When President Obama flew to Alaska to talk about climate change, I was in Owls Head, Maine, a beautiful harbor village on Penobscot Bay. I go there each year to visit with nature and myself, and always bring Henry David Thoreau along to help with the introductions. Thoreau hated politics. Not me. Reading his ruminations side by side with Obama’s got me thinking of our gorgeous, vulnerable planet and what it would really take to save it. I’m grateful for Obama’s heightened interest in the topic, but the crisis demands far more than he currently has on offer.
Obama says he chose Alaska to talk about climate change because its effects are so visible there. With temperatures warming and sea levels rising faster than in most other places, the visuals are indeed dramatic: shrunken glaciers, polar bears on ice floes, a whole village sinking into the sea. But in a way it was a poor choice. To many Americans, climate change seems remote. So does Alaska. Obama could have gone anywhere, the effects of climate change being visible everywhere.
He could have come to Owls Head, where the ocean’s warming even faster than it is in Alaska. It’s why Maine scrapped this year’s shrimping season. There may not be another; in the last five years 95 percent of Maine shrimp have gone missing. News is better for Maine lobstermen hauling in record catches, including lobsters newly arrived from overheated fisheries to the south. The hitch is the lobsters are still in transit; in seven years their population center has moved 12 miles north, from mid-coast Rockland to down east Stonington. The last stop on that line is Canada.
Maine moose are also faring poorly. Warmer winters mean thousands more ticks feeding on their blood. No one’s sure how many moose have perished. (Maine doesn’t keep the best records these days, due partly to having a nitwit for a governor.) But we know New Hampshire’s moose population has shrunk by 40 percent; Minnesota’s by 60 percent. Maine can’t be too far behind them.
The idea of Maine without lobsters or moose breaks my heart, but you may be less affected; to some of my Connecticut friends, Maine is as remote as Alaska. So pick a state that interests you, any state. As Obama bemoaned the 5 million acres of forest lost to fires in Alaska this year, 16 forest fires raged simultaneously in Washington. There are 12 forest fires burning right now in California, which grows half our fruits and vegetables and is suffering its worst drought in 1,200 years. The proof is everywhere you look; in a Rocky Mountain snow pack that melts too soon; in Midwest rains that won’t fall when or where farmers need them.
Environmentalists may be focused on the wrong water levels. Somehow the threat of rising seas isn’t as clear to Florida’s conservatives as it is to Alaska’s Inuit, but in the red states of the High Plains and Southwest, farmers and cattle ranchers reliant on the faster falling water tables of the Ogallala Aquifer and Colorado River basin are waking up. Soon they’ll realize Fox News was lying to them all along and go calling on Rupert Murdoch to settle accounts, or so I like to imagine.
Weather isn’t just warmer, it’s weirder. Kansas was struck this year by floods and drought. Anchorage had hardly any snow—they had to move the Iditarod sled race twice to get to where the snow was -- but Boston had more than it could cart away in trucks. Such weather oddities left people scratching their heads. You might say that by getting us talking, the weather provided the leadership on climate change. Here we do see a familiar pattern; a crisis wherein the public is left to educate itself.
Just as same-sex marriage and the minimum wage were left to state referenda or courts to decide, climate policy is left to executive orders and treaties that don’t need ratifying. That Congress acts only to obstruct is mainly the fault of Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry, but also of Democrats who won’t talk about tough issues till their pollsters blow the all’s-clear whistle. When a progressive political party won’t inform and arouse the public, people question its reason for being.
The leitmotif running through all of Obama’s remarks in Alaska was the urgency of the crisis, as evidenced in his big address to a White House-sponsored climate conference in Anchorage:
But the point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now…We’re not acting fast enough… The time to plead ignorance is surely past…On this issue as on all issues there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.
Obama warning us now about climate change is a bit like Paul Revere waiting a week to alert those Middlesex villages and farms. (The British are here!) The hour is indeed late and made later by his near silence on the matter in his first term. But a president who truly engages the issue on a world stage is automatically the most important climate leader around. Obama’s doing that now. The question is whether his proposed policies will get the job done. Some people think so.
