09/03/2008 12:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

10 Out of 1,000 is Still a Step Forward

I sometimes go to sleep at night wondering what it will take to muster the political will to begin to seriously address global warming. Historic droughts? Hundreds of wildfires? The disappearance of Arctic ice? Been there, done that.

How about this one: a national political party considers canceling its quadrennial national convention and instead running a refugee aid telethon for millions of Americans who have been evacuated as a precaution against the "new weather."

And here we are. The Republicans are going to limp through a truncated convention to nominate "Drill Here Drill Now" McCain and "Global Warming is Not Man Made" Palin, even as two million Gulf Coast residents are straggling home.

Step right up! See with your very own eyes how elegantly the unimaginable becomes unremarkable!

The Democrats are obviously, dramatically, better. Night and day. If the Republicans rate a zero, the Democrats won a 10. Anyone who sees no meaningful difference between the two national parties should take a hard look at their positions on global warming.

The problem is that, if we are talking about the political will required to seriously address global climate change, the scale is not 0 to 10 but 0 to 1,000. The Democrats' 10 leaves us just 9,990 points short.

The Democrats mentioned global warming at their convention consistently. They talked about it like they meant it. It was right there in the list: new jobs, more health insurance, get out of Iraq, go after Bin Laden, fix the subprime mortgage crisis, "solve" with global warming. Yes, this is far far better than paying it lip service (McCain) or outright denialism (Palin), but still in the realm of fantasy - the fantasy that global warming can be addressed within the bounds of "policy," like taxes and health care.

Back in 2002, I was speaking with Ed Ayers, the editor of Worldwatch, a highly respected journal of environmental science. I asked him what, in his view, would be the priorities of an American government exercising real environmental leadership. At the very top of his list was directing an "orderly retreat" from New Orleans. In Ed's view, global warming has made New Orleans a "doomed city." There were only two choices: an orderly retreat sooner, or a disorderly retreat later. Three years later Katrina hit and the retreat was more "disorderly" than anyone could have imagined. Then came the return, which was almost as disorderly as the retreat.

And here we are, three years and billions of dollars later. Last weekend we had the re-retreat. And now we have the re-return. Gustav, what Mayor Nagin called "the storm of the century," has passed. But Hanna, Ike, Josephine are all lined up out in the Atlantic waiting their turn. The re-re-retreat may be upon us sooner than we think. How many "storms-of-the-century" will we have in just the first decade? The fact is: we haven't seen nothin' yet.