Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Copenhagen May Be a Disaster

Let me be blunt about what amazes me when it comes to global warming.  In the U.S., it's largely an issue for Democrats, "progressives," liberals, the left, and I simply don't get that.  Never have.  If the word "conservative" means anything, the key to it must be that word at its heart, "conserve"; that is, the keeping or not squandering of what already is, especially what's most valuable. 

And for us humans, what's better than our planet?  It's the only home we've got and -- though I was one of those 1950s boys who read H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, as well as plenty of pulp sci-fi, and spent too much time dreaming about other planets and the stars -- probably the only one we'll ever have.  For us, there is nowhere else.  Wreck it and you wreck us. 

Don't think for a minute that global warming will destroy planet Earth.  It's already made it through worse moments than ours, and worse climate conditions than industrial civilization has to offer.  Planet Earth has no sense of time.  Give it 10 million, 20 million, 100 million years, and it will reconstitute itself in some fashion and spin on, life included, until our sun gives out.  But the way things are going, we may not do so well. 

The Soviet Union, that "evil empire," fell after only 70 years, to everyone's amazement.  Barely the span of human life.  If we -- or at least our various civilizations -- were to disappear in the coming century or so, after only a few thousand years on this planet, it would be no less short, no less amazing, no less unexpected.  But it's possible.  That anyone doubts the existence of global warming as a threat to our existence seems no less amazing to me.  That, at this crucial moment, on the eve of a gathering of the world's nations in Copenhagen to try to pound out some kind of agreement for the abatement of greenhouse gases, opinion polls show Americans actually losing interest in global warming, or even in the belief that it's happening at all, is depressing indeed.  (Only 35% of Americans, according to a recent Pew poll, for example, think global warming is a "very serious problem," a drop of nine points in six months.)  To find "conservatives" obsessed over the fact that climate-change scientists turn out to be frustrated, careerist, even mean-spirited, and willing to simplify or fiddle with their complex figures to deal with opponents they consider dangerous idiots ("Climate-gate") is simply to meet human nature, not a conspiracy of monumental proportions. 

The most recent information is clear enough.  The world is changing, and not for the better.  According to Elizabeth Kolbert, possibly the best journalist now reporting on climate change (writing at Yale University's splendid Environment 360 website), a new report by leading climate scientists, released on the eve of the Copenhagen meeting, reflects surprise at how much more quickly the planet is proceeding toward various "tipping points" than previously expected.  The report, she writes, "points to dramatic declines in Arctic sea ice, recent measurements that show a large net loss of ice from both Greenland and Antarctica, and the relatively rapid rise in global sea levels -- 3.4 millimeters per year -- as particular reasons for concern. Sea-level rise this century, it states, 'is likely to be at least twice as large' as predicted by the most recent IPCC report, issued in 2007, with an upper limit of roughly two meters."  This, believe me, is not good news. 

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and TomDispatch regular, explains just why conservatives and everyone else around should board the global-warming express, and pull hard on the brake cord before it's too late.  You can, by the way, catch a TomDispatch audio interview with McKibben on President Obama and climate-change politics in the U.S. by clicking here. Tom

The Physics of Copenhagen
Why Politics-As-Usual May Mean the End of Civilization
By Bill McKibben

Most political arguments don't really have a right and a wrong, no matter how passionately they're argued. They're about human preferences -- for more health care or lower taxes, for a war to secure some particular end or a peace that leaves some danger intact.  On occasion, there are clear-cut moral issues: the rights of minorities or women to a full share in public life, say; but usually even those of us most passionate about human affairs recognize that we're on one side of a debate, that there are legitimate arguments to the contrary (endless deficits, coat-hanger abortions, a resurgent al-Qaeda). We need people taking strong positions to move issues forward, which is why I'm always ready to carry a placard or sign a petition, but most of us also realize that, sooner or later, we have to come to some sort of compromise.

That's why standard political operating procedure is to move slowly, taking matters in small bites instead of big gulps. That's why, from the very beginning, we seemed unlikely to take what I thought was the correct course for our health-care system:  a single-payer model like the rest of the world. It was too much change for the country to digest.  That's undoubtedly part of the reason why almost nobody who ran for president supported it, and those who did went nowhere.


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