In a recent New York piece aptly titled "The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You’ve Ever Read," Jonathan Chait argues that a combination of public policy and technical innovation is enabling a giant leap forward in the fight to reduce carbon emissions. Before laying out his case, Chait accuses many environmentalists of defeatism:
The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene—the tension so unbearable, and the weight of looming catastrophe so soul crushing that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds.
Chait doesn’t say how many people he knows feel this way, or what’s being done to help them. He does cite a “morbidly ostentatious” New Yorker article in which novelist Jonathan Franzen opined that “drastic planetary overheating is a done deal.” Just the opposite, says Chait:
But guess what everyone’s been missing in the middle of their keening for the dear soon-to-be-departed Earth? … Not just incremental good news but transformational good news…. The game is not yet over. And the good guys are starting to win.
Chait lists some impressive stats. China will add 18 gigawatts of solar capacity this year, an amount equal to total U.S. capacity, and reach peak carbon emission by 2030, 20 years ahead of schedule. The U.S. has closed 200 of its 523 coal-powered plants since 2009. Obama’s new Clean Power Plan may shutter the rest. The price of solar energy is plummeting. Chait thinks a “rough global consensus” will lead to a breakthrough at December’s U.N. climate conference in Paris. All he sees blocking the way is the prospect of a GOP victory in 2016.
Better manic than depressive, I always say, but too much optimism can also be disabling. Chait’s right on the technology, but the bigger picture is darker than he paints it. Green technology is on the rise. So are carbon emissions. 2015 will mark a third straight year of rising U.S. emissions. With a stable economy and continued low gas prices 2016 will likely be the fourth. China reaching peak emission by 2030 means 15 more years of annual increases in emissions by the world’s biggest carbon polluter.
The right calls climate scientists alarmists. In fact their predictions have proved too conservative. Global warming has hit the earth’s ecosystem harder and sooner than almost anyone foresaw back in the '90s. How hard? A review published in the journal Science pegs species extinction at 1,000 times its natural rate. It’s the first mass extinction event since dinosaurs said their goodbyes 65 million years ago. Climate change isn’t the only culprit but it’s the biggest one. The Times characterized Obama’s Anchorage address as “bordering on the apocalyptic” to which it might have added the words, "appropriately enough."
The Paris conference will craft one of those "treaties" a Republican Senate needn’t ratify. But there are other ways for Republicans to sabotage any deal coming out of Paris. They can win the White House and scuttle Obama’s EPA rules and China deal; or win Congress and balk at helping poor nations pay for carbon mitigation; or lose the White House and Congress but win their well-funded state-level war of attrition. In 2012, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) hatched a campaign to allow state utilities to charge monthly fees of up to $50 to customers with solar panels. Last week California Republicans killed a plan to cut gas consumption in half by 2030. Last month 15 red states sued to delay Obama’s clean power plan. Say what you will about the Republicans, they aren’t quitters.
And they aren’t the only problem. In 2010 Hillary Clinton, nominal front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said she was “inclined” to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. In July she told a man at a New Hampshire town hall meeting he’d get her final answer when she became president. As Bill McKibben noted in an open letter to her, she spent her years as secretary of state flying around the world telling developing nations to get into the fracking business.
Where money is concerned Clinton’s sense of entitlement clouds her ethical sense. The Huffington Post reports that two Canadian banks backing the pipeline ponied up most of the $1.6 million she collected for eight speeches given from 2014 to 2015. One of the banks laid out another $1.6 million to hear Bill talk. The Clintons see nothing wrong in it, but the banks knew what they were buying. No reform will be safe until the entire "pay to play politics" machine, not just the Clintons’, is smashed.
Say the world gets to yes, the hapless Democrats run the table in 2016 and evil ALEC grows a heart. The U.N. accord, China deal and Obama’s clean power plan are locked in for four years. Where are we? Better off than we were, but the comparison isn’t to how we were doing, or to what Republicans would do. The correct comparison is to the problem. Are current policies enough to avert global disaster? Many say no.
