What a difference an emergency makes. Scare people enough and $700 billion can materialize almost overnight. The White House can repudiate its core economic philosophy–government should leave markets alone–within hours. Congress, where spending bills sometimes wait years to reach the floor, can pass one of the costliest laws in its history within days. Even the endlessly fickle media can provide 24/7 news coverage, making the emergency the topic on everyone’s mind.
When will we see this same sense of urgency devoted to the greatest emergency of our time? You wouldn’t know it from our politicians or TV shows, but the climate crisis is even more serious than the financial crisis. The financial crisis, while painful and severe, can be resolved, given time and wise policies. The climate crisis, not so. The earth’s climate system has tipping points beyond which no return is possible. Yet there is a very real danger right now that sliding oil prices will lull the public into an even deeper complacency.
The system passed the first major tipping point twenty years ago, when, according to 1988 Congressional testimony from James Hansen, the chief climate scientist at NASA, man-made global warming began. A second tipping point was passed a few years ago, when global warming began triggering climate change: abnormal droughts, storms and other extreme weather. The problem is, once climate change begins, it cannot simply be turned off. The inertia of the climate system ensures that even if every country in the world went green as quickly as possible, the earth would still be locked into fifty more years of rising temperatures and the impacts they unleash. Thus, by 2050 European summer temperatures will routinely reach the record highs experienced in 2003, when an estimated 70,000 people died. The snowpacks atop many of the world’s mountains–a source of drinking and irrigation water for more than a billion people–will have melted and shrunk. Sea levels will be rising significantly.
We are now in danger of passing a third tipping point–the descent into cataclysmic, irreversible climate change. Hansen returned to Capitol Hill in June, on the twentieth anniversary of his 1988 testimony, to warn that the earth is on the verge of “disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control,” causing “mass extinction, ecosystem collapse and dramatic sea level rises.” To avert this catastrophe, Hansen continued, “is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year”–that is, by the end of 2009, when the world’s governments will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate new reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Every candidate running for election, and every journalist covering them, should be required to spend the twenty minutes it takes to read Hansen’s latest testimony, because they obviously still don’t get it. We face a code-red emergency. At stake is the survival of human civilization. Yet the candidates and media treat global warming as just another issue. Even Barack Obama, who takes the problem seriously, seems not to grasp the urgency of the moment. (The same is true in Europe, where governments have invoked the economic downturn as grounds for delaying emissions cuts.)