Catastrophe in the Works?

Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill requiring mandatory ceilings on the gases linked to global warming. It was the first time either chamber of Congress had approved a bill with clear targets, albeit modest, and crammed with concessions (“something for everyone”) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In his Times column this Monday, the recent Nobel Laureate in Economics, Paul Krugman, called the debate on the bill and its subsequent passage “treason against the planet.” He argues that never before in the history of this planet has it changed faster than even the pessimists expected—“ice caps are shrinking, arid zones spreading, at a tarrying rate.” He notes that researchers who had predicted about a 4 degree temperature increase by the end of this century are now predicting a rise of more than 9 degrees as global greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than expected.

His views echo those of James Hansen NASA’s leading (and controversial) climate investigator who is profiled by Elizabeth Kolbert in last week’s New Yorker. According to Kolbert, Hansen has concluded on the basis of his own and the observations of other scientists that “the threat of global warming is greater than even he had had suspected. Carbon dioxide isn’t just approaching dangerous levels; it is already there.”

And like Krugman, Hansen asserts that the companies that are pumping greenhouses gases into the atmosphere “should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature” for spreading false and misleading information about global warming. It is clear, he argues that “carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air some ten thousand times faster than natural weather processes can remove it”

When Hansen began to realize how serious the problem was, he thought, like most everyone else that getting this information out in front of the policy makers and government officials would be so clear and overwhelming that action would be taken to reduce greenhouse gases. This is the usual assumption about social and individual change: get the information out and change will occur. Of course that rarely happens and in this case was, as Hansen and others now recognize, naïve.

Even the visual images of what is happening to the planet don’t work. Who has not seen images of those massive sheets of ice melting in Antarctica? Or pictures of the Arctic ice cap which, according to Kolbert, “have been melting at a shocking rate; the extent of the summer ice is now only a little more than half of what it was just forty years ago.”

What is it going to take to deal what many consider a major emergency? Hansen believes there are three steps than we can begin to take to confront this problem head-on.

First, he argues for a moratorium on any new coal plants and a phase out of existing ones over the next twenty years. (Kolbert writes that coal now provides half of the electricity produced in the United States and in China it is estimated to be eighty percent). Hansen says, “There’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us. Coal is my worst nightmare.”

Second, he suggests that reforestation if practiced on a massive scale could begin to greatly reduce global CO2 levels.

Third, he argues that the notion of a cap-and-trade system is a sham. (The centerpiece of the recently passed House bill is a cap-and-trade program!) “What is required, he insists, is a direct tax on carbon emissions.”

Taking these steps is technically feasible. But “it requires us to take action promptly.” Easier said than done, of course, as we have been observing for years. Usually it takes a major catastrophe for significant change to take place in this country. Will this scenario be played out once again as the Senate considers the House bill on reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Hansen believes “The science is clear. This is our one chance.”