If human civilization is to have a realistic chance of surviving global climate change, President Barack Obama and mobilized citizens will have to lead a virtual revolution in America’s approach to the issue. Because the hour is so late and America’s role so central, Obama must lead, and be pressed to lead, on three fronts at once. First, the United States must commit itself to serious reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions and begin achieving them without delay. This will restore US credibility on the issue, paving the way for step two: encouraging the rest of the world, especially China, to cut its emissions dramatically. The United States and China together account for 40 percent of global emissions, making them climate superpowers: if they do not cut emissions, it won’t matter how much other nations reduce. Finally, Obama must urge the United States and all nations to begin preparing for the sea-level rise, water shortages and other impacts of climate change that are inevitable, with special emphasis on assisting the poor, who stand to suffer first and worst despite having done nothing to cause the problem.
It’s a tall order, but America can achieve these triple imperatives if the Obama administration launches a Global Green Deal: a crash program to jump-start the transition to a global economy that is climate-friendly and climate-resilient–that is, an economy that emits relatively few greenhouse gases and is shielded against the impacts of climate change. Done properly, a deal of this sort will green not only our societies but our wallets. A massive program of green investment will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as it stimulates jobs, profits and innovation worldwide and lifts millions of people out of poverty and economic distress.
The stimulus package is a good start. It contains $71 billion in direct green spending and $20 billion in green tax incentives, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. The World Resources Institute has calculated that every $1 billion in green spending generates approximately 30,000 jobs, so the green portions of the stimulus package should create about 2 million jobs, many in the construction sector, which has been hit especially hard. Retrofitting buildings, installing solar panels and constructing wind farms require skilled and semiskilled labor and create decent-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced. Investing in climate-friendly development in poor countries, where money buys more, should yield even more jobs and economic uplift–no small consideration, given the recent warning from the US director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, that the economic downturn could become the gravest threat to international stability if it triggers a return to the “violent extremism” of the 1930s.
But even more will have to be done, at home and abroad, if we are to slash emissions quickly enough to preserve a livable planet. President Obama has promised to reduce US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This sounds impressive compared with the Bush/Cheney years, but precisely because of Bush-era foot-dragging, the United States and the rest of the world need to achieve larger and faster emissions reductions than previously assumed. We have “a very short window of time,” Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in January at a Worldwatch Institute conference. If we want to avoid such scenarios as twenty feet of sea-level rise, which would put most of the world’s big cities under water, the rise in global temperatures must be limited to 2.0 to 2.4 Celsius above preindustrial levels. That means global emissions must peak by 2015 and then fall rapidly for decades, said Pachauri. In this context, he added, Obama’s goal “falls short of the response needed by world leaders” in preparation for the negotiations in Copenhagen in December to produce a successor to the Kyoto treaty. Instead, Pachauri urged Obama to embrace the European Union’s target: reducing emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, which the EU says it will achieve by increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy by 20 percent.