Conservatives put on a spectacular display of scientific ignorance this month in the U.S. Senate. During the debate on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would regulate carbon dioxide by setting a cap on emissions and allowing emitters to trade carbon allowances, most Republican senators questioned the reality of human-caused climate change or ignored the climate threat entirely and repeated the talking point that the bill would raise gasoline and electricity prices. It was as if they had been locked in an isolation booth for the past decade. Let’s go to the highlights.
Conservatives sure are good at staying on message, even one that has no basis in fact. None of their scientific or technological claims is true and most of the economic claims are a wild exaggeration based on studies funded by fossil fuel companies. This may be a defining moment for humanity according to the world’s increasingly desperate climate scientists, but to many conservatives it’s apparently just another moment to score political points at the expense of future generations.
It’s a terrifying thought. If the science of the last few years and the painful reality of a changing climate haven’t persuaded the conservative movement of the dire nature of human-caused global warming, I can’t imagine what chain of catastrophes would. We’ve already had record-breaking droughts, heat waves, wildfires, deluges, super storms and flooding at home and abroad — just as climate science predicted. And we’ve had far more loss of ice from Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic Sea than anyone expected.
A National Journal poll in June found that only 26 percent of GOP Congress members believe “it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the earth is warming because of man-made pollution.” That matches their constituents — only 27 percent of Republicans say the earth is warming because of human activity. Needless to say, if you don’t believe humans are the cause of global warming, you’re not going to believe that humans are the solution to global warming.
The global warming deniers and delayers managed to squash the Lieberman-Warner bill, although its authors promise it will be back next year. Even so, the policies needed to avert catastrophic climate change require so much effort and so much political consensus that conservatives can probably block them. The truth is, the bill would not have put the nation on a path to avert catastrophe. The science has already moved far past the legislation. We can no longer base our efforts to tackle climate change on hopes of reducing our own emissions at some point in the future or on letting others reduce emissions for us.
Progressives should stop playing the conservatives’ game and promote a radical redesign to climate policy focused on aggressive deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Right now, progressives and moderates in and out of Congress are pushing an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions, which creates a market-based price for carbon, which in turn increases the cost of all carbon-based fuels, including oil. Not only does this give conservatives a powerful talking point against the legislation, it doesn’t do much to reduce emissions in the transportation sector. You need an absurdly high price for carbon to have even a modest impact on oil consumption.
To avert disaster, we need to cut carbon emissions in the transportation sector some 60-80 percent by 2050. How high would the price of gasoline have to be? It would have to exceed $10 a gallon. Yet a serious price for a carbon emission allowance of even $400 per metric ton (which is three times the current price for carbon in the European Trading Scheme) would raise the price of gasoline only $1 a gallon. That price for carbon and that boost in gasoline prices is almost certainly a non-starter in this country.
If I were writing climate legislation, I would leave transportation out of the cap and trade system. Why legislate what is inevitable anyway? The price of petroleum, gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel are going to soar in the coming years because we haven’t had intelligent energy policy for decades. Let our previous stupidity and myopia drive the price higher for the foreseeable future.
To inaugurate real change, policymakers need to put together an aggressive “energy independence” package as part of the climate bill. The package should be focused on tougher fuel economy standards, a low-carbon-fuels standard and an aggressive push to adopt plug-in hybrids.
In fact, the overall message of the climate bill needs to change. The public needs to realize that higher fossil fuel prices are inevitable unless we take an aggressive government-led action to deploy clean energy technologies. We need to understand that even the Bush administration’s own Energy Department says drilling for oil offshore or in Alaska will never have a significant impact on gasoline prices. The supply is too little, the global-demand rise is too inexorable. If the public doesn’t understand this, it’s hard to see how it will get behind the necessary action in the face of all of the obfuscation and demagoguing by conservatives.
After all, why would conservatives abandon what they believe is a politically winning position? Why would they anger the energy companies that give them large political contributions to uphold anti-climate actions? Given how many more pressing issues the public is focused on — the economy, housing, education, food costs, gasoline prices, Iraq, terrorism, healthcare — I wouldn’t expect conservatives to pay a significant price at the polls until the reality of climate change is too painful to bear and to obvious to obfuscate.
