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Why Copenhagen May Be a Disaster

Treating climate change as just another political problem may mean the end of civilization.
 
 
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Most political arguments don’t really have a right and a wrong, no matter how passionately they’re argued. They’re about human preferences -- for more health care or lower taxes, for a war to secure some particular end or a peace that leaves some danger intact.  On occasion, there are clear-cut moral issues: the rights of minorities or women to a full share in public life, say; but usually even those of us most passionate about human affairs recognize that we’re on one side of a debate, that there are legitimate arguments to the contrary (endless deficits, coat-hanger abortions, a resurgent al-Qaeda). We need people taking strong positions to move issues forward, which is why I’m always ready to carry a placard or sign a petition, but most of us also realize that, sooner or later, we have to come to some sort of compromise.

That’s why standard political operating procedure is to move slowly, taking matters in small bites instead of big gulps. That’s why, from the very beginning, we seemed unlikely to take what I thought was the correct course for our health-care system:  a single-payer model like the rest of the world. It was too much change for the country to digest.  That’s undoubtedly part of the reason why almost nobody who ran for president supported it, and those who did went nowhere.

Instead, we’re fighting hard over a much less exalted set of reforms that represent a substantial shift, but not a tectonic one. You could -- and I do -- despise the insurance industry and Big Pharma for blocking progress, but they’re part of the game. Doubtless we should change the rules, so they represent a far less dominant part of it. But if that happens, it, too, will undoubtedly occur piece by piece, not all at once.

Moving by increments:  it frustrates the hell out of many of us, and sometimes it’s truly disastrous. (I just watched Bill Moyers’  amazing recent broadcast of the LBJ tapes in the run-up to the full-scale escalation of the Vietnam War, where the president and his advisors just kept moving the numbers up a twitch at a time until we were neck deep in the Big Muddy.)  Usually, however, incrementalism, whatever you think of it, lends a kind of stability to the conduct of our affairs -- often it has a way of setting the stage for the next move. 

We may have to wait years for the next round of health-care reform and, in the meantime, doubtless many people will suffer, but here’s the one thing we know:  what we don’t do now doesn’t foreclose future progress. In fact, it may make it more likely -- if, after all, people grow comfortable with the idea of a “public option,” then the next time around the insurance industry won’t be able to make actual, honest-to-God public medicine seem so scary.

Climate Change as Just Another Political Problem

When it comes to global warming, however, this is precisely why we’re headed off a cliff, why the Copenhagen talks that open this week, almost no matter what happens, will be a disaster. Because climate change is not like any other issue we’ve ever dealt with. Because the adversary here is not Republicans, or socialists, or deficits, or taxes, or misogyny, or racism, or any of the problems we normally face -- adversaries that can change over time, or be worn down, or disproved, or cast off. The adversary here is physics.

Physics has set an immutable bottom line on life as we know it on this planet. For two years now, we’ve been aware of just what that bottom line is: the NASA team headed by James Hansen  gave it to us first. Any value for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible "with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”  That bottom line won’t change: above 350 and, sooner or later, the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, hydrological cycles are thrown off kilter, and so on.

 
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