Earth to G8: Limit Global Warming Emissions!

08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The results of the latest G8 meeting on climate change are as exciting as flat beer. So, before any of the G8 countries start patting themselves on the back for agreeing to set limits on global warming, let's get something straight. Their arrows are pointed at the wrong target -- and the arrows are virtual, not real, at this point. It is a very hollow and cynical start towards solving a very real and urgent problem. It is also a dangerous road, because it sets us up for failure, which further discourages humanity from seriously addressing the problem.

As the Associated Press reported, the G8 resolution, agreeing that our climate should not warm beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), is nonbinding, and no one offered any details towards actually achieving this goal. Well, wishing isn't enough. And while it is understandable that we think of the warming in terms of temperature, a temperature goal does not make sense.

Here's why. As our own climate scientists have shown, the more we examine the consequences of global warming, the more we begin to realize just how complex the web of physical and ecological feedbacks are to global warming. This means that we can try all we want, but in the end we cannot accurately predict how fast the temperature will rise because of our actions. Our record on predicting climate change bears this out. Scientists across the spectrum, from those of the most respected climate committee, the International Panel on Climate Change, to respected climate change researchers who work on this full time, have consistently underestimated the speed with which the Earth is warming and reacting to that warming.

What to do? Create a goal that reflects what we can control: limit the greenhouse gas emissions that we are pumping into the atmosphere. Here is where countries can set real goals, with real policies to attain those goals. Contrary to the timid handwringing of some economists who insist that it is too disruptive to move fast on this issue, just the opposite is true.
The longer we wait, the more disastrous the economic consequences from the resulting climate change to all that sustains us: our farms, our water, our quality of life, and the natural ecosystems that already store so much carbon for us. We have the technology now to create fuel efficient cars, energy efficient homes and industries, and alternative clean energy sources to replace fossil fuels for most uses, all which would ultimately increase our quality of life.

World War II showed just how fast we can move as a society, when our leadership impresses us with the urgency of the situation, and gives us the necessary guidance and encouragement. At the outset of WWII, we didn't set a goal of keeping German occupied territory to some upper limit. Rather, we set the goal of making as many airplanes, tanks, and artillery as possible, and mobilizing quickly as many troops as possible. Similarly, our goal now should be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as we can, as fast as we can, and as economically as we can. Our free online book, "Cool the Earth, Save the Economy", shows in detail how we can address the climate crisis more effectively and much faster than our government has yet to propose.

President Obama could be much more inspirational and truthful about addressing climate change than he has so far. He could have presented himself as a far more effective leader at the G8 conference, for example, if he had noted that we have to agree on an effective timetable to limit emissions, and then proposed a U.S. plan that leads the way for other nations. The sooner he does so, the sooner U.S. economic prospects and social stature will rise among nations. Now that's real beer.