Fiddling as the Planet Warms

12/03/2007 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ten years ago I got caught unaware during a TV debate on global warming. Midway through the show, the industry funded science denier I was debating unveiled a new argument. It was so daft I mistook it for a joke, thus appearing disrespectful when I meant to be congenial; proof again you can't be too careful on TV.

The global warming debate was already a decade old then. In 1988 the UN had drawn worldwide attention to it by forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC) Many scientists were skeptical but as data poured in the doubters dwindled to a lonely but well heeled band, mostly in the pay of the oil and gas crowd.

At first they claimed global warming wasn't real. Later they switched to saying it's real, but it isn't man made. By the time of our debate they were testing a bold, new pitch: Global warming -- it's real, it's man made... and it's good for you! As I said, the first time I heard it I laughed.

I still hear global warming may improve life for those shoveling too much snow; that it will cut heating bills and extend growing seasons. I wonder: when we achieve the world's longest growing season, will we be acing out Sudan or Chad? I love sunshine as much as the next guy, but it's a lot less useful absent water and topsoil.

The energy industry's most effective argument is that moving to renewable energy hurts our economy. It's a lie. The short term transition cost is well below even the medium term cost of our continued denial.

The move to sustainable economics is the greatest revolution since the industrial age, far surpassing the impact of the more celebrated information technology boom. We profited handsomely by leading the last change. We'll pay as dearly for lagging behind this one.

If you can't see the lost opportunity cost, then simply consider the rising price of oil or the potential price of terrorist attacks. This much must be clear: the fight against global warming and the fights for energy independence and national security are one fight.

By around 2000 the energy industry was running out of bad arguments. It must have seemed a real Deus ex Machina when the Supreme Court appointed George Bush president. Who but he -- and maybe Cheney -- had the courage to get to the root of their problem (the facts) by letting industry lobbyists rewrite science in official government reports?

All the propaganda and official deception has put the country in a trance. At the Stop and Shop recently a man told me only bureaucrats, not scientists, believe in global warming, and that he likes his truck. Nothing like an informed citizenry. I silently saluted Bush and Rush and Fox and Mobil for all their fine work.

In October the IPCC, along with Al Gore, won the Nobel Prize. In November it issued an urgent warning: To a 90% certainty, global warming is real and man made; it's happening faster than scientists predicted; its consequences include drought, vast flooding and the likely extinction of a fourth of all living species.

In response to this news, Democratic presidential candidates spent all of five minutes in their last debate discussing energy. Republican presidential candidates have only scorn for Gore, the UN, the Nobel Prize and science generally. And then there's Bush, the Nero of global warming.

Future generations, indeed the very next one, will ask why we didn't kick Bush out the moment we learned he let oil companies cook the science in order to cook the planet. Sound extreme? It won't then, not even to those who think his lying his way into Iraq was a good thing.

At least we know Bush's motives. The silence of Democrats is a mystery. With Gore on the sidelines you'd think at least one candidate would see an advantage in taking up his cause. Chris Dodd calls for a carbon tax. Dennis Kucinich, while less specific, says many of the right things. All have the phrases down pat. It isn't nearly enough.

We need a cabinet level Department of Sustainable Development. For a fraction of the cost of Bush's Homeland Security boondoggle we could have one. Why hasn't anyone proposed it? The model would be the opposite of the homeland security and intelligence reorganizations; in short, a small department wielding a very big stick over jurisdictions left otherwise undisturbed.

Dodd's carbon tax, like Gore's doomed 1993 proposal, shows courage. The necessity for it is a near article of faith among environmentalists. But we can accomplish as much through rule making as we can with taxes. For reasons of economics and governance, as well as politics, it makes more sense.

Democrats in Congress want cars to get 35 miles a gallon by 2020. The IPCC thinks the game may be over by then. Computer chips double in power every 18 months. Why can't we double fuel efficiency in five years?

Stores sell energy saving appliances and light bulbs. Why is it even legal to sell the ones that waste energy?

The most devastating short term threat of global warming is to water supply. How many states must go up in flames, how many communities must ration their tap water for Congress to interest itself in the topic in a serious way?

It all comes down to belief. The craziest case Bush makes is that we can't act unless we're 100% certain; crazy because we ought to make these changes anyway; crazy because nothing in life is 100% certain. Must global warming be the one thing we're absolutely sure of before we lift a finger to save ourselves?

It's the same ploy Bush uses to avoid every inconvenient scientific truth, from the age of the universe to the genetic component of sexual identity. His arguments are laughable, which may explain why none was ever properly rebutted.

Assume all the manifest benefits of sustainable economics are illusory. Then assume the world's scientists are so far off on global warming that its risks and consequences are only half as great as they say. Then weigh the cost of action against the costs of inaction. Under the most conservative assumptions it's still clear: The present debate is insane.