Environment  
comments_image Comments

Changing the Climate

Why a new approach to global warming would make for a better politics -- and planet.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

It's hard to remember how popular the environmental idea was at the end of the 1980s. The movement had survived the crude efforts of the Reagan administration to kill it off. (Remember James Watt? Remember Treasury Secretary Don Regan advising that the best defense against a thinning ozone layer was a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses?)

A barge loaded with American garbage circled the world as one country after another refused to let it land. The beaches of Long Island and New Jersey were awash in medical waste. Time magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1988 was actually a planet: our "Endangered Earth." A serious environmentalist would soon become vice president of the United States.

So what happened? Carbon dioxide happened. If you want to understand the death of environmentalism, you need to understand the gas on which it choked. Carbon dioxide (CO2) was fatefully different from all the pollution that had come before it. Unlike carbon monoxide -- the key ingredient in nasty brown smog, the pollutant that helped kill Londoners breathing coal fumes -- carbon dioxide, ironically, is essentially nontoxic.

But CO2 is the inevitable byproduct of fossil-fuel combustion. It's not something going wrong; it's what's supposed to happen when you burn coal or oil or gas. But its molecular composition traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space, thus causing the phenomenon we now know as global warming -- a phenomenon that will produce temperatures by century's end higher than at any time since before the beginning of primate evolution. And to solve it? There's really only one way, which is to reduce the amount of CO2 we produce. That is, burn less coal and oil and gas.

Which is why it's not like the environmental problems we faced in the past. We can't solve it with a new law or a catalytic converter on our tailpipe. We need to upend the entire way we go about powering our lives, which is to say upend our economies and daily habits. And for American politicians, channeling American voters, that has always seemed far too much to contemplate.

The definitive declaration came early on, from the first President Bush, as he prepared reluctantly to attend the huge 1992 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, when the worry about global warming was supposed to start yielding real results. Bush announced, "The American way of life is not up for negotiation."

And he was right. The Clinton administration talked a good game on climate change -- after all, Al Gore had written that confronting it should become the "central organizing principle" of human civilization today -- but Bill Clinton didn't spend much political capital doing anything about it. The big lobbying pushes were for things like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which in some ways were all about extending the "American way of life" to other parts of the world.

The Clintonites didn't take on Detroit and the auto unions over the spread of suvs, and they didn't take on Congress' opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas reductions. And when Clinton was done governing, America was emitting 15 percent more CO2 than when he'd begun. George W. Bush has been much worse rhetorically, but in practical terms we merely sail on as before.

The environmental movement, predictably, has been unable to do much about it. The movement had a pretty good run: It was strong enough to take on pesticide manufacturers and river-damming engineers with some success. But those matters were peripheral to the American way of life. This matter is central.

Scientists estimate that human beings worldwide would need to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent to 80 percent immediately in order to keep climate disruption from further worsening. Think about that, and perhaps you can understand why a political movement strong enough, barely, to protect blue whales and whooping cranes might be having a bit of trouble -- and why any attempt to deal with climate change will mean something that looks very different from environmentalism as we've known it so far. Something that's relevant to the scale of the problem.

Knowing is Only Half the Battle

Part of the solution, obviously, is technical. in principle, science could find ways to power our present lives with far less carbon dioxide. In the Clinton era, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles program spent billions not inventing the hybrid vehicles that Toyota and Honda managed to build and market.

Now President Bush speaks dreamily about a future of hydrogen cars. In late July, he announced a new pact with a few other nations for a non-Kyoto "technological approach" to fighting climate change. Global warming has even emerged as an excuse to continue underwriting the nuclear industry, while the coal industry gets big handouts to pursue "carbon capture" technology that would allow us to burn anthracite without emissions.

