scientifically informed, radical pragmatists in the history of the Republic:

Back to the countdown:

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10. Gas pains. As NOAA reported, levels of methane rose sharply in 2007 for the first time since 1998. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, especially over the near term. And the tundra has as much carbon locked away in it as the atmosphere contains today. Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands. The tundra melting is probably the most worrisome of all the climate-carbon-cycle amplifying feedbacks — and it could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1,000 ppm. Though you should also worry that the methane might be coming from the underwater permafrost, which is also thawing and releasing methane. Or from the drying of the Northern peatlands (bogs, moors, and mires). If methane rises again in 2008 — and NASA reported another brutally hot year for the Siberian tundra — then that will probably be among the top three global warming stories of 2008.

9. The thrilla in vanilla. OK, it wasn’t Ali-Frazier, but Henry Waxman’s smackdown of John Dingell for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was high drama with high consequences. Finally, we have a champion of serious action and strong regulation, someone who gets the dire nature of global warming, in charge of the crucial committee for climate and energy.

8. Ice, ice maybe not. Everywhere scientists look, ice is disappearing:

7. The rise of sea-level rise: 1 to 2 meters is the new 1 to 2 feet. This year saw major sea-level rise reemerge as one of the biggest threats facing humanity this century from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions (along with desertification). In 2007, the IPCC had advanced a lowball estimate that explicitly ignored the single most important likely contributor to sea-level rise this century — “future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow.” That estimate, embraced (and misrepresented) by delayers like Bjorn Lomborg to argue that climate change was no big thing, was based primarily on data and analysis from before 2006. With all the actual melting ice, with the ice sheets appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of [the IPCC] schedule,” it’s no surprise that 2008 saw so many top climate scientists reject the IPCC estimate and warn of far greater rise in the decades to come:

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6. Clean coal ain’t. This was the year Bush and the coal companies mismanaged and underfunded the country’s centerpiece carbon capture and storage (CCS) progra
m, ‘Nevergen,’ to death
. Most other countries abandoned or slowed down their CCS efforts, while many independent analysts began to express serious skepticism that CCS would be a practical, affordable, and scalable strategy (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“). The industry, however, began a well-funded advertising effort to sell clean coal, with marketing that bordered on Onion-esque self-parody. But a major environmental disaster revealed better than any ad campaign that coal is the dirtiest of fuels. And the EPA Environmental Appeals Board stopped new coal plants cold by, amazingly enough, realizing that when the Supreme Court ruled carbon dioxide was a pollutant and EPA needed to start regulating it under the Clean Air Act, they meant it — though the Bush administration tried to reversed that ruling and Congress is trying to reverse that reversal.

5. Three-hundred-and-fifty is the new 450. Led by the nation’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, a number of leading scientists argued that the “old” target scientists have been arguing for — stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm — isn’t enough: Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al. In December, America’s leading spokesman for climate action, Al Gore, embraced the 350 ppm target.

4. Clean tech shines. While the rest of the financial system melts down, cleantech venture investment hit a record $2.6 billion in the third quarter. Is that a lot of money? Well, of that $2.6 billion, some $1.7 billion went to U.S. companies, which is about three times the comparable annual R&D budget in the Energy Department office I once ran, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program, which did — and still does — the bulk of the federal government clean tech funding. And VCs like Kleiner Perkins ramped up funding while the Bush administration gutted some of the most important research and deployment EERE had.

Some key clean technologies really began to shine in 2008, including perhaps the most important low-carbon energy source, solar thermal baseload, and the most important alternative fuel vehicle, electric cars and plug in hybrids. It should now be clear that all the technology we need to stabilize at 450 ppm (or lower) is here or will be in a few years (see “McKinsey 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero”).

3. Desperate scientists, season II. The world’s top climate scientists are once again begging for action, with many more going public to warn just how dire a fate we face on our current path:

2. Conservatives go all in on climate denial and delay. While the grim implications of the science and observational data discussed above have become painfully obvious to everyone else, conservatives simply refuse to accept reality. For instance, even though a very warm 2008 makes this the hottest decade in recorded history by far — and even though 2008 was about 0.1°C warmer than the decade of the 1990s as a whole (even with a La-Niña-fueled cool winter) for some deniers, “2008 was the year man-made global warming was disproved.” Seriously.

The entire conservative movement, including pundits, think tanks, and politicians, now appears willing to stake the future of humanity on their willful ignorance.

That’s why the deniers are winning, especially with GOP voters or rather only with GOP voters.

If the Obama climate dream team is going to lead the nation and the world into a World War II scale effort to save humanity from self-destruction, they will be waging a difficult two-front war — against the ever-accelerating reality of climate change itself and against the immovable unreality of “anti-science conservatives.”

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.