Doing Right By the Planet

Our leaders' failure at global climate talks late last year puts the issue right back in our hands.

The convention center at the Hague was full of people from every corner of the world — people in turbans and dashikis and robes, environmentalists, industry lobbyists. Formal and informal sessions ran on night and day, heads of state appeared to offer sage remarks. It seemed as if a kind of irreversible momentum to do something about climate change had finally won out — that the process begun a decade earlier at Rio, and advanced by millions of person-hours of conference-attending and report-writing, would finally bear some small fruit.

But it didn't. It all leaked away in the small hours of Saturday morning, when the US negotiators made their last offer, one so arrogant in its refusal to deal seriously with our consumption of fossil fuel that the Europeans finally called our superpower bluff and walked away from the table. And so everyone was in despair, especially because George W. Bush, who's not even sure he believes in global warming, had just become the US president. Especially because new studies had just shown that temperatures were due to increase more than scientists had previously thought.

Say you're looking for a silver lining, though. Say you want some reason to hope. Here it is: the collapse of the Kyoto treaty process changes the venue for this fight. It's not going to be tied up in international conference halls now — there's no waiting around for experts and lawyers and even presidents to deal with it. It's been liberated, to become a real political issue — perhaps the real political issue, or better yet the real moral issue, that will define the beginning of this century.

Here's what we now know:

• Trees won't solve the problem. Trees are magnificent, and so are forests, and the more of them the better. And they do store carbon. But new studies make it uncomfortably clear that they will cease to store carbon as the planet heats up. In warmer temperatures, soil microbes speed up the process of decomposition — by mid-century, America's forests will be releasing carbon instead of absorbing it.

• Voluntary measures won't solve the problem. America pledged in 1992 that it would release no more carbon in the year 2000 than it did in 1990. But the administration and Congress failed to pass any of the laws that might have raised prices or restricted fossil fuel consumption. And so we produce 12 percent more carbon dioxide now than we did when President Clinton took office.

What those two facts mean is simple: we have to figure out a way to stem the amount of coal, gas, and oil we use, and we have to do it quickly. There are obvious solutions: force the car companies to dramatically increase gas mileage now. Raise the price of carbon fuels to make renewables competitive. And there are grand proposals that really make sense of how to do these things: the Skytrust idea, for instance, which would force companies to pay citizens for the right to fill their sky with CO2. Or a tax on currency speculation that would raise almost overnight the funds needed to catalyze the spread of renewables around the world.

But all of these visions await some political push. We're at the same place the civil rights movement was at in 1952. Lots of people know that it's the right thing to do, but the forces of inertia (now represented by the oilmen in the Bush administration) are strong. The only hope for quick progress, unless you're counting on some natural disaster to shake our complacency, is for people to make it a moral issue. To picket outside of car dealerships selling SUVs. To block coal shipments on train tracks. To make the rapid destruction of the planet such a pressing political issue that our leaders have no choice but to deal decisively with it.

If we build that pressure, they will act — if George Bush thought people were truly riled about global warming, he'd convene another Hague conference in a minute. But he won't do it simply because of the science. He needs us pushing. And what exactly are we waiting for? Data released this summer showed Arctic ice had shrunk 40 percent in four decades. There was open water at the North Pole. What is the threshold? That's not a question for George Bush. That's a question for the rest of us.

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