Monday, July 9, 2007

The Global Warming Blame Game

Published in Eat the State (July 12, 2007)

Many conservatives (and a few leftists) continue to languish in Denial over man-made global warming. Denial is of course the first step of the "Five Stages of Receiving Catastrophic News", a psychological model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, often applied to death and dying.

I wonder now if as a society we aren't moving into the second phase, Anger. As evidence, I look at the global warming finger-pointing that seems to have begun.

The Bush Administration blames China, now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China blames the U.S. which uses emits over four times per capita. Greenpeace blames Exxon, who in turn blames Kyoto. Al Gore is fingering the world's scientists for failure to speak out decisively during the nineties. (Meanwhile Gore himself presided over the largest growth ever in U.S. emissions.) The scientists, of course, blame the politicians for failing to take action. Right wingers blame environmentalists for opposing nuclear power in the seventies. Socialists blame capitalism. Libertarians blame government regulations and the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration ... calls for more study. You get the point.

Now imagine the blame game (and the law suits) that will begin when the economic and human costs really start to escalate. Imagine the blame game if we pass the threshold of runaway climate change beyond which nothing we can do will save the habitability of the planet

The blame game is not a worthless endeavor. (I blame first the Bush-Cheney-Rove triumvirate.) And the blame is not equally shared. The rich nations have produced most by far the most carbon dioxide cumulatively. Further, those decision-makers with their hands on the levers of power are surely more culpable than the children of the poor. We can't blame a faceless "humanity" (when many poor people produce well within the planet's carbon budget).

As individuals, we have a small share in the blame. We all have to reduce our carbon tire-and-footprints. But I think it is more important to analyze our socio-economic system to understand our role in the process and decide how we can best make a difference politically. In the end, all that matters is our own conscience. But did we do all that we could during what Gore calls our "planetary emergency" to get governments to act? We only have a short window of opportunity, roughly ten years, between societal awareness and effective government action, to set in motion a process that will reduce carbon emissions something like 90% by mid-century.

As we all sit around and point fingers and get angry at each other, new evidence has emerged that the effects of global warming may be much worse than the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports suggested. In a new study of the geological record, James Hansen asserts that the polar ice caps do not melt at a continuous rate, but flip suddenly to a new state. Rather than a sea level rise measured in centimeters by century's end, it will more likely be somewhere on the order of 25 meters, as the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets flow into the oceans and melt.

No wonder that Al Gore says we need a new global treaty by the end of 2009. With each passing year with no action the probability of passing the tipping point (estimated at 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide) of unstoppable warming increases. (One hopes Gore may be setting himself up as the Global Warming Czar to negotiate such a treaty.)

Nationally, all eyes are on the Democrats to see what sort of climate change legislation they will pass. If they fail us like they have failed us so far on an Iraq pull-out, then we are in deep trouble. Now is the time to contact Congress to pressure them to act.

If they don't, new strategies will be called for. These could range from reform efforts, such as calling for public financing of elections through direct action. Activist Ted Glick and others are calling for a fast on September 4th if the Democrats do no pull through. Another group is calling for nonviolent civil disobedience in DC on October 21st.

The situation we are in unprecedented in human history. (The closest comparison may be the nuclear build up of the 1980's.) Our brains evolved to tackle short-term threats. Now it's not just out little band of hunter-gatherers or our nation that is in danger, but the whole species. (Indeed, half of all species on the planet may be gone by the end of the century).

Yet fully seven in ten Americans want Federal action on global warming. But people are reluctant to open their pocketbooks (and understandably, since wages have stagnated for three decades). The corporations that favor Cap-and-Trade regulations are likely to pass on the increased costs to the consumer. This will make these policies unpopular with the public, and a right-wing populist backlash could easily derail these sorts of regulations. Writing in the American Prospect, Peter Teague and Jeff Navin argue that, instead, we need to shift the debate from regulation to investment.

For the price of the Iraq War, a couple of trillion dollars, we could build a nationwide renewable energy grid based on wind, solar, geothermal and water power. For more, we could convert our city and town infrastructures to be people- rather than auto-oriented. We could link our cities with high-speed rail. We could largely rid ourselves of fossil fuels in a few decades -- if we could only develop the political will. What will we tell our children we did during these years, if we don't?

Incidentally, the final stages in the Kubler-Ross model of grieving over catastrophic loss are Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Let's hope we reach the Bargaining Stage soon. And finally, let's work together to ensure that we end up grieving only over the loss of our fossil fuel lifestyles and not over the death of our civilization.