These efforts are marginally useful. I've been driving my hybrid Honda Civic for three years and averaging 55 miles per gallon, but absent tighter gas-mileage standards such hybrids are penetrating the market far too slowly. Similarly, hydrogen might be the fuel of the future (I recently visited the world's first commercial filling station for the stuff in Reykjavik, Iceland), but the technical challenges lead most observers to predict that maybe 5 percent of autos on American roads will run on hydrogen by 2030.

"Clean coal," meanwhile, may sound like an oxymoron, but since the dirty black stuff supplies most of the world's electricity, we'd better hope that engineers master the complexities of economically recapturing at least some of the CO2 a power plant produces. Nuclear power costs a mint. It's like burning $20 bills to generate power, and we'd almost certainly be better off using the money for nearly anything else.

What about solar energy or clean wind power? Well, I've got solar panels on my roof. When the sun shines, it's fantastic; my electric meter runs backward. But the sun doesn't always shine. Wind and sun are diffuse power, needing to be captured at many, many locations -- a thousand ridgelines, a million rooftops. They imply a different relationship to energy than the centralized, always-on, never-runs-out system we've come to imagine as natural.

In short, no energy source was ever as easy as fossil fuel. A lump of coal or a pool of oil is energy stored in compact, dense, easy-to-transport form, convenient to stockpile until you need it.

So only part of the change is going to be technological. We're also going to need to shift expectations. The American way of life is going to have to be up for negotiation. The average new American home has doubled in size since 1970. At that rate, every gain we make in new power supplies will be wiped out by the need to heat and cool ever-larger houses. Because the number of cars and the number of miles they are driven keeps increasing, we used more gas this summer than last even though the price was 30 percent higher. At this rate, all the new hybrids on earth won't get us close to that 70 percent to 80 percent cut in fuel use. Those trends have to be broken, and reversed.

To date, the reaction in Washington has been paralysis. It's as if the implications are too big to consider, so people seek refuge in the denial that global warning is real, or in scapegoating. Many Democrats explain their reluctance to support the very modest Kyoto accords on the laughable grounds that they "let China off the hook" -- but the average Chinese uses one-sixth the fossil fuel of the average American.

In the other capitals of the developed world, global warming is likewise a question beyond debate, but in the opposite way. Last year, the Tory leader rose in the British Parliament to needle Tony Blair about his slow progress on reducing carbon emissions. Why was Labour not paying more attention to tidal power? Try to imagine Tom DeLay making that case.

Instead, our Congress almost never engages what you could argue is the biggest issue facing humankind. The first attempt to force any kind of real vote came only in 2003, when John McCain, who was turned on to the issue during the 2000 New Hampshire primaries, joined Joe Lieberman to introduce a Kyoto-lite bill that at least would have set the United States on record as recognizing that a threat exists. The reaction was as expected, with sages like Oklahoma's James Inhofe rising to describe global warming as a "hoax." (He later urged Americans to read Michael Crichton's ludicrous potboiler State of Fear , which argued that climate change is a fund-raising scheme cooked up by greedy greens). Sadly, this know-nothingism was hardly met with great force from the other side of the aisle; part of Democratic timidity involves Michigan and West Virginia electoral politics, but a lot more comes from the fear that anyone advocating real action will be accused of wanting to reduce living standards and forcing Americans to drive teeny-tiny clown cars.

Change is Possible, and it's Happening

It's not intuitively clear, however, that the issue is a complete loser. Polls show that despite the best efforts of the Cato Institute and The Heritage Foundation, most Americans know that the climate is warming, that it's a serious problem, and that we're responsible. However, McCain's bill would need 66 votes to survive an inevitable veto from the president, who said in June that he had no intention of putting America on an "energy diet."

Meanwhile, more and more activists for whom the issue has become a passionate cause are looking beyond Washington and taking the argument to statehouses and city halls. California, with the support of both Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, has enacted controls on automobile emissions of CO2, a backdoor effort to increase auto mileage, which is now under inevitable assault from Bush administration lawyers.

