Last Chance to Play it Cool

President Barak Obama

Political inertia and vested interests threaten to send the world’s climate out of control. Is catastrophe inevitable, asks Bill McKibben.

Twenty years after American scientists first publicly called attention to the issue, we now know considerably more about the impact of adding carbon to the climate and the course of climate change. The first phase of these investigations, marked by a rapid burst of scientific investigation, was done by 1995 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a large report stating, in essence: humans are heating the planet, and it will be a serious problem. In subsequent years, that consensus has deepened and strengthened, not least because we have seen a series of extremely warm years — all of the 10 warmest years on record postdate that 1995 report.

We also have seen the emergence of national and international attempts to slow the flow of carbon into the atmosphere and so ameliorate the problem. The most ambitious of these, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in Japan in the late 1990s and came into effect some years later, despite America's refusal to ratify it.

However, such attempts were, from the beginning, understood to be mere beginnings — more to construct an architecture for deep cuts in the use of fossil fuels than to credibly repair the planet's climate. The global community lacked sufficient political will to tackle serious carbon cuts: while Western Europe and Japan were willing to lead the way, neither the US, with George Bush at its head and the oil industry triumphant, nor China, in the full flush of its mighty economic growth, would negotiate seriously. And since each of them represents a quarter of the world's carbon output, that made impossible any actual progress.

The story began to heat up about two years ago. First, scientifically. The summer of 2007 saw the rapid, unprecedented, and greatly ahead–of–schedule melt of Arctic sea ice. Its extent was reduced by 25 per cent from previous averages by summer's end, and climatologists were predicting that the summer Arctic could be entirely ice–free within a decade. This was an almost unthinkable change in one of the planet's biggest physical features.

There were other aberrations such as radical changes in the planet's hydrology. Since warm air holds more water vapour than cold, arid areas saw dramatic increases in evaporation and drought. And since what goes up eventually comes down, wet areas saw dramatic increases in deluge and flood, results noticeable not only in scientific reports but also in the financial results of major insurers.

Australians in particular would have noticed these effects in none–too–subtle form. Scientists worldwide point to the rapid drying of the Murray–Darling river system as a foretaste of what we can expect globally. The Black Saturday fires in Victoria in early 2009 followed periods of intense and previously unrecorded heat, creating fire conditions more dire than any seen before in Australia.

Disease–bearing mosquitoes began spreading rapidly across South America and Asia, with dengue fever in particular increasing substantially. Pests did not confine themselves to human beings either, killing millions of square hectares of boreal forest across high ground in the American and Canadian west. Entirely new phenomena appeared as well — the unanticipated and chilling news that the earth's oceans were rapidly acidifying, for instance.

Weather changes helped spur political changes. In the US, even President Bush acknowledged the possibility that humans were warming the earth. Barack Obama, urged on by widespread public protest, adopted a promise to cut carbon emissions 80 per cent by 2050, a far more dramatic position than any American leader had yet adopted. And as the Kyoto Protocol began to move towards its 2012 expiration date, the international community took up the topic with renewed fervour, focusing on international talks set for Copenhagen in December 2009, which were designed to produce a new treaty. Even the Chinese leaders, facing worries like the rapid melt of the Tibetan glaciers that water the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, began making more accommodating noises.

Before we declare this a happy ending, however, we need to take deeper account of both the science and politics to understand how difficult the problem really is.

The first thing to emphasise is just how short a time we have to deal with the problem. Unlike the other long–delayed problems that greeted the new president — health-care reform, for instance — delay on global warming will not merely prolong a bad situation, it will make it far worse. Our leading climatologists have demonstrated not only that the planet is warming, but that the warming is now itself accelerating the process.

A series of feedback loops have begun to kick in: when the Arctic loses ice, for instance, it is not mere confirmation of our peril, but itself a contributor to that threat. Without the mirror provided by the white ice, far more of the sun's rays are absorbed, instead of being reflected back to space. And when that ice must refreeze in winter, the process gives off heat in an 'Arctic amplification' that can be measured 1500 kilometres inland, spurring the melt of permafrost. Beneath that permafrost is trapped enormous quantities of another warming gas, methane, which is now beginning to leak into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, those dying forests are now sources of carbon instead of sinks. And so on.

While we retain the ability to stop burning coal and gas and oil, we lack the ability to slow these secondary reactions — we know of no possible way to refreeze the Arctic, for instance. And so we near a tipping point. The best science indicates that the moment may be near. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that unless we begin to make significant reforms of our energy system by 2012, we may well miss the window of opportunity.