The most widely accepted goal of climate policy is to limit the rise in global temperature to 2° C by the century’s end. Most scientists think if we can hold that line we’ll still suffer great losses—that much is inevitable now— but may be saved a far worse catastrophe. Can the Paris conference get us there? The Yale School of Forestry’s Environment 360 just carried a piece titled, "Will the Paris Climate Talks Be Too Little and Too Late?" In it, author Fred Pearce said this:
Many of the pledges sound ambitious but analysis suggests they fall far short of what is likely to be needed to prevent global warming beyond 2° C (3.6F) later this century.
Pearce quotes Bill Hare, a lead author for the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC): "It is clear that if the Paris meeting locks in present climate commitments for 2030, holding warming below 2 degrees could essentially become infeasible."
Obama’s Clean Power Plan is just as shaky. It leaves implementation to the states, which have till 2018 to draft a plan and 2022 to get it up and going. So for seven years everybody gets a pass. And if a red state doesn’t get around to writing a plan, is anyone jailed or fined? Does it lose a little federal aid? The answer here is "none of the above." The EPA may impose a plan, not just any plan, but the late, lamented "cap and trade"; the elephantine creature that died a slow motion death in Obama’s first term. How well that would work no one can say.
The plan is just part of what Obama calls his “all of the above strategy.” He brags that America is now the world’s leading oil and gas producer. Like Clinton, he loves fracking. He loves fracking because he loves natural gas, which he calls a "bridge" to a clean energy future. He’s just as fond of offshore drilling. In January he signed off on leases from Georgia to Virginia, ending a decades-long ban on Atlantic drilling. In March, he auctioned off a million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. In August he gave Shell the go-ahead to drill in treacherous Arctic seas 70 miles off Alaska’s coast. It’s as if he and not Sarah Palin ran on the slogan "drill baby drill."
This is what Earth may look like after a 3° rise in temperatures: sea levels rise by 35 to 75 feet, wiping out every major coastal city and forcing mass evacuations on every continent; whole nations in tropical or desert climes become uninhabitable; what’s left of Europe suffers temperatures well above those that took 25,000 French and German lives in the great summer heat wave of 2003; America’s breadbasket becomes a dust bowl; people the world over go to war over water.
Democrats ridicule Republicans as science deniers, which of course they are. But when it comes to science many Democrats have selective hearing. If experts from MIT, the IPCC and the IEA say a global holocaust is coming and we aren’t doing enough to stop it, we must listen. Science isn’t infallible. But given the odds and the stakes, we must act faster and more forcefully than any leading Democrat now proposes.
In his New York piece Chait asserts that while “all or nothing” thinking can be a “useful tool for communicating urgency to the public” it is also be “a trap into which many of us—especially environmentalists—have fallen.” He concludes: "…the fight to save the Earth from climate change is not something that will be 'won' or 'lost.' Climate change is a problem of risk management, albeit on a planetary scope."
You can bet Obama agrees. It’s how he views all issues; not as either/or choices but as matters suited to risk management and centrist politics. His rhetoric may be "apocalyptic" but his agenda is still "all of the above." It isn’t nearly enough. The Paris conference, even if successful, won’t be enough. We need a far bolder strategy. Here are four of its vital points.
1. We must act now, not vow to act in five or 15 years. If we wait till it gets any hotter it’ll be too late. In a 2012 Rolling Stone article, Bill McKibben sketched some now famous math done by British financial analysts. Their bottom line: to stay under the 2 °C limit we must leave 80 percent of all coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground. "Keep it in the ground" has since become a worldwide battle cry. On Tuesday 400 organizations and individuals called on Obama to stop leasing federal lands and waters to oil and gas companies. He should do as they ask. When he does he should tell the American people he now knows it is no longer a distinction to lead the world in fossil fuel production, and that we must leave most of what we have found in the ground.
