What events, actions, and findings had the most positive or negative impact on the likelihood that the nation and the world will act in time to avoid catastrophic warming?
Since the #1 story is way too obvious to generate any drama, I will start there and then go back and count down from 10 to 2.
1. Team Without Rivals. A year ago, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, desperately warned, "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment." That means the next president and his cabinet, more than any other group, will determine my future and your future and our children's future, and perhaps the future of the next 50 generations to walk the earth. Fortunately, the American people rejected the old greenwasher and new denier nominated by the Drill, baby, Drill crowd -- and now we will be led by the greenest, most scientifically informed, radical pragmatists in the history of the Republic:
10. Gas Pains. As NOAA reported, levels of methane rose sharply in 2007 for the first time since 1998. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, especially over the near term. And the tundra has as much carbon locked away in it as the atmosphere contains today. Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands. The tundra melting is probably the most worrisome of all the climate-carbon-cycle amplifying feedbacks -- and it could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1000 ppm. Though you should also worry that the methane might be coming the underwater permafrost, which is also thawing and releasing methane. Or from the drying of the Northern peatlands (bogs, moors, and mires). If methane rises again in 2008 -- and NASA reported another brutally hot year for the Siberian tundra -- then that will probably be among the top three global warming stories of 2008.
9. The Thrilla in Vanilla. OK, it wasn't Ali-Frazier, but Henry Waxman's smackdown of John Dingell for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was high drama with high consequences. Finally, we have a champion of serious action and strong regulation, someone who gets the dire nature of global warming, in charge of the crucial committee for climate and energy.
8. Ice, Ice maybe not. Everywhere scientists look, ice is disappearing:
5. 350 is the new 450. Led by the nation's top climate scientist, James Hansen, a number of leading scientists argued that the "old" target scientists have been arguing for -- stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm -- isn't enough: Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al. In December, America's leading spokesman for climate action, Al Gore, embraced the 350 ppm target.
4. Clean tech shines. While the rest of the financial system melts down, cleantech venture investment hit a record $2.6B in the third quarter. Is that a lot of money? Well, of that $2.6B, some $1.7B went to U.S. companies, which is about three times the comparable annual R&D budget in the Energy Department office I once ran, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program, which did -- and still does -- the bulk of the federal government clean tech funding. And VCs like Kleiner Perkins ramped up funding while the Bush administration gutted some of the most important research and deployment EERE had.
Some key clean technologies really began to shine in 2008, including perhaps the most important low-carbon energy source, solar thermal baseload, and the most important alternative fuel vehicle, electric cars and plug in hybrids. It should now be clear that all the technology we need to stabilize at 450 ppm (or lower) is here or will be in a few years (see "McKinsey 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero").
3. Desperate Scientists, Season II. The world's top climate scientists are once again begging for action, with many more going public to warn just how dire a fate we face on our current path:
The entire conservative movement, including pundits, think tanks, and politicians, now appears willing to stake the future of humanity on their willful ignorance.
If the Obama climate dream team is going to lead the nation and the world into a World War II scale effort to save humanity from self-destruction, they will be waging a difficult two-front war -- against the ever-accelerating reality of climate change itself and against the immovable unreality of "anti-science conservatives."