We have a number to help us understand the scale of the problem. NASA's James Hansen, perhaps the world's foremost climatologist, and his team issued a landmark paper in early 2008 defining the bottom line. Any value for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million, was not compatible with the planet 'on which civilisation developed and to which life on earth is adapted'.

That number does not just define our scientific dilemma, though, but our political one as well. This is because all the negotiations in the world's parliaments, and in the run–up to Copenhagen, were looking at easier (though by no means easy) targets — most commonly 450 parts per million. The difference between the two is acute. Since we are at 387 parts per million now (and rising two parts per million per year), 450 still lies in the future, and gives us a little room and a little time; 350 is in the rearview mirror. This demands immediate and drastic action, far more drastic than the world's capitals have yet engaged in.

Among other things, it implies that we have to be out of the business of burning coal by 2030, and sooner in the western world, or else forever miss the chance that the world's oceans and forests will be able to suck enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to return us to that safe number. Since coal supplies half of America's electricity, and much more of China's, that represents political trouble of a different magnitude than previously considered.

So we must consider if it is possible to imagine change on that scale, and if so, what that change would look like.

It won't, of course, be easy. Anyone with any doubts need only look at Australia's example, where the Rudd government, having fought an election largely on the need to limit climate change, backed down in May 2009, offering a watered–down compromise that would be delayed for years to come. But since Australia represents only 1.5 per cent of the world's carbon emissions, that was no a decisive blow. It killed any Australian ambition to 'lead the world' in tackling global warming, but the Copenhagen process was not fatally affected.

Washington, however, simply must take strong action if Copenhagen is to have a chance at dramatic progress. And that will depend on President Obama doing more than he has to politically. By this I mean that since Obama takes office after 20 years of no action from Washington (a perfect bipartisan record of achieving nothing), the bar is set very low indeed.

In his first 100 days in office, he did more than all the presidents before him in dealing with climate change, appointing superb cabinet officers to the relevant departments, empowering his Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon, and granting California the right to enforce stricter mileage standards on cars. Welcome as such gestures are, however, they consist mostly of things that any rational leader should have done long ago: they respond, as it were, to the problem as we understood it 10 years ago, and not the emergency that we face today.

And what's worse, to enact the kind of legal framework necessary to really restructure America's energy system, he will have to work hand in hand with a Congress which so far has shown neither great courage or creativity in the fight against global warming.

This lack of courage and creativity means that we need a structure that works more or less automatically, without Congress having to continually intervene to pick and choose technologies (a scenario which so far has resulted in absurd schemes like corn–based ethanol). The basic idea is instead to set in place the series of incentives, most notably an increased price for fossil fuel — that will allow markets to do the picking and choosing. Congress also clearly must provide serious research and development money for basic technologies, in the hope of the kind of breakthroughs that will make the transition faster and easier.

The first task is therefore to craft legislation mandating cuts in domestic emissions. This is made difficult for all the obvious reasons: heavy opposition from a series of vested interests, politicians' fear that voters will punish them for any rise in the cost of electricity or fuel, and the complexity of working out a plan that will be fair, despite the fact that Americans in different regions use vastly different mixes of energy supplies, and hence some will suffer more than others in any new scheme.

The first approach to this job has been straightforward. Legislation introduced by Congressmen Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts proposes to set up a 'cap-and-trade' system modelled on decades–old efforts to control pollutants like sulphur and nitrogen. It establishes caps, and offers businesses the chance to sell their permits if they cut more quickly. In order to garner more votes in the House, and to dispel the lobbying of utilities and fossil–fuel interests, it also includes a fairly bewildering array of loopholes.

Another possible strategy under consideration by the Obama administration would bypass some of the complexity. Instead it would take the money paid by energy companies for the permits to pollute and rebate it directly to taxpayers, allowing each of them the chance, as it were, to profit from their share of the sky. In all likelihood, whatever bill passes will include a combination of these principles.

However, winning passage of these laws in the House, and getting them through a Senate where Obama holds a scant margin of electoral advantage, will be extremely difficult. The Republicans, who have very little standing to talk about the economy or foreign policy in the wake of the Bush disasters on both fronts, seem to be pinning some of their comeback hopes on a challenge to any effective climate bill.

