Dispatch from Denver: Making Climate Change the Issue
Author and environmental leader David Orr is upset about the corruption of language in the United States. He doesn't like how some groups have co-opted phrases like "pro-life" and "conservative" to promote their own political agendas, which often have little to do with saving lives or acting conservatively. But the greatest travesty, he says, is the way Americans throw around the term "global warming."
"This isn't 'global warming,'" he exclaims with an air of severity and deep concern. "This is planetary destabilization. And it's already begun. The question is: How do we arrest this before it gets to the point of catastrophe?"
Orr joined a panel of top climate scientists and activists this morning at The Big Tent, a new media and activist hub just steps away from the action inside the Democratic National Convention here in Denver this week.
Drawing from material in his latest book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown explained the scope of the impending planetary destabilization as well as what needs to be done to avert catastrophe and what is scientifically achievable now and in the near future.
There is mounting concern about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Brown said, explaining that scientists recently witnessed a glacier there flowing at 2 meters an hour -- not the typical 2-3 meters per year they're used to seeing. If that sheet collapses into the ocean, the Earth will experience a 23-foot rise in sea level, Brown said, noting that massive relocations of populations would result -- all across the planet.
Scientists are also increasingly concerned about the melting of glaciers in Asia's Himalaya range. Those glaciers feed the major rivers of Asia, and as their seasonal flows are diminishing, so are the hopes of farmers and villagers downstream, who rely on those rivers to raise crops and sustain human life across the continent of 4 billion people.
And last Sep. 16, scientists recorded the annual minimum amount of ice in the Arctic region at a level 22-percent lower than it ever was before, explained Chuck Kutscher, a climate scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. Those numbers, according to Kutscher, are "off the charts."
"The Earth could be free of Arctic summer ice within our lifetime," Kutscher added. "This has not happened as far as we know in 130,000 years -- as long as human beings have existed on the planet.
"If you had a gauge in your car reading in the red zone, how long would you feel comfortable driving down the highway like that? That's where we are now."
Added Orr: "This issue is threatening our life, liberty, and property."
What Needs to Be Done
Many politicians are talking about cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. They say this is what is politically feasible. Brown and many other top scientists have looked at the problem in a different light, asking not what is "feasible," but rather what is necessary to avert global catastrophes. Working from that, he says, we can shift the bar on what is politically "feasible."
A brief example illustrates Brown's point. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out massive arms-production goals and asked the automobile industry to lead the effort. Most industrial leaders thought the targets were unreachable, but Roosevelt shifted the bar on what was feasible by taking bold action, explained Brown. "He said, you don't understand, we're going to ban the sale of new automobiles in this country," which freed up the industry to fully join the war effort.
Instantly, a previously inconceivable goal became "feasible," and all the arms productions goals were exceeded within a matter of months, said Brown, who has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers."
So what do scientists say is necessary to avert planetary destabilization today? According to Brown, the scientific research now shows that an 80-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is needed not by 2050, but by 2020. And Brown and his colleagues say it can be done.
What Can Change Right Now
"If we were to move to the most efficient lighting technologies available today, we could reduce electricity demand by 12 percent," Brown says, noting that a worldwide effort to "ban the bulb" would allow the immediate closure of 270 coal-fired power plants.
There is a growing grassroots movement opposing the construction of any new coal-fired power plants in the United States, Brown said, adding that we may be at a "tipping point" on coal-fired energy.
Kutscher says energy efficiency alone can reduce U.S. energy use by 57 percent.
And beyond efficiency, carbon emissions can be drastically reduced by generating vastly more energy from cleaner sources like the wind, sun, and Earth's heat.
"In the new energy economy, we see 40 percent of the world's electricity coming from wind," Brown added. "That would require building roughly a million and a half wind turbines over the next dozen years. Now a million and a half may sound like a lot, but we make 65 million cars a year."
Hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created in the process.
And what about cars: The United States consumes more gasoline than the next 20 countries combined, Brown said. But he believes U.S. driving habits don't have to change to stabilize the climate.
"The answer is plug-in hybrids," he explained, referring to automobiles that use gas-electric hybrid engines and can be plugged in when not in use to allow them to travel considerable distances without using any gasoline at all. Five companies are close to bringing these cars to market, Brown said, noting that Toyota may be selling a version next year and GM could have a plug-in hybrid on the market in 2010.
Algeria, which is currently planning to develop 6,000 megawatts of solar-energy generating capacity to export to Europe, has enough solar energy in its vast deserts "to power the world economy," Brown said. "I mention that just to give a sense of how much renewable energy there is out there. Three states in the U.S. -- Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas -- have enough energy capacity to power the whole country."
And Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world, is planning to produce enough geothermal energy, which is derived by harnessing the heat generated within the Earth's crust, to satisfy one quarter of its energy needs.
Randy Hayes, climate policy officer at the World Future Council, cited the German "feed-in tariff law" as a model for how short-term government incentives can help launch a renewable-energy-based economy. The German law rewards people for feeding energy into the system, Hayes explained, saying we must transform "from being a nation of energy consumers to being a nation of energy producers."
"Wouldn't it be nice if you put solar panels on your house, you got a check in the mail? Farmers in Germany now have a new revenue stream," Hayes said, noting that "cloudy Germany" -- with solar-energy capabilities roughly equivalent to those of just the U.S. state of Alaska -- has become the world's leader in solar energy generation.
So What's Holding Us Back?
"We have the solutions. We just need to come up with the political will to get those technologies out there even faster," said Kutscher of the National Renewable Energy Laboratories. All the scientists and activists on today's panel agreed that politicians will only institute the necessary economic incentives and punishments to jumpstart a renewable-energy-based economy when ordinary Americans rise up and demand it en masse.
Hayes founded the activist Rainforest Action Network in 1985, and he's ready to take to the streets to get political leaders to take comprehensive action to avert planetary destabilization.
"We believe in using nonviolent civil disobedience at times when it's necessary to incite change. It takes me to jail sometimes," he said, adding: "As I look around the room, I see some of the people I've been to jail with here today."
"We can't have incrementalism now," Hayes concluded. "We can't have half measures. We don't have time to lose. We have to hit the ground running."
Betsy Taylor's group, 1Sky, is mobilizing Americans to contact their elected representatives in every Congressional district of the country.
"Now is the time to speak the truth and bring new people into the political process. We'll only do this from the bottom up -- if people way beyond Denver are getting on the phone and calling their member of Congress and saying 'I want to talk about this.'"
Taylor appeared to grow emotional when she spoke about the future of her grandchildren, and wondered if Americans would provide the groundswell of activism required, in time.
"Are we going to have the biggest political failure in the history of the world?"
"Are we going to create a human wave that knocks down the doors of Congress and knocks down the doors of the White House? Or are we going to do just a little bit?"