Conservatives can probably enjoy another decade or so of disregarding the climate science and demagoguing climate legislation. Yes, the weather will become increasingly extreme as we slip closer to permanent changes in the climate. But most of what happens next decade will just be a more frequent and intense version of what happened in the last decade.
Unfortunately for the planet, the next decade is pretty much going to be the last one to reverse course the “easy” way. By easy, I mean deploying clean energy technology at an aggressive pace with a negligible net economic cost, 0.1 percent of GDP per year or less. It’s a strategy that can be deployed largely by the private sector with the help of well-designed government programs and regulatory reforms.
If conservatives block serious action until the 2020s, then the nation and the world will begin a desperate race to avert catastrophe. By then, the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations will be so high that the relatively easy market-based technology strategy will not be able to stop us from crossing the point of no return, when major amplifying feedbacks kick in and undermine all efforts to avert catastrophe. The most important feedback is probably the melting of the permafrost and tundra, which could release 1,000 billion tons of carbon — more than the entire atmosphere contains today — much of it in the form of methane, which is 20 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
I call the period from 2025 to 2050 “Planetary Purgatory.” Assuming conservatives block a major reversal in U.S. policies in the next decade, by the 2020s, everyone will know the grim fate that awaits the next 50 generations, including widespread desertification, the loss of the inland glaciers that provide water to a billion people, sea level rise of 80 feet or more at a rate that might hit 6 inches a decade and extinction of most species on land and sea. Maybe then, as the miseries of global warming overtake everyday life, a backlash against conservatives will begin to rise, one that will ultimately relegate that political movement to the dustbin of history
Because if we don’t turn the political tide against James Inhofe and his gang of deniers now, we will be forced to act out of desperation soon enough. If we delay serious action to 2025, we would then need to cut global emissions by 75 percent in a quarter-century or less. And that would require a massive, sustained government intervention into every aspect of our lives on a scale that far surpasses what this country did during World War II. I can’t see how the conservative movement as it now exists could possibly survive having been responsible for ushering in decades if not centuries of untold misery and intrusive government.
What’s particularly ironic is that a key reason conservatives don’t accept climate science and instead oppose serious action is that they hate the solution — government regulations and a government-led effort to accelerate clean energy technologies. In dismissing threats about global warming, George Will wrote, “The fears invariably seem to require more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives.”
In his column on the Lieberman-Warner bill, Charles Krauthammer warned that on the basis of “speculation, environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation … that will tell you how much you can travel, what kind of light you will read by, and at what temperature you may set your bedroom thermostat.”
Note to Krauthammer: Have you ever met a scientist? “Compliant” is the last word anyone would use to describe them.
Without a trace of self-awareness, Krauthammer continues: “There’s no greater social power than the power to ration. And, other than rationing food, there is no greater instrument of social control than rationing energy, the currency of just about everything one does and uses in an advanced society.”
Krauthammer and the conservatives have it backward. The solution to global warming doesn’t require rationing energy or anything else. It requires a government-industry partnership to accelerate existing and near-term clean energy technologies into the market. That strategy preserves the energy abundance that has made modern civilization and sustained economic development possible.
But if we hold off today on government action, we will almost guarantee the need for extreme and intrusive government action in the future. Only Big Government can relocate tens of millions of citizens, build massive levees and mandate harsh and rapid reductions in certain kinds of energy. Peak oil prices, which we haven’t prepared for, will make today’s gas prices look like a Costco bargain. On a planet reeling from global warming and desertification, we will have billions more people to feed. We will be rationing food, all right. And water. And arable land. Most of our meaningless national political fights will be replaced by a very meaningful global fight for survival.
Conservatives can’t stop the impending catastrophe with anti-government rhetoric. But they can prevent progressives and moderates from stopping it by blocking aggressive climate legislation. Progressives and moderates will need all their political skill and tenacity to overcome the obstructionism of the anti-science, anti-technology conservatives. This is unlike any previous political fight; it is a fight to save the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, a fight to preserve our way of life. Losing is not an option.