Is Chance Improving for Climate Change Action?

By David L. Brown

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision confirming that greenhouse gases (GHG), and in particular carbon dioxide emissions, are covered under the Clean Air Act could be a watershed event. If nothing else, it provides a clear view of the Bush Administration’s “Emperor’s New Clothes” approach to climate change.

The court also charged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with reviewing its policies toward regulating CO2 emissions from automobiles. On that issue, EPA has heretofore denied it had any responsibility to do that, claiming that GHG were not pollutants. The court ruling clearly demolished that stance. It also ruled that states and environmental organizations have the right to sue the EPA over GHG emissions regulations and to seek to set their own standards. The suit was brought by 12 states and 13 activist organizations.

Evidence is rapidly mounting in support of dire climate change predictions, and the facts are actually moving fast toward the more extreme possibilities. For example, scientists now believe that the major ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica could be in danger of breaking up and collapsing at a fairly rapid pace. Until recently, climate models predicted those massive ice sheets could only melt away over hundreds or even thousands of years.

The trouble with climate models is that they have not even been able to explain sudden changes that took place in the past, for example the Younger Dryas cold spell that suddenly dropped the Earth back into Ice Age conditions early in our present warmer era about 12,000 years ago. Analysis of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica have demonstrated that changes in the world’s temperature have often come with surprising speed. The findings also reveal that while change can come very fast, the climate takes a long time to recover. For example, the Younger Dryas lasted for about 700 years after a precipitous start.

Nothing in human experience (unless you count the stupid movie The Day After Tomorrow) has prepared us for sudden and dramatic climate change. Thus, all planning and economic activity has been based on the assumption that conditions will remain more or less the same, or change in a gradual way that allows human activities to adapt. The evidence is mounting that that just isn’t the way Nature works, and hard as it is to accept, we may be headed for a climate breakdown that will challenge the very existence of civilization.

There is much confusion about this issue — or rather, this interwoven basket of issues concerning possible and on-going climate change. And that is no surprise. For one thing, there has been a concerted effort by major global corporations to spread a blanket of denial on the subject. Led by that biggest industrial behemoth of all, ExxonMobil, companies have gone to great lengths to undermine hard evidence provided by scientists.

They have been aided and abetted by the press, which generally does not distinguish clearly between valid, credible science and public relations flackery. Too often the press has given a soapbox for statements from questionable sources, including pseudo-scientists, self-proclaimed experts, and lobbyists. The real message, which is that virtually all credible scientists have accepted the reality of global warming for at least a decade, has been fuzzed over and confused by this program of denial.

Our government has been complicit, too, giving too much credit to the deniers while pushing hard evidence under the rug, forcing benign interpretations onto the findings, and even attempting to suppress climate science findings entirely.

That model is changing, and changing fast. The National Research Council in the U.S., the Stern Report in Great Britain, and the latest report from the International Panel of Climate Change all agree that global warming is real and that the major cause is human activity. Al Gore’s courageous mission to spread the word about climate change has made another major contribution to changing public opinion. Now with the new Supreme Court ruling, government is under growing pressure to “do something” about the problem.

What can it do? Well, first the wider public (not to mention our largely unenlightened leaders in the Administration and Congress) need to gain a better understanding of what we are facing. One of the troubles is that the term “global warming” is really an inaccurate and misleading way to describe what is happening. Global warming is something to which few people can relate. Telling them, say, that the Earth’s temperature will rise by, for example, one degree only leads them to assume that the temperature on a nice Summer afternoon might be 87 degrees instead of 86 degrees. Why, that’s nothing, they conclude.

I recently saw the question posed that there may be no such thing as a global temperature, and I think that is a fair conclusion. Temperature can only be measured in many individual locations, and then averaged based on the data received. Since we cannot measure temperatures everywhere, and because there are many factors that could skew the numbers, that average is a pretty uncertain thing. Examples of the kind of things climate scientists must consider is that as cities expand they collect more heat. There are many other factors that make the idea of precisely calculating a single temperature for the Earth is uncertain and in reality meaningless.

