What's a President to do when confronted with killer gas? But let's say that the gas in question threatens the President's own country and that Tomahawk missiles are utterly irrelevant. I refer not to poison gas released in a Damascus suburb, but to greenhouse gases being emitted, as a "side effect," by the worldwide combustion of fossil fuels in power plants, furnaces, vehicles, and factories.
What I offer here is not another sermon about the need to do something about climate change, but a brief analysis of why it's so hard to make the necessary transition, in the context of the current excitement about punishing a foreign leader with strikes as photogenic as a video game.
Without an independent inquiry, we don't know for sure who released the poison gas. We also don't know today what would be the net effect of militarily attacking the Assad regime or how great the "collateral damage" of a Tomahawk attack would be. But we do know that, according to peer-reviewed science, the result of releasing greenhouse gases will eventually be widespread, costly, and deadly, here in North America and around the planet.
Dealing with the causes of climate change is the dominant challenge for serious leaders, whatever may be our correct response, if any, to poison gas in Damascus.
A deliberate release of poison gas is meant to harm. In contrast, greenhouse gases have become known as an unfortunate, invisible side-effect of activities that have benefited us. The big problem is that greenhouse gases come, in part, from the use of energy that has built our civilization and on which we currently rely. The harm caused by these gases occurs not in minutes, as in the case of sarin gas, but accumulates slowly, over decades; is not restricted to a single locale but affects the entire planet.
In The Burning Question, Mike Berners-Lee and his co-author Duncan Clark say memorably, "If you wanted to invent a problem to induce confusion, disbelief and the turning of blind eyes, it would be hard to come up with something better than climate change. It's caused by a build-up of gases that we can't see, smell or taste and the effects play out through a weather and climatic system that is by its nature unpredictable and variable."
Though the economics of sustainable power are becoming more favorable, we so far lack the enormous infrastructure that would reduce our use of power (like insulation) and the infrastructure that would generate our needs sustainably (like solar panels and wind turbines).
Most of all, the "reserves" of fossil fuel still in the ground (deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas) would become less valuable the more competitive that sustainable energy becomes, and the more stringent governments are about imposing on fossil fuels their true costs. The current price of stock in fossil fuel firms clearly reflects a judgment by investors that sales will not slow, much less decline rapidly. Are we going to let this judgment stand?
It's much easier to kill people with missiles in a foreign country than to undertake any transition in the U.S. economy from fossil fuels to sustainable energy. The President simply gives an order that is sent down the chain of command. The most profound dysfunction of the U.S. government has to do less with the military and "security" budgets, our system of health care, the debt ceiling, or the rate of economic growth, than with the failure to deal effectively with climate change caused by greenhouse gases. If nothing sufficient is done, the effects will become obvious only when it would be too late.
One path is business as usual: these companies and their allies continue bankrolling doubt about the need to change and the campaigns and careers of allies in government, our political class goes on protecting this industry, even as it endangers all of us, and as effects get really bad humanity is reduced to desperate acts of geo-engineering.
Another path is economic transformation: we make the necessary changes, even in a culture distracted by questions such as, "Should we attack Syria?" We notice the red line we are taking part in crossing, the red line of perilous greenhouse gas concentrations. A movement led by the richest countries does what is necessary to persuade the countries increasing their emissions the fastest.
With most Republicans reflexively opposing anything that Obama proposes, except perhaps the use of "kinetic" force, what would be the political cost of educating the public about what it will take not to become hopeless victims of climate change? Anyone in a position of power who ignores the challenge of climate change, in his actions, will eventually be excoriated, and will have a legacy of profound failure. Anyone who even begins to meet this challenge will be celebrated.
As FDR and LBJ are both quoted as saying, make me do what's right.