So, at best, Obama will go to Copenhagen with a fairly weak bill in hand, one that doesn't address the scale of the problem as scientists now understand it. And there he will have to negotiate with the Chinese and the rest of the developing world, who seem ready to deal but only if they receive robust transfers of technology. (Chinese leaders opened the bidding at 1 per cent annually of the West's GDP). Think of, say, a carbon version of the Marshall Plan offered by the United States in the wake of World War II. That's heavy lifting, especially in a moment of real economic weakness. Any measure that increases deficits or imposes new costs on strapped American households will be a hard sell.

I am aware that this is a depressing list of realities, and that they lead to the conclusion that we will most likely fail to bring the world's climate under some kind of control in time to prevent catastrophe. Indeed, failure is a real possibility, because time is so short, and inertia so great.

But since we cannot allow that failure to happen, we had better at least visualise a strategy for its success. The Copenhagen conference is arguably the most important international negotiation of all time, since even Yalta or Versailles didn't have results that lasted through geological time. Since it represents the last plausible chance for getting this architecture right, we immediately need to focus on understanding how it might turn out better than currently anticipated, and how its momentum might be used in the years to come to dramatically speed up our response. As we begin that task, it's worth recalling that we do in fact have a few wildcards on our side.

One is Obama himself. Young, optimistic, technologically savvy, he embodies a new approach to problems of this kind. So far, he has acted with decisive speed on many fronts: assuming control of Detroit, for instance. And people's relief at his evident decisiveness and skill set up the possibility for that kind of vigour not only to flourish but to spread. America, after all, is the one country that can actually lead on this issue, because of the size of its economy and its carbon footprint. If Obama can actually muster dramatic action, it will become much easier for other national leaders to do likewise.

And in contemplating that dramatic action, the depth of the current financial crisis is actually at least as much help as hindrance. True, we are lacking some of the access to capital and easy credit that would make a rewiring of our world's energy systems somewhat easier. But we are also, usefully, lacking any other good option for economic recovery: clean energy jobs are more plausible than most other strategies we can imagine at the moment, since it seems unlikely we can or will return to the pure consumer–driven shopping spree that kept us afloat for the last decades. Polling data makes it clear that green jobs are a rallying cry at least as useful as climatic peril, and Obama aides like Van Jones have demonstrated a deep ability to connect with Americans on the issue.

Third, there is at least some reason to hope that weak targets will not necessarily retard the process completely. Past efforts to control other pollutants, sulphur and nitrogen, for instance, have shown that once the program is in place, reductions come more quickly and cheaply than anticipated. Perhaps we can realistically hope that even modest climate legislation, combined with real government research and development in renewable technologies, will touch off a gold rush of sorts towards cleaner energy sources. Since wind is already the world's fastest growing source of electric generation, there clearly is off–the–shelf technology ready to go; if the ball starts rolling, it may accelerate. And as it does, of course, it will create its own virtuous cycle: a powerful wind lobby on Capitol Hill would be a useful counterforce to Big Coal and Big Oil.

And fourth, of course, the natural world itself will continue to build momentum for action: every nasty hurricane or bushfire or flood reminds more voters of their stake in the issue, and makes it harder for vested interest to continue peddling delay and inaction.

But none of these good things stand even a remote chance of happening unless there is a movement backing up President Obama, and similarly minded leaders. The environmental movement as presently constructed is simply too small to play that role. It is sized to save whales or create national parks and it is easily overwhelmed by the special interests representing the most profitable sector of our economy. In that weak state, it is effortlessly divided and conquered, in Australia, in America, and in most other places.

So the task now of civil society is to both increase the odds of an agreement happening, and to increase the possibility that it will be a good agreement, one that will begin to meet the actual needs of the planet and not the public relations needs of its leaders. Understanding that task, we have begun to see unprecedented focus from a wide array of NGOs, corporate interests, and others. But much of that activity has been diffused, disparate, and so far unable to yield change on the scale required.

It is too early to claim either success or failure on the climate question. In some ways, the advent of Barack Obama represents the first real moment of possibility in the 20 years that we have been grappling with this issue. If luck is on his side — and so far it clearly has been — then he has at least an outside chance of helping set the world on a new and cooler course. The most important question of all may be whether he understands the gravity of the situation, and understands it enough to take more than average political risk. Since his intelligence is not in question, that's certainly a possibility.

Bill McKibben is a former reporter of the New Yorker and author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy.