We are fundamentally altering our climate and we are the first generation to know this. We may also be the last generation to have any chance of doing something about it. While our forebears had the excuse of ignorance, our descendants will have the excuse of helplessness. However, we have no excuse, argues Bill Antholis in a speech summarising the arguments made by him and Strobe Talbott in their book “Fast Forward.”
If nine out of ten doctors said that we were running a fever and that we were passing it on to our kids, we surely would ask at least two questions: Can we treat it? How long do we have? The basic answer: We have about a decade to act before global warming reaches an irreversible and truly dangerous stage. There is a precedent, of sorts, for this ethical imperative. My dad’s generation was the first to be able to destroy the entire planet. Not doing so has simply required us to not push the nuclear button. Still, that has not been a cost-free enterprise. The Cold War demanded dangerous diplomacy and vibrant domestic debate about how to structure our economy and even our political life.
From the interstate system to international trade to the Internet, we take for granted Cold War-era investments and innovations. There was also a political cost: the nation’s social fabric was occasionally stretched and torn by McCarthyism and overseas proxy wars.
We persevered, ultimately, because the U.S. population united around some core ideas, including that global destruction was too grave to bear. Previous conservatives have built ethical systems around these values. Edmund Burke saw society and civilisation as a “partnership of generations, between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” He saw members of any one generation as “temporary possessors and life-renters in” society and in the earth. He feared that citizens might become “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity,” and therefore run the risk of “leav[ing] to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation.”
Thomas Jefferson a favorite of both Tea Partiers and progressives made much the same point. Though he famously argued that “the earth belongs in usufruct [in effect, in trust] to the living,” he went on to argue that “no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.” Conservation is fundamentally a conservative value. I’m particularly cheered by the growing dialogue across religious faith traditions from Orthodox and Catholic leaders, to Episcopalians and Evangelicals, to Jews and Muslims and Buddhists that all embrace “creation care” as a common rallying cry and about turning the world back to our children.
Former House Speaker Richard Gephardt once described the effort of changing how the planet generates and consumes energy as “the single most difficult political transaction in the history of mankind.” Here is why. Energy accounts for one-sixth of the U.S. economy, roughly the same as health care. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said, “If we can pass health care, we can pass anything.” But U.S. action alone is not enough.
Taking the politics of health care, one has to multiply those politics by the world’s 192 nations. Do that all at the same time. That is what did not happen at the world climate talks in Copenhagen. The meeting turned from Hopenhagen to Nopenhagen.
U.S. leadership is not sufficient, but it is necessary. The United States alone is responsible for one-fifth of annual emissions about six billion tons a year, just behind China. We must eventually cut our emissions by well more than half.
The United States has been by far the world’s largest historic contributor of CO2. Developing countries such as China and India are far behind us in how much they have emitted historically, and only have a fraction of what we emit per capita. They won’t act unless and until we do. By mid-century, the United States probably needs to cut our emissions to about one billion tons a year if the planet has any chance of getting global emissions down to 15 billion. In that context, how are we doing? Many states and cities have made clean energy central to their strategic planning. Forty U.S. states have adopted climate change action plans. Cities from Seattle to Boston to Las Vegas are seeking to lower their carbon footprints by promoting energy efficiency, light rail and “smart metering.”
Internationally, progress is being made as well. As I noted above, at Copenhagen the G-192 proved that the UN is not an effective place to negotiate. A small group of countries refused to block the unanimous consent required in the UN to embrace a new global deal. But Copenhagenstill marked real progress. For the first time, the heads of state of the most important nations of the world sat down and hammered out an agreement.
China, India and Brazil one third of humanity listed a set of emissions cuts that they were prepared to take, right alongside the United States, EU and Japan. And that general political agreement now has 100 national pledges. While it is short of a legally binding treaty, it is the outline of how the world is going to tackle this problem.
So the ethical challenge is unique. The political challenge is daunting. One thing that both have in common is that no outcomes are certain. That applies to science, as well as to economics and politics.To tackle climate change, we need to let the science speak for itself. That includes being honest about what we do not know.
We know that the planet is warming, but we don’t know exactly how fast or how much. We know that humans are causing some or much of this, but we don’t know exactly what that contribution is or will be. We know that places from Southern Nevada to sub-Saharan Africa will likely feel the impacts, but we don’t know the magnitude.
Our society has long been divided between “know-it-alls” and “know-nothings.” But we are not a binary nation. In the middle of those two groups sit most Americans. They are dismissive of “know-nothings,” but they don’t necessarily trust “know-it-alls.” The following quote, from a leading foreign policy thinker, Walter Russell Mead, captures a reality about how these Americans view climate change: “…the U.S.environmental movement has gotten itself on the wrong side of doubt. It has become the voice of the establishment, of the tenured, of the technocrats. It proposes big economic and social interventions and denies that unintended consequences and new information could vitiate the power of its recommendations. It knows what is good for us, and its knowledge is backed up by the awesome power and majesty of the peer-review process.”
Mead has seen this in other foreign policy challenges, and it worries him. Lesson to all of us: It is important to embrace and not silence those who question the science of climate change. Skeptics are what move the scientific process forward.
But it is also important to acknowledge not only those who are skeptical that the planet is warming or that humans are causing it, but also those who find the current projections to be way too cautious.
This scientific uncertainty may actually be the most important reason that countries such as China and India have come to the table. There is a growing awareness that negative impacts of climate change could be worse than are being projected or could be taking place right now. It is uncertainty about exactly how dramatic those changes will be that suddenly have China and India worried. We often talk of greenhouse gases, but for me, the greater uncertainties have to do with greenhouse liquids and solids. Water is as critical and as difficult to understand as any part of the climate equation. Recent floods in Pakistan remind us that climate change leads to intense storms and droughts, as well as to the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers.
We can never know with certainty when the next hurricane or drought will hit. China and India both live in the shadow of the same HimalayanMountains as Pakistan.
We also are only beginning to understand how water can help cut greenhouse gas emissions, including considerable water needed in natural gas exploration.
Likewise, we need to have a better understanding of the “solids” out there that contribute to climate change especially “black carbon” or “soot.” While we have largely addressed black carbon in the United States, it is underexplored in developing countries.
We also need to understand, and even embrace, economic uncertainty both in the United States and overseas. There are at least two more important sources of economic uncertainty geopolitics and global competition. Nearly all transportation fuels depend on a global market that fluctuates wildly based on the latest crisis in the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela or sub-Saharan Africa.
Likewise, China and India are as dependent on those places as we are, and they have begun to ntice that these are not the most stable regions of the world. Whether solids, liquids or gases are the driving concern, leaders around the world recognize that clean energy technology is a key hedge against both climactic uncertainty and the uncertainty of the economics and politics of fossil fuels. China hopes to spend $738 billion andIndia $110 billion on green technology. Along with Europe’s continued leadership, that should be a cause for some optimism. It is also a cause for concern for American efforts to stay globally competitive. Even if the threat of climate change does not spur us to action, economic competition may be enough.
The good news is that we can plan for that uncertainty now. What would a grand compromise on U.S. energy reform look like that would reflect a national consensus for change? A true, bipartisan effort would attract support from moderates in both parties who have been reluctant to take a stand during this election season. But there are not likely to be enough moderates, so we need to stretch ourselves to think about what unites environmentalists and Tea Party members.
As the world’s leading democracy, we should embrace that debate. Debate and uncertainty are not an excuse for paralysis. Instead, they are a call to prudent action. We must embrace politics as the art of the possible in the face of what we must hope is only a nearly impossible problem.
Source: The Globalist