Global Warming: The Great Evasion

by Lorna Salzman

Global warming legislation is, finally, floating around the halls of Congress in response to demands from some environmental groups and from industry itself. But none of the resolutions are based on hard science. All hedge and fudge, giving substance to Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth"on how politics and concerns for the economy have again prevailed over reality. One could call this The Great Evasion.

The impact of accelerating global warming on human health, food crops, climate, biodiversity, drinking water and sea level rise is not in dispute. Indeed, most of these effects are already measurable and advancing. The unanswered question is: how much time is left to avert the "tipping point" beyond which these trends will accelerate irreversibly, ending in a new global climate regime not seen in hundreds of thousands of years, that is, in human history? Is there a way to predict when this will occur?

Indeed there is. The fundamental facts are contained in all credible scientific studies, including, among others, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the Scientific Expert Study Group Report on Climate Change and Sustainable Development, sponsored by the UN Foundation and Sigma Xi. Here they are:

The present average global temperature is about 0.8 degrees C. (Celsius) above that of 1750, the pre-industrial era.

The vast majority of scientists agree that the tipping point, the point of no return and irreversible change, is 2 degrees C. over that of 1750. This leaves us about 1.2 degrees C.

Greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere have committed us to a temperature rise of another 0.4-0.5 degrees C., leaving a margin of only 0.7 degrees. Under present Business As Usual scenarios of world energy consumption, a rise of 0.2-0.4 degrees C. will occur each decade. (Note: a study by the Hadley Centre in the UK has even more dire projections, predicting a 3 degree C. rise in temperature for eastern Europe by the year 2020, followed by a 6 degree C. rise ten years later in Africa. This study, published earlier this year by The Ecologist, has been suppressed in the UK).

The math is straightforward: we have about ten years, plus or minus a couple, to bite the bullet and curb CO2, the primary greenhouse gas. This means we must stabilize CO2 emissions at their present level NOW and reduce them by at least 10% every year for the next ten to fifteen years if we are to head off ecological, economic and social catastrophe.

Sadly, none of the proposed bills in Congress, such as the Safe Climate Act in the US House of Representatives (Waxman), or the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act in the US Senate (S. 309, sponsored by Boxer and Sanders), comes close to this target. Yet nearly all environmental groups are supporting them: Earth Day Network, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense, Environment & Energy Study Institute, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, National AudubonSociety, National Environmental Trust, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned scientists, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. In effect, they are thumbing their noses at science and the public interest.

Nor does the proposal of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), an alliance of industry and some environmental groups (Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, World Resources Institute). This plan would actually envision backsliding, allowing CO2 to increase for five years, with subsequent reductions (in this country) that would cut emissions by 60% to 80% by the year 2050....43 years from now and a futile two to three decades past the tipping point, allowing average global CO2 concentrations to reach 450 ppm or more. Even Al Gore's proposed 90% reduction by the year 2050 is inadequate. The Great Evasion prevails.

Yet recent media coverage pins medals on the congressional participants in this evasion, and on utilities like TXU in Texas (where massive unprecedented flooding is occurring; wonder why?), which announced with great fanfare their agreement with Environmental Defense to cancel eight of their proposed coal-powered plants (but allow the remaining three to continue to emit CO2 freely).

In contrast, scientists like James Hansen, of NASA's Goddard Space Studies Center, are demanding a halt to all new coal plants except those that can demonstrably sequester CO2. Furthermore, other plans for new coal plants continue unabated, relying on the snake oil scam called carbon trading, a scheme that cannot be properly overseen, is already being gamed and which is a poorly disguised method to keep coal plants running indefinitely. Its only accomplishment is to give rise to a new sector of financial analysts, traders and accountants enriching themselves at the public trough.

Environmentalists used to be wrongly accused of practicing "junk science" for opposing various polluting projects. But in light of the diluted goals supported by NRDC, ED, and those groups supporting S.309, this accusation now has some merit. And the public remains bewildered by the so-called debate among scientists about the extent and imminence of global warming. Meanwhile, some members of congress hope to earn medals for doing what amounts to nearly nothing at all, and the environmental community is ready to pin the medals on their business suits.

Our only hope may be a Million Scientist March on Washington, calling for a halt to all new fossil fuel plants, an end to all fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks, a global emissions cap to prevent more than a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperature, and stringent mandatory reductions in energy use across the industrial world, including gasoline rationing and high taxes on fossil fuels, accompanied by a "Manhattan Project" to bring renewable energy on line within fifteen years.

Will this hurt economic growth? Yes, growth as traditionally defined, but if done right, this plan will more than compensate through development of renewable energy, more compact land use, non-fossil fuel- based agricultural practices, and revival of public transportation networks that would create millions of new jobs and a new sustainable economy...and save the planet as we know it.

As for the Hamptons, it is time to penalize the owners of McMansions, with their tennis courts, outdoor lighting, air conditioning, and heated swimming pools by raising the property taxes of these conspicuous consumers commensurate with their energy consumption and their huge responsibility for the global warming crisis. Building levees on eastern LI won't help any more than it will in New Orleans.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.