Boiling Point

Boiling Point

Nature doesn’t compromise on global climate change; activists must not either.


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.

Virtually all the approaches by activists in the United States, moreover, are domestic in nature. They ignore both the world’s developing countries and, equally important from the standpoint of national security, the oil-producing nations of the Middle East. Ultimately, even if the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan were to cut emissions dramatically, those cuts would be overwhelmed by the coming increase of carbon from India, China, Mexico, Nigeria and all the other developing countries struggling to stay ahead of poverty.

Many alternative approaches rely on market-based solutions because their proponents believe that, in an age of market fundamentalism, no other approach can gain political traction. Unfortunately, nature’s laws are not about supply and demand; they are about limits, thresholds and surprises. The progress of the Dow does not seem to influence the increasing rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheet; the collapse of the ecosystems of the North Sea will not be arrested by an upswing in consumer confidence.

Many groups justify the minimalist goals of making people more energy efficient as the first phase in building a political base for more aggressive action. In the past, that pattern has been successful in developing various movements. In the case of climate change, however, nature’s timetable is very different from that of political organizers. Unfortunately, the signals from the planet tell us we do not have the luxury of waiting another generation to allow for the orderly maturation of a movement.

Finally, the environmental establishment insists on casting the climate crisis as an environmental problem. But climate change is no longer the exclusive franchise of the environmental movement. Any successful movement must include horizontal alliances with groups involved in international relief and development, campaign finance reform, public health, corporate accountability, labor, human rights and environmental justice. The real dimensions of climate change directly affect the agendas of a wide spectrum of activist organizations.

The environmental movement has proved it cannot accomplish large-scale change by itself. Despite occasional spasms of cooperation, the major environmental groups have been unwilling to join together around a unified climate agenda, pool resources and mobilize a united campaign on the climate. Even as the major funders of climate and energy-oriented groups hold summit meetings in search of a common vision, they shy away from the most obvious of imperatives: using their combined influence and outreach to focus attention–and demand action–on the climate crisis. As the major national groups insist on promoting exclusive agendas and protecting carefully defined turfs (in the process, squandering both talent and donor dollars on internecine fighting), the climate movement is spinning its wheels.

Take the critical issue of climate stabilization–the level at which the world agrees to cap the buildup of carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. The major national environmental groups focusing on climate–groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the WWF (World Wildlife Fund)–have agreed to accept what they see as a politically feasible target of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide. While the 450 goal may be politically realistic, it would likely be environmentally catastrophic. With carbon levels having risen by only 90 parts per million (from their pre-industrial level of 280 ppm to more than 370 ppm today), glaciers are now melting into puddles, sea levels are rising, violent weather is increasing and the timing of the seasons has changed–all from a 1-degree Fahrenheit rise in the past century. Carbon concentrations of 450 ppm will most likely result in a deeply fractured and chaotic world.

The major national environmental groups, moreover, are trapped in a Beltway mentality that measures progress in small, incremental victories. They are operating in a Washington environment that is at best indifferent and at worst actively antagonistic. And too often these organizations are at the mercy of fickle funders whose agendas range from protecting wetlands to keeping disposable diapers out of landfills.

The fossil-fuel lobby has hijacked America’s energy and climate policies. One appropriate response might involve environmental leaders’ forging a coalition of corporate and financial institutions of equivalent force and influence to counteract the carbon industry’s stranglehold on Congress and the White House.

The vast majority of climate groups shun confrontation and work instead to get people to reduce their personal energy footprints. That can certainly help spread awareness of the issue. But by persuading concerned citizens to cut back on their personal energy use, these groups are promoting the implicit message that climate change can be solved by individual resolve. It cannot. Moreover, this message blames the victim: People are made to feel guilty if they own a gas guzzler or live in a poorly insulated home. In fact, people should be outraged that the government does not require automakers to sell cars that run on clean fuels, that building codes do not reduce heating and cooling energy requirements by 70 percent and that government energy policies do not mandate decentralized, home-based or regional sources of clean electricity.

What many groups offer their followers instead is the consolation of a personal sense of righteousness that comes from living one’s life a bit more frugally. That feeling of righteousness, coincidentally, is largely reserved for wealthier people who can afford to exercise some control over their housing and transportation expenditures. Many poorer people–who cannot afford to trade in their 1990 gas guzzlers for shiny new Toyota Priuses–are deprived of the chance to enjoy the same sense of righteousness, illusory though it may be.

Given the lock on Congress and the White House by the carbon lobby, there is no way the US government will pursue a rapid global energy transition without a massive uprising of popular will. Environmentalists should therefore be forging alliances with other activists who focus on international development, campaign finance reform, corporate accountability, public health, labor, environmental justice and human rights–not to mention with communities of faith–to mobilize a broad, inclusive constituency around the issue.

The tragedy underlying the failure of the environmental community lies in the fact that so many talented, dedicated and underpaid people are putting their lives on the line in ways that will make little difference to the climate crisis. They are outspoken in their despair about what is happening to the planet. They are candid about their acceptance of a self-defeating political realism that requires relentless accommodation. What is missing is an expression of the rage they all feel.

The United States did not withdraw from Vietnam because a few individuals moved to Canada or Sweden to avoid military service or because the leaders of the antiwar movement negotiated a reduction of the bombing runs over Vietnam. The United States left Vietnam because a sustained uprising of popular will forced one President of the United States to drop his plans for re-election and pressured his successor to scramble until he had achieved something he could call “peace with honor.”

These comparisons to the climate movement may be seen as too harsh until one considers the most fundamental fact about the climate crisis: Activists compromise. Nature does not.

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