As We Face Environmental Trauma and Do-Nothing Politicians, Our Last Hope Is Fighting Back
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And here was The New York Times, which had spent years piously explaining that there were two sides to the question of warming. In mid-August 2010, above the fold on a Sunday paper, the Times ran three huge photos of flood, melt, and fire, and beneath them a story that declared: “These far-flung disasters are reviving the question of whether global warming is causing more weather extremes. The collective answer of the scientific community can be boiled down to a single word: probably.” Okay, probably is still a weasel word—but for the Times, a breakthrough. “The warming has moved in fits and starts, and the cumulative increase may sound modest,” the paper reported. “But it is an average over the entire planet, representing an immense amount of added heat, and is only the beginning of a trend that most experts believe will worsen substantially.”
There is no satisfaction at all in saying I told you so. I’ve been saying it for two decades, ever since the publication of The End of Nature, and it’s never been sweet in the slightest. I’d give a lot to have been wrong instead.
But if there’s one development that chafes above all others, it’s political: the decision by the U.S. Congress in the summer of 2010 to punt, spectacularly, on doing anything about climate change. During the Bush years, of course, inaction had been a given. But with the advent of Democratic majorities in Congress and then the election of Barack Obama, some hope emerged that Washington might decide to act. That action would never have been dramatic or decisive; in June 2009 the House passed a weak bill that would scarcely have cut emissions in the next few crucial years. But at least it was something, a token effort that might have boosted the world’s morale enough to help put international climate negotiations back on track, even after the debacle at Copenhagen six months later. When the legislation reached the Senate, however, it stalled for more than a year. Big coal and big oil didn’t care for it, and so their squads of lobbyists went to work. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was leading the charge on the legislation, didn’t so much charge as retreat, again and again and again. Here’s how he put it on the eve of the final battle: “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.” With leadership like that, what could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, the White House did nothing that might have added to the pressure for change. Instead of using the horrible BP spill as a reason to act, President Obama failed to draw the obvious connection: that fossil fuel is dirty stuff, whether it spills into the Gulf from a broken well or spills into the atmosphere from the tailpipes of our cars. With no help from the administration, the outcome was such a given that the Senate decided not even to vote—the members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” simply walked away. The best guess of various observers was that, after the GOP sweep in the midterm elections, we may have to wait until 2013 to see another legislative opening.
As readers of Eaarth know, I think it’s unlikely that bills of the scale proposed in Washington, or agreements of the magnitude considered in Copenhagen, will make any substantive difference in the outcome. Our leaders have failed to come to terms with the actual size of the problem: that unless we commit ourselves to a furious push to get back to 350 parts per million, the damage will be overwhelming. (The scariest thing about the scary summer of 2010 was that it happened with only one degree of warming, globally averaged; we face five or six degrees this century if we don’t take crisis action to get off fossil fuel.) Hence, in some sense, the failure of these various legislative efforts is disgusting but not decisive.