In the Maldives, the cabinet strapped on scuba gear and met under water to emphasize the risk of global warming to their island nation. In Nepal, the ministers put on oxygen tanks and conducted their business high up on Mt. Everest to focus attention on the impact of climate change on the world's highest peak.
As the world converges on Copenhagen this week, what would be an appropriate place for the U.S. Congress to meet to discuss global warming? Crammed into a huge stretch SUV? Or what about a special session in one of the underground bunkers in the Washington area, where our lawmakers can blithely disregard what's going on in the world at large?
President Obama won't show up until the end of the Copenhagen confab. But no one is expecting him to make a major splash. Obama has said that he can't go further than what Congress is willing to do. The bill in front of the House calls for a 17% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2000 levels by 2020. "This works out to a 4% cut from 1990 levels, the standard baseline for measurement, and yet scientists have calculated that the major industrialized nations need to cut their emissions by 40% to have any hope of getting us on a path back towards safety," writes Bill McKibben in TomDispatch. "And even that 17% cut may turn out to be far too high a figure for the Senate."
While the U.S. Congress fiddles with its toothless legislation, the rest of the world is preparing. Because of the increased risk of flooding, the Netherlands is spending millions to build floating communities and, simultaneously, to require all children to learn how to swim with their clothes on by the time they're six years old. In the face of rising temperatures and plummeting rainfall in Africa, farmers are integrating small trees into their farming to boost yields and restore soil fertility.
But wait, you say: Hasn't the global temperature actually stopped rising? Aren't scientists scrambling to cover up inconvenient data that disproves global warming?
The recent theft and publication of private email messages from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England has sparked a major controversy in the media world. Climate change skeptics argue that scientists at the unit manipulated data to prove that global temperatures have been rising over the last several decades. The theft was illegal; the scientific manipulations are troubling. But these so-called revelations have not altered the scientific consensus.
"We Earth scientists have educated ourselves, and the public, about the difference between weather -- short term fluctuations due to all kinds of 'noisy' inputs, like sun spots -- and climate," writes Peter Kelemen in Popular Mechanics. "This difference means that short-term observations are potentially irrelevant, and we might have to wait decades to really test the efficacy of scientific models predicting future climate. But here's the rub: Climate models -- which represent the good-faith efforts of a lot of very dedicated people to use a combination of physics and observations of past climate to make the best possible projections -- predict some very unfavorable outcomes for humans within the next 50 to 100 years, unless we take substantial action to reduce and mitigate CO2 emissions, starting right now."
In his latest book, James Lovelock predicts an even greater jump in temperature in this century than the rest of his fellow scientists: 9 degrees centigrade, compared to the 2-3 degrees centigrade predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Before this life-threatening spike, Lovelock's computer model predicts that global temperatures will temporarily dip as the Earth tries to correct for the increasing carbon dioxide levels. Don't be fooled, in other words, by a cooler summer or an icier winter or the errant email messages from East Anglia. Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia theory that the Earth is an integrated living organism, dismisses solar and wind power and the urban ecology movement in favor of massive investments into nuclear energy. I don't buy his prescriptions, but I find his warnings about the breakdown of the Earth's self-regulating mechanisms very frightening indeed.
Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is not going to be easy. The casino game of "cap-and-trade," the crapshoot that Copenhagen conferees will be discussing this week, won't do the trick. As climate scientist James Hansen points out, cap-and-trade will just shift emissions around and, as in most casino games, the vast majority of us will lose out in the end. "We are going to have to move beyond fossil fuels at some point. Why continue to stretch it out longer?" he recently told the Times of London. "The only way we can do that is by putting a price on carbon emissions. The business community and the public need to understand that there will be a gradually increasing price on carbon emissions."
The current recession, and the decline in the global export economy, is just such an opportunity to move beyond fossil fuels. "It opens up the transition to more climate-friendly and ecologically sensitive ways of organizing economic life," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Walden Bello in Climate and Capitalism in Copenhagen. "But the fossil fuel-intensiveness of global transport and freight is merely one dimension of the problem. Environmentalists insist there must be a change in the reigning economic model itself. The global economy must make a transition from being driven fundamentally by overproduction and overconsumption to being geared to real needs, marked by moderate or low consumption, and based on sustainable and decentralized production processes."
Cutting back on consumption, reducing fossil-fuel use, bringing the developing world into the post-industrial age in a sustainable manner: Even if the mercury weren't rising, these are critical goals. The climate crisis is precisely the giant lever with which we can, following Archimedes, move the world in a greener, more equitable direction. We just haven't identified the proper fulcrum. Will it be a major U.S.-China agreement on emission reductions? Or will it be the massive civil disobedience that McKibben and Hansen urge? As the water levels rise, our voices have to rise higher still, so that they can be heard even by our insulated legislators.
Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.
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