Climate change is not just another issue. It is the overriding threat facing human civilization in the twenty-first century, and so far our institutions are doing dangerously little to address it. Americans in particular are still in denial, thanks largely to the efforts of the fossil-fuel industry and its allies in the Bush Administration. But the nation’s biggest environmental organizations and opposition politicians have also displayed a disturbing lack of leadership on this crucial challenge.
They are by no means the only roadblocks to meaningful action on climate change. In addition to the Bush Administration and the fossil-fuel lobby, the failure of the press to cover the climate crisis has left the United States ten years behind the rest of the world in addressing this issue. Given this background, the failure of environmentalists to fill the informational and political vacuum is especially distressing.
Over the past decade, the arguments against the reality of climate change by the carbon lobby have been as inconsistent as the weather itself. During the early years of the 1990s, the fossil-fuel lobby insisted that global warming was not happening. In the face of incontrovertible findings by the scientific community, the industry then conceded that climate change is happening but is so inconsequential as to be negligible. When new findings indicated that the warming is indeed significant, the spokesmen for the coal and oil industries then put forth the argument that global warming is good for us.
But the central argument that big coal and big oil have spent millions of dollars to amplify over the past decade is that the warming is a natural phenomenon on which human beings have little or no impact. That argument has been repeatedly discredited by the world’s leading climate scientists. Under the auspices of the United Nations, more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries have participated over the past fifteen years in what is most likely the largest, most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. In 1995 the UN-sponsored panel found a “discernible human influence” on the planet’s warming climate. The scientists subsequently concluded that to stabilize our climate requires humanity to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent in a very short time.
The Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, calls for industrial countries to cut aggregate emissions by just 5.2 percent by 2012. That is a woefully inadequate response; as British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted in 2002, “Even if we deliver on Kyoto, it will at best mean a reduction of one percent in global emissions…. In truth, Kyoto is not radical enough.”
Nevertheless, the current low goals of the Protocol are championed by many Americans who should know better, including leading Democrats like John Kerry and virtually every national environmental organization. Confronted by the steel wall of resistance of the fossil-fuel lobby and their political allies, most climate activists and sympathetic politicians have retreated into approaches that are dismally inadequate to the magnitude of the challenge.
Around the country, advocates are working to get people to drive less, turn down their thermostats and reduce their energy use. Unfortunately, while many environmental problems are susceptible to lifestyle changes, climate change is not one of them.
Several of the country’s leading national environmental groups are promoting limits for future atmospheric carbon levels that are the best they think they can negotiate. But while those limits may be politically realistic, they would likely be environmentally catastrophic. Most advocates, moreover, are relying on goals and mechanisms that were proposed about a decade ago, before the true urgency of the climate crisis became apparent. In 2000, researchers at the Hadley Center, Britain’s main climate research institute, found that the climate will change 50 percent more quickly than was previously assumed. Their projections show that many of the world’s forests will begin to turn from sinks (vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide) to sources (which release it)–dying off and emitting carbon–by about 2050. In 1998 a team of researchers reported in the journal Nature that unless the world is getting half its energy from noncarbon sources by 2018, we will see an inevitable doubling–and possible tripling–of atmospheric carbon levels later in this century.