What does make sense is to watch what is happening in specific locations, and the picture which that reveals is quite different from what the general public assumes. For example the Arctic is warming far more rapidly than other areas. In Alaska, for example, tundra that has remained frozen for thousands of years is thawing, and the North polar ice is melting like an ice cream cone in July. If the Arctic is growing considerably warmer, then that means that other locations must be growing colder to provide the more modest average global temperature increase that has been reported. And, that is the case. Many skeptics have pointed to killing frosts in Florida and California as evidence against global warming … but what these events actually are is strong evidence for the true term that should be applied to the subject: Climate change.

Looking at the subject through this lens, rather than the flawed prism of “global warming,” we see a much more complex and more comprehensible picture. There may be more heat building up on our planet, but it is having a whole range of effects. The temperature does not rise by an equal amount everywhere, and so the idea of “global warming” should be tossed right out. What is happening is that glaciers everywhere are rapidly melting; the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are beginning to split and break up; the Arctic ice cover is growing smaller each season; some areas are becoming cooler and wetter, some are growing dryer and warmer. As crudely portrayed in the stupid movie mentioned above, a reversal of the Atlantic thermohaline conveyor that carries tropical heat to the North Atlantic could plunge parts of the Earth into a new Ice Age (although not quite so quickly or dramatically as in the movie).

This is the sort of thing that confuses people when they hear the problem described as global warming instead of as climate change. If things are going to get colder in some places, then it must be global cooling, they think. So here is my first recommendation about what can be done: Clearly and without any reservations drop the use of the term “global warming” from our vocabulary once and for all.

What else could be done on a national level? There are many possibilities, all of which would take political courage and present economic risks and challenges. Our present system has too many built-in incentives for the status quo, things like oil depletion allowances, low automobile mileage standards, and misguided crop supports that are sending our nation down the dead end road of the ethanol and biofuel craze.

We need to eliminate or reverse those incentives, and create new ones to encourage development and deployment of more efficient, more sustainable, more Earth-friendly systems. The list of possibilities is virtually endless, so I will merely make a brief stab at how our auto industry could be engaged in rapid and positive change for the better:

  • First, encourage development of a more fuel efficient fleet by mandating that mileage standards will rise at a steady but sustainable rate, perhaps one m.p.g. per year, toward a target perhaps double or triple the present levels. Manufacturers that cannot attain those standards will suffer the consequences of the so-called “gas guzzler” taxes, and the pressure will be unremitting.
  • Second, encourage consumers to become more efficient users of gasoline by wielding the power of taxation to assure that gasoline prices remain relatively high. In the past, oil producers in the Mideast have been able to break the back of oil price spikes, thus undermining budding efforts to develop and launch energy alternatives that are more efficient and sustainable. There is some question whether our Arab “friends” still have that ability, but in no case should we allow gasoline prices to drop back to a comfort zone that would encourage the continued purchase and use of gas hogs.
  • Third, create consumer incentives for the purchase of more efficient vehicles. This would complement the economic incentives mentioned above. For example, a tax deduction or rebate for “gas sippers” should be instituted based on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle purchased, a kind of reverse “gas guzzler” tax that would actually reward the buyer.
  • Fourth, provide aid to the automobile companies to help them remake themselves in an appropriate model for the 21st Century. As it stands they are aging dinosaurs plodding toward extinction, and we need them to provide us with the replacement vehicles for our present inefficient fleet. Much as I hate the idea of government grants to private companies, in this case I think it would make sense. Besides supporting the development of more efficient vehicles, here’s another idea: Encourage the Big Three to convert their mothballed or underutilized factories to produce other energy saving products such as wind generators. That should be a natural, and could provide renewed employment, economic stimulus, and wider use of sustainable wind power — truly a win-win for all.

Those are just a few thoughts about just one part of our economy. There are hundreds, no thousands of other things that can be done if our leaders could only have the courage to step up to the challenge. In the past, corporations have been major engines of status quo, but they, too, should think about the possibilities of the future. Hanging onto the failed models of the past will lead to their extinction, and by embracing change they could experience rebirth. There are winds of change blowing, stronger with each passing month. Let us hope that those winds will slowly but surely turn the weather vane of “progress” in a new and safer direction, pointing toward a sustainable, energy efficient world of tomorrow.

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