Book Review: The Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan

BOILING POINT: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avoid Disaster
by Ross Gelbspan
Basic Books, 2004, 272 pages, $22.00
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

Dwelling on reality is terribly unfashionable in today's political culture. But Ross Gelbspan is no slave to fashion. The beauty of his book Boiling Point is how it reminds us that scientific facts are inescapable, even when they are out of vogue. Ross is merciless about the urgency of the science of global warming. He is unflinching in depicting the scale and scope of the crisis, calling it a “civilizational” issue. He pounds on political corruption, journalistic laziness, and activists' incrementalism for reinforcing the cycle of denial that prevents an appropriately scaled response to climate disruption.

Reading this book is at times like getting doused with a big bucket of cold water. Given the pathological denial that dominates this nation's climate policy, it's not bad therapy.
Here's why climate activists sometimes don't want to get up in the morning: the emission reductions called for in the Kyoto protocol are roughly a tenth of what it will take to stabilize the climate, and yet Kyoto is outside the realm of the politically possible in this country. Ouch. Realism, funders, and our own need for accomplishment call on us to do what is possible, and yet what is absolutely necessary from a scientific perspective is not “possible” from a conventional political perspective. So doing what's possible isn't nearly enough. We have to change what's possible.

Unfortunately, Ross says, “…[M]ost climate activists have retreated into approaches that are dismally inadequate to the magnitude of the challenge.” Some of his critiques are right on, especially his focus on the absolute necessity to recast the climate issue in terms of broader moral, social, economic values that reach well beyond the traditional focus of environmentalism. Indeed, many environmentalists are heeding this call.

Ross misses the mark in his dismissal of “market-based solutions” like emission trading, characterizing them as a retreat in the name of political expediency. Markets don't know what the safe limit on emissions is—governments have to decide that, guided by science. But government doesn't have enough money to fix the problem. By adopting scientifically responsible emission limits and markets for trading emission rights within those limits, government can pull private investment away from the problem and direct it toward solutions. Even modest, politically achievable emission limits can send powerful economic signals that will redirect private investment toward efficiency and renewables.

The best antidote to denial is action. We once heard a participant in a Climate Solutions focus group say, “I don't think global warming is a big problem, because nobody's doing anything about it.” If it were really as bad as Ross says, surely the responsible authorities would be taking action! So action to protect the climate isn't just the result of greater awareness of the problem, it is a precondition of greater awareness. And much of Boiling Point is devoted to what the solutions could look like, if they were calibrated to the scale of the problem.

Ross tips his hat to three “big picture” solution strategies—“Contraction and Convergence,” the “Sky Trust,” and the “New Apollo Project.” He then offers some mostly fair criticisms of their weaknesses, but rejects these strategies too quickly. He tends to dismiss partial solutions.

While it's tempting to think that one universal solution set will emerge, I suspect we'll have to muddle along, cherry-picking the best of various approaches and cobbling them together. Yes, we should be thinking big. But we should not expect panaceas.

Ross steps up to the plate with his own big proposal, the World Energy Modernization Plan. Like the others, it should not be subjected to the question, “Is this the solution?” We should ask, “Is there promise here, and how can that promise be delivered?” The plan has three parts: switching subsidies from fossil fuels to non-carbon alternatives; funding clean energy investment through a tax on currency transactions; and tightening fuel efficiency standards for national economies.

The first part—switching subsidies—is the “duh” piece of the proposal. But the fact that it's obvious doesn't make it easy. In fact, the proposal itself is not so much a policy prescription as an anticipated harbinger of changing will. That begs the question, how do we upend our political dynamics?

I'm all for part two: the “Tobin tax” on currency transactions to fund international clean energy investments. Public investment is no substitute for a climate policy in which emission limits drive private investment in solutions. But it would clearly grease the skids. Part three, the Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard (FFES), is an intriguing twist on achieving deep emission reductions.

The book ends in a rhapsody on how rising to the climate challenge can fundamentally change the human prospect:
“We will either retreat into ourselves and scramble to defend our private security in an increasingly threatening environment, or we will move forward into a much more coherent and prosperous and peaceful future. . . . . The ultimate hope is that—especially given the centrality of energy to our modern lives—a meaningful solution to the climate crisis could potentially be the beginning of a much larger transformation of our social and economic dynamics.”

These last ten pages read like a dream sequence. If the dream seems remote, consider this: Unlike what we call reality, Ross' dream observes non-negotiable physical limits on the capacity of the atmosphere to safely absorb carbon. It exhibits respect rather than reckless indifference to human and natural systems that are elaborately adapted to the prevailing climate—respect, that is, for life. That's closer to a truth that can last than what we've got now.

Dreams, in the right hands, become visions. And visions can become futures.

Review by KC Golden. KC Golden is policy director for Climate Solutions,

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