Morris: Global Warming

The scientific jury is in. Human activities are affecting the weather. In past years many scientists maintained that we didn't yet know enough, that the science was still immature, that the computer models were unreliable. Not this year. Scientists were cheered by the remarkably accurate predictions they made back in 1991 about the short term global cooling effect that would result from the eruption at Mount Pinatubo. Droughts in Germany, snow in Italy, devastating hurricanes in North America and the proliferation of disease carrying insects in places where they could not previously survive, have all added to the sense that global warming is not just a long term future problem but a here and now reality. Three months ago more than 1,000 scientists, constituting the vast majority of those knowledgeable about the science of climate change, said they were no longer uncertain. Since 1980 the planet has experienced the 10 warmest years in recorded history. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's flatly announced that the earth has entered a period of climatic instability likely to cause "widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation". On December 15th 200 scientists from over 100 nations ratified that 2,000 page report. Scientists now predict that continued emissions of greenhouse gases could create crop-destroying droughts, hurricanes of unprecedented force and rising sea levels. The impact will be felt in different ways by everyone on the plant. An additional 400 people will die each summer in New York City because of the increased heat. The low lying Maldives in the south Pacific could cease to exist because of rising sea levels. Since 1987 national governments have been trying to devise strategies to reduce global warming. They've achieved little. Why? Because the primary cause of global warming is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. And humanity has become addicted to burning fossil fuels. Most nations are taking the position that they can will something only if all nations agree to do something. The outstanding exception is the Netherlands, a low lying advanced industrial nation with a most intimate relationship with the sea. Modest but interesting climate change initiatives by the Clinton Administration have been blocked or undermined by those in the new Republican Party who think global warming is a communist plot. The attitude of Dana Rohrbacher(R-CA), head of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment is typical of this new breed. Global warming, he insists, is "liberal claptrap, trendy, but soon to go out of style in our Newt Congress". The Newt Congress has savaged spending for climate change programs. The House has even passed a law that prohibits us from demanding that our manufacturers improve the efficiency of their appliances. We can't count on the federal government to lead us. Which means we'll have to do it ourselves. Perhaps that's the way it ought to be. Hundreds of communities around the world are linking up into formal mutual aid networks. Their goal is to solve the problem from the bottom up through a planetary citizens movement. Happily, those devising strategies on the local level are discovering that we can indeed save ourselves from our past mistakes. But they are also discovering that we will have to pay a price to do so. To stop global warming industrialized countries may have to reduce emission of greenhouse gases by half. Half of that reduction could come from upgrading the efficiency of our equipment and buildings, through added insulation and storm windows, better motors and lights and the like. The other half could come from substituting less environmentally harmful fossil fuels like natural gas for coal and by substituting renewable fuels for fossil fuels. In the short term, we will have to pay a price for curbing our fossil fuel appetite. But even in the short term this higher price will be generate substantial benefits to local economies. Much of the investment will be spent locally, where it will create jobs and nurture businesses. Much of the money we now spend for fossil fuels leaves the local economy. Communities that undertake a massive improvement effort will create a large internal market for new technologies. As Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School points out, local firms that acquire this expertise will find a ready export market for their expertise in a resource short world. Thus an aggressive effort to stabilize our climate also becomes an aggressive economic development effort. Which makes sense, since new wealth is created only when we learn to extract more useful work from a given resource. And that is precisely the goal of this environmental effort. That still leaves the question, what will this cost? But it also begs another equally important question. What price are we willing to pay? One percent, ten percent, twenty percent? We don't know because no one has asked us that question. Why not? Maybe because those of us who live in the north think of global warming as a boon. We translate global warming into higher temperatures, not worse storms or less rain in the summer. Or maybe it is because our power plants are largely fired by coal and the coal industry has been conducting a very aggressive publicity campaign to persuade us to wait before doing anything. Whatever the reasons in the past, today we must take into account the new certainty of the scientific community. The bottom line is this. Human beings are messing up the atmosphere and the consequences, even for us Minnesotans, can be severe. Which leaves it up to the policymakers, which in a democracy, ultimately leaves it up to us. What are we willing to do?

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