The Warm Flat Earth Society
Reading or watching the news these days can be frustrating. But there's really only one line of reasoning that brings forth in me the urge to slap somebody.
Like, for instance, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell announced to the world last week: "If global warming turns out to be a problem, which I doubt, it won't be solved by making ourselves poorer through energy rationing."
Ebell, and other East Coast pseudo-academic commentators whose fondness for America's fossil fuel consumption is related directly to their paychecks, were then promptly buried under a foot of snow over the weekend. It can't be easy, insisting that the world is flat while having to shovel evidence to the contrary.
As scientists and negotiators from around the world begin their second week in a Milan, Italy U.N. conference on global climate change, one thing is eminently clear: the world is not flat. Major global climate change, triggered by rapidly increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, is an established fact. Human activity as the major cause of it is an established fact. Nobody outside corridors of power in Washington, D.C. and Houston has debated any of this for years. As the body of scientific evidence grows, the scope and speed of climatic changes are, if anything, proving far worse than the most alarmist scientific predictions of only a decade ago, affecting not just temperature -- nine of the ten warmest years in recorded human history have come in the last 14 years -- but extremes in atmospheric pressure, a resulting increase in wind speeds, drought, sea level increases, extreme cold, and extremes in precipitation -- like last weekend's unusually heavy and early East Coast snowfall.
As science has scrambled to track all these changes, and to track the havoc that changing climates are already beginning to wreak on what turns out to be an exquisitely balanced natural world, the phrase "global warming" turns out to be a misnomer -- a euphemism, even, for a cluster of trends so catastrophic that without dramatic human counteraction will, in a matter of decades, threaten food and water supplies and much of the natural and technological infrastructure that we humans have developed to support ourselves. Warming is a symptom -- an important one, as the increased CO2 levels trap more solar radiation in our lower atmosphere -- but only one of many impacts. By using a term that defines the problem as solely one of temperature, we get two levels of denial -- oil company Flat Earthers sneering at "junk science" (didn't Copernicus hear that, too?), or comments like those of Russian President-for-Life Vladimir Putin, who joked earlier this year that for his country, warming "might even be good. We'd spend less money on fur coats and other warm things."
Putin is a central figure this week in Milan. He is expected to announce -- after an electoral victory Sunday that gives him firmer control over Russia's Parliament -- whether Russia will ratify the 1997 Kyoto accord. But Russia only has this much leverage because the obstinacy of the United States leaves Russia's ratification necessary for the treaty to take force -- and Russia's decision is a question only because, after five years of publicly backing Kyoto, Putin's government has backtracked in the past year due to fierce anti-Kyoto pressure from the Bush Administration.
Bush policy on climate change has been nothing less than a crime against humanity -- and, for that matter, a crime against many of our biosphere's other inhabitants too. But it's not just Bush that's been the problem; it's all of us humans, especially all of us in consumption-happy America. As Bill McKibben -- one of the earliest authors to spotlight climate change as an urgent issue with 1989's The End of Nature -- noted recently, global warming is being thought of by leaders and ordinary people alike "in the way they think about 'violence on television' or 'growing trade deficits,' as a marginal concern to us, if a concern at all."
Bush's calculated efforts to torpedo Kyoto, and the ongoing campaigns by oil and energy companies and by Bush Administation officials to cast doubt on the scientific legitimacy of the issue, are reprehensible, but hardly unique. Kyoto's provisions are far short of the steps actually needed to combat the problem -- but it was American negotiators, headed by then-VP Al Gore, who worked to water down the originally proposed treaty. Afterwards, as 120 countries moved to ratify Kyoto, it was Bill Clinton who refused to submit it to the Senate. Enter Bush next. All the while, the clock has been ticking, the seasons turning, the temperatures rising.
Kyoto's provisions expire in 2011 -- meaning that as we approach 2004 we're at the halfway point before Kyoto expires, and it has not even taken force yet, thanks in large part to Washington. At this point, negotiators in Milan shouldn't be worrying too much about the details of Kyoto. Even if Russia ratifies it, negotiators should be more concerned about hammering out a framework for what comes after Kyoto.
By then, China will be a major industrial power. The landscape of carbon dioxide-spewing humanity has shifted significantly since the 1990 levels that provide Kyoto's benchmarks. Russia's post-Soviet industrial economy collapsed, meaning that its emissions in 2000 were down 22.8% from 1990; Germany, with its East German component and with unilateral EU measures, similarly declined by 13.6%. They will rebound. The EU as a whole increased its emissions in the decade by only 1.5% -- a vast improvement over the past, but still nowhere near the modest targets set by Kyoto.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions here in the U.S., already the world's leading spewer, went up a whopping 18.1% in the same decade -- a decade in which a Democratic president and bipartisan Congress backpedaled on previously set fuel efficiency standards, looked the other way while American automakers foisted gas-guzzling SUVs on the public, scrupulously avoided encouraging energy conservation, and gutted budgets for research into renewable energy sources. This decade's Republican-controlled Beltway has continued all this and launched an unprovoked, unilateral invasion of the country with the world's second-largest known reserves of oil.
Both of our major political parties' approaches to global warming seem to take their cue from Dubya's War on Terror declaration -- namely, bully other governments, and urge ordinary Americans to go about our "normal" lives as though nothing was different. I can just hear some pompous legislator on the floor of Congress: "Mr. Speaker, if Americans seek out cars with better gas mileage, it sends the wrong message! It lets other molecules know that THE CARBON DIOXIDE IS WINNING."
But we will have to live differently, because the world is different. It is already the case that there is no going back to our climatic world of 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. Next year, there will be no going back to the world we are in today. The question now is how to slow the planet's human-caused changes, and how to manage or deflect the impact of the more catastrophic ones. These are issues that transcend borders, domestic economies, and the flat-earth stubbornness of one or another elected official.
This week, the headlines will be about Kyoto. Forget Kyoto; by 2011, it will be history. What is needed, with or without Kyoto, is some sort of momentum, from scientists, governments, and the global public, that demands both changes in individual lifestyles -- especially as they relate to fossil fuel consumption -- and changes in public policy at a global level.
We must look farther ahead, beyond the scope of Kyoto. And we must not look very far at all, because a major part of the problem is in our own front yard.