New York, with the backing of both George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer, has made far-reaching commitments to renewable energy. Portland, Oregon, has shown that it's entirely possible to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and still thrive. In fact, there's a kind of blue-state/Northeast/Midwest/West Coast crescent emerging -- large swaths of America moving toward a European level of anxiety and action.

This kind of diffused movement might eventually pay off quickly if and when some chain of events -- four more hurricanes? -- finally moves people to alarm. This summer's heat wave literally baked people to death in the 117-degree heat of Arizona. Sooner or later something will hit home. And when it does, campaigners will find more allies than they perhaps expect, including some in the corporate world.

It's true that ExxonMobil and the coal companies have intimidated Washington on the global-warming issue. But a scattering of multinationals are beginning to contemplate a world where half their divisions (the ones overseas) understand that they have to treat carbon as an expensive evil to be eliminated whenever possible, while the other half (in America) see it as a free good to spew into the atmosphere.

A number of corporations have now signed on to the very mild principles promulgated by the Pew Center on Climate Change. And investor-focused groups like the Boston-based Ceres have had some success in convincing corporate boards that exposure to global warming represents a fiduciary risk. In addition, anyone doing business overseas has to deal with the public-relations consequences of America's stand. Long before Iraq, what soured Europeans on George W. Bush was his instant repudiation of Kyoto. Because we account for 4 percent of the world's population and produce 25 percent of the planet's carbon, this was somehow viewed as irresponsible.

That level of activism is nowhere near enough to make a difference. But its European flavor is telling. Americans invented environmentalism, and our scientists dominate the research about global warming, though we're now the caboose on the train. Europe and Japan have been able to begin grappling with climate change because they retain a different conception of public life.

They don't need houses as large as ours because their cities are in some sense an extension of people's living rooms. They can cope with public transportation because they haven't spread as far into distant and disconnected suburbs. In this light, it makes sense that Portland and New York and San Francisco have emerged as the centers of American activism. Those cities still have some public life. But suburban Atlanta?

In case you're wondering if such airy speculation makes a concrete difference, consider that western Europeans use, on average, 50 percent less fossil fuel than Americans. Not because their lives are poorer, and not because they have some magical technology; because they think a little differently about life.

The useful thing about global warming is that its causes are so large and deeply rooted that it almost forces us to begin thinking on a similar scale. It's not "environmentalism" that will solve this issue; it has its hands full trying to keep the administration from clear-cutting the national forests and ransacking the Arctic in search of yet more carbon.

No, the political force that finally manages to take this issue on is the political force that also understands and helps to nurture the deep-rooted and unsatisfied American desire for real community, for real connection between people. The force that dares to actually say out loud that "more" is no longer making us happier, that the need for security and for connection is now more important.

Such a challenge might conceivably come from unexpected quarters. Christians, including evangelical conservatives, have begun to speak about global warming as a real issue for anyone concerned about the integrity of creation. The anti-SUV " What Would Jesus Drive?" movement actually scared Detroit, something the green groups have never managed.

Now the National Association of Evangelicals has said that it will lobby Congress about global warming. The hope that it, or anyone else, will go deeper and use climate change as one wedge for a broader, left-right cultural critique of our consumer culture is for the moment just a tantalizing possibility. But given the numbers -- that 70 percent to 80 percent reduction -- it's the kind of movement we need.

There's no guarantee such a force will ever emerge; you can make a decent argument that our hyper-individualism is terminal, and that the chaos that will start to break out as the world's climate comes unhinged will only make it worse. But you could also make a decent argument that this issue is one of the doors into a new and more interesting politics.

A politics that is about living the good life instead of acquiring more things. A politics that is about guaranteeing one another medical care and retirement security and a planet to inhabit. Those tasks all seem beyond the every-man-for-himself ethos of post-Reagan America; they rely on some emergent solidarity. Exactly how it will emerge and who will embody it are not yet clear, but physics and chemistry seem to require it.

Bill McKibben has written widely on the environment, climate change, and overpopulation. His seminal The End of Nature was first published in 1989. Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.