Obama has two entirely divergent energy policies. The time has come for him to pick one. Natural gas is not, as he would have it, a bridge to a clean energy future. Fracking is dangerous and a giant waste of resources. We’d emit far less CO2 and import far less oil by spending the money on weatherization and other forms of conservation. Conservation is the real bridge to a clean energy future. It would help if he began saying so. We don’t need oil that is dirty, expensive and dangerous to recover. That means no shale oil, and no Keystone pipeline.
2. All of our current carbon reduction programs are ineffective. Fuel efficiency standards are a case in point. In 2012 Obama announced tough new rules requiring new cars and trucks to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. But it seems the government lets automakers cheat on the tests. The Union of Concerned Scientists calculates that a car that posts 54.5 mpg on the fake test will only get 39.4 mpg on a real road. In effect, the rules give automakers 10 years to sell us cars they sell in Europe right now.
When Obama announced these rules in 2012, annual gasoline consumption in the U.S. had hit a modern low of 133.4 billion gallons. Analysts predicted even steeper declines. Instead, consumption rose a billion gallons in 2013. In 2014 it rose 2 billion gallons. It’s on track to rise 4 billion gallons in 2015. Why? As gas prices fell, people drove more miles and bought fewer hybrid or all-electric cars and more gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. Obama loves "market-based solutions." But when this year’s market demands more trucks and fewer hybrids it drags down fuel efficiency next year and for years to come. We just can’t afford that.
Obama’s love for market-based solutions is one reason why rules like these get written in closed-door sessions pitting high-priced industry talent against political appointees and civil servants. Behind all the market jargon hides a hard truth: We have ceded to corporations much of our power to regulate commerce in the public interest. To get fundamental change, we must take it back.
3. The move to green energy can happen fast and if done right will be far from painful, even in the short term. Yet even Democrats frame the choice as a trade of present pain for future comfort; endure some hardship now and you’ll be spared worse down the line. Here is Obama in Anchorage:
It will not be easy. There are hard questions to answer. I am not trying to suggest that there are not going to be difficult transitions that we all have to make. But if we… make our best efforts to protect this planet for future generations, we can solve this problem.
We must stop talking like this. The faster we go green, the less we suffer -- and not in the sweet by and by but right now. Consider conservation. Even as prices fall, the cheapest energy is still the energy you don’t use. Families and businesses can reap vast savings from conservation. Add the many hundreds of thousands of direct jobs a national conservation campaign could generate and you begin to grasp the real economics of the choices we now face. The same is true of renewables, especially solar.
In the last five years the cost of solar electricity has fallen by an astonishing 50 percent. In the world’s sunnier climes solar power is already cheaper than any fossil fuel. Another 50 percent drop in solar prices and it’ll be game over. You’d think this would spur a massive public investment in photovoltaic research and development. You’d be wrong. Instead, at the worst possible moment, government incentives for solar installation are drying up. State and local subsidies are down 80 percent from their 2002 high. The federal income tax credit is set to expire. As noted, utilities want to impose monthly fees on solar panels. I’d say there was a conspiracy to slow the pace of solar energy, but it’s all too obvious to be called a conspiracy.
4. This is a fabulous opportunity, not a hard choice. The transition to a sustainable economy based on conservation and renewable energy is the economic recovery program the politicians have been looking for but can’t find. In the '90s America prospered because it led the world into the information age. The green revolution is even bigger and, as grows clearer every day, more benign. And yet we seem content to let other nations lead the way.
The "new economy" of the '90s had no opponents to speak of, only cheerleaders, largely because it didn’t displace any old industries, just workers. It was the first technological revolution to destroy more jobs than it created, but anyone who said so back then was instantly scorned. Its technology abetted the malignant growth of giant corporations that devour all things small. Government did all it could to help.
The new "new economy" is in every important way the opposite of the old "new economy." It’s a surefire job creator and the jobs it creates are more apt to stick around. It fosters localism and sustains rather than destroys small business. But because it threatens powerful interests it must overcome the opposition of the very government that by rights ought to be its best ally. We stand at the threshold of a great transformation. The only question is whether we will cross it in time. Politics is all that holds us back.