The debate on global warming is over, at least according to last week’s Time magazine, and humans are the cause of at least most of it. According to a recent poll, 71% of Americans already believe that global warming is occurring.
It seems kind of sad that the global-warming debate should have to be refereed by Time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided plenty of warning and evidence in 2001. But consensus, even among thousands of scientists from all over the world, was not enough to sway the Bush Administration, the U.S. Congress, or a recalcitrant public. Perhaps Katrina, Rita and Wilma, melting ice, and a whole lot of weird weather have moved the people. However, there's still this immense disconnect between the information available and the level of public outrage. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the new book Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change thinks there are three major reasons for this:
- First, there’s catastrophe overload. The end of the world has been going to come several times, and yet we’re all still here. So it’s: “Wake me up when the real end of the world is coming.”
- Then there’s, “If this were really as bad as you say, I would feel it by now. There’d be water lapping at my first-floor windows.” The problem is that the climate operates on a very long time lag, so if you wait until there's water lapping at your first-floor windows, you can be sure there's going to be water lapping at your second-floor windows. The message still hasn’t gotten out that changes 30 or 40 years from now are already inevitable. There is warming in the pipeline already.
- And then there’s the question of what to do. People don’t like to confront problems they don’t have a clear answer to. And the answers here - to the extent there are answers - are very, very complicated. They’re very hard. We know what causes people to be overweight, and we can’t even stop that! And with global warming it’s not as simple as “eat less, lose weight.” It’s “do a million things.” And we have to do them on a global scale, and that’s pretty daunting. It’s very much easier to pretend the problem doesn't exist.
However, we can meet this challenge - we can address global warming and invigorate the economy simultaneously. But technology alone will not solve this global problem. It also stems from a crisis in leadership. The U.S. must accept its role as an environmental leader in the world and act like one. But the lack of leadership on climate change and energy policy by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and their cadre of oil executive cronies, borders on malfeasance.
If there's one person who could do something about the issue, it’s George Bush. It's nice to say we're addicted to foreign oil (we are), but oil’s only part of the problem. We're addicted to coal, too. It's one thing to point out the problem, but it's a totally different one to find a solution. He could have easily have said, "We need to conserve, and we need to find new carbon-free sources of energy, and here's 20 or 30 billion dollars to start doing it." But he didn't do that. Since he didn't put any money behind it, no one takes it very seriously. That's how Washington works: No money, no commitment.
More than 60% of our greenhouse gas emissions emanate from the transportation sector and from powering buildings. That’s all “low-hanging fruit.” In the U.S., we have not improved motor-vehicle efficiency in 20 years. By implementing greater energy efficiency, more renewable energy sources, and shifts in policy, we can decrease our emissions by 50% over the next 25 years, while jump-starting the economy. Energy-efficient automobiles, lighting, and refrigeration, together with wind power, photovoltaic roofs, biofuels, and geothermal heat pumps, are the future. The companies and countries that lead in these industries will gain competitive advantages and employ millions in productive manufacturing jobs with good wages.
America is absolutely crying out for political leadership. John McCain has been pretty upfront on this issue, but he hasn’t really been listened to on this issue. Schwarzenegger has been out there sounding the alarm. But America really need someone in a position of national leadership, Sen. James Inhofe or somebody, to stand up and say, "I have seen the light, I am convinced we need to do something." George Bush could have been that person, but he chose not.
The dilemma is scientists feel uncomfortable with advocacy, journalists feel uncomfortable with advocacy, and the advocates are ignored. Environmental groups have been marginalized, stereotyped as Chicken Littles. Then there’s this feeling on the right that the left is using global warming to achieve ulterior ends: slowing economic progress, redistributing wealth, etc.
Talking to the Dutch minister for the environment, Kolbert noted that in America, he would have been considered far left, but he was, in fact, a member of the Center Right party. His views were that the industrialized world is obviously going to have to cut its carbon emissions way, way down. The developing world is going to be using a lot more carbon, and how could we say they can't? After all, our own wealth is based on that. You might have thought she was talking to a member of Greenpeace, but he was a member of the ruling party in the Netherlands. Kolbert concludes that the level of political discourse in the United States is considered by a lot of the rest of the world to be just plain wacky.
In fact, the U.S. has been so absurd on this issue - so criminally negligent – that a lot of people are now saying that if George Bush hadn't withdrawn from Kyoto, Kyoto never would have been ratified. The Europeans were content to shuffle along indefinitely, but when Bush actually pulled the plug and said, "We're not participating," they stepped up to the plate and said, "We're going to do it." So in a weird sort of way, his recalcitrance has unified them, and now they're committed to that path.
Hybrid-electric cars are a key bridging technology for the automobile industry. Many hybrid vehicles are already on the road, yielding 50–100% better gas mileage than their earlier gasoline-only models. But imagine adding another electric battery to the system so that you can “fill up” on electricity at night. According to Lester Brown in Plan B 2.0, the cost of wind energy at off-peak hours will be equivalent to driving on $0.50 per gallon fuel. With a plug-in hybrid, mileage will increase from 50 to 75–100 mpg, depending on the ratio of short commutes to long-haul trips. On the long hauls, drivers will still enjoy 50 mpg and a 500–600-mile range. Now, dream that your plug-in hybrid is also a flex-fuel vehicle burning E-85 ethanol (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) made from cellulose. Fuel efficiency, with respect to GHGs, has just skyrocketed to more than 200 mpg of fossil gasoline.
It’s not a dream: Toyota will be coming out soon with a plug-in hybrid, and flex-fuel cars are already on the road. Transportation accounts for about 25% of our primary energy usage and GHG emissions. We could cut that in half relatively easily with leadership and a dedicated public.
Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change ends with the chilling words: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."