Doing our best versus doing what’s required

Yesterday afternoon, I was one of a panel of four from the ‘environmental’ field who met under the ageis of Common Purpose with a group of around 25-30 senior figures from the world of business, finance, the semi-state sector and beyond. The topic of the closed session was “exploring the ability of environmental leaders to effect change by inspiring others”.

The meeting is covered by the Charter House Rules (i.e. what’s said in the room stays in the room) but it was a useful opportunity to shoot the breeze with a spectrum of people well beyond the types who might usually find themselves discussing environment, energy and sustainability issues in Dublin on a Tuesday afternoon. On the positive side, there was a good deal less scepticism/hostility to climate science than has been portrayed in our media in recent weeks.

The rotating small group format for the session made it possible to exchange views beyond the usual perfunctory level possible at public meetings. Most of the people I spoke with had a definite sense that there’s a problem, but were very unclear as to its scope, intensity or the range of related threats posed by energy insecurity, biodiversity loss and peak oil as well as resource depletion generally. Most were open-minded enough to appear prepared to hear the unvarnished facts. Two or three people confessed to being genuinely shocked at what they learned over the course of the afternoon. A common remark to me was how little serious media space these extraordinarily grave environmental portents actually receive.

Exchanging information is of course a two way street. The subtitle of the session was “passion & resonance”, where participants attempted to explain their successes, failures and otherwise in trying to ‘deliver change’ in this field. The consensus among the group is that you have to bring everyone along, how ever long this takes. But surely here’s the rub: how long have we actually got? If you were diagnosed with a malignant growth, surely that’s not the time to embark on an MBA or taking a couple of years out to talk to people about how this makes you feel.

Would the saner impulse not be to go directly into treatment to both stem and – with luck – reverse the disease while there’s still time? Then, once stabilised, there will be plenty of time for reflection and maybe even knocking out a book about your experiences. These thoughts came to mind on reading Al Gore’s opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune last night in which he reflects at length and insightfully on the situation post-Copenhagen, post-Climategate and with climate sceptics and their media shills seemingly in the ascendancy.

Gore has been pilloried and parodied mercilessly since he released An Inconvenient Truth almost five years ago. The ferocity of the attacks endured by Gore and others are testimony to the power of the multi-trillion dollar global energy industry, and its determination to drown out the warning calls from science in order to continue its ‘drill baby, drill’ trajectory to the bitter end. I strongly recommend his article below:



It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.

Of course, we would still need to deal with the national security risks of our growing dependence on a global oil market dominated by dwindling reserves in the most unstable region of the world, and the economic risks of sending hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas in return for that oil. And we would still trail China in the race to develop smart grids, fast trains, solar power, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy — the most important sources of new jobs in the 21st century.

But what a burden would be lifted! We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands. We could instead celebrate the naysayers who had doggedly persisted in proving that every major National Academy of Sciences report on climate change had simply made a huge mistake.

I, for one, genuinely wish that the climate crisis were an illusion. But unfortunately, the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, the crisis is still growing because we are continuing to dump 90 million tons of global-warming pollution every 24 hours into the atmosphere — as if it were an open sewer.

It is true that the climate panel published a flawed overestimate of the melting rate of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas, and used information about the Netherlands provided to it by the government, which was later found to be partly inaccurate. In addition, e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia in Britain showed that scientists besieged by an onslaught of hostile, make-work demands from climate skeptics may not have adequately followed the requirements of the British freedom of information law.

But the scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate: man-made global-warming pollution traps heat from the sun and increases atmospheric temperatures. These pollutants — especially carbon dioxide — have been increasing rapidly with the growth in the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and forests, and temperatures have increased over the same period. Almost all of the ice-covered regions of the Earth are melting — and seas are rising. their number is expected to decrease. Droughts are getting longer and deeper in many mid-continent regions, even as the severity of flooding increases. The seasonal predictability of rainfall and temperatures is being disrupted, posing serious threats to agriculture. The rate of species extinction is accelerating to dangerous levels.

Though there have been impressive efforts by many business leaders, hundreds of millions of individuals and families throughout the world and many national, regional and local governments, our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which these emissions are increasing — much less reduce them.

And in spite of President Obama’s efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in December, global leaders failed to muster anything more than a decision to “take note” of an intention to act.

Because the world still relies on leadership from the United States, the failure by the Senate to pass legislation intended to cap American emissions before the Copenhagen meeting guaranteed that the outcome would fall far short of even the minimum needed to build momentum toward a meaningful solution.

The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.

This comes with painful costs. China, now the world’s largest and fastest-growing source of global-warming pollution, had privately signaled early last year that if the United States passed meaningful legislation, it would join in serious efforts to produce an effective treaty. When the Senate failed to follow the lead of the House of Representatives, forcing the president to go to Copenhagen without a new law in hand, the Chinese balked. With the two largest polluters refusing to act, the world community was paralyzed.

Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically. It is difficult to imagine a globally harmonized carbon tax or a coordinated multilateral regulatory effort. The flexibility of a global market-based policy — supplemented by regulation and revenue-neutral tax policies — is the option that has by far the best chance of success. The fact that it is extremely difficult does not mean that we should simply give up.

Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach. The lags in the global climate system, including the buildup of heat in the oceans from which it is slowly reintroduced into the atmosphere, means that we can create conditions that make large and destructive consequences inevitable long before their awful manifestations become apparent: the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.

It’s important to point out that the United States is not alone in its inaction. Global political paralysis has thus far stymied work not only on climate, but on trade and other pressing issues that require coordinated international action.

The reasons for this are primarily economic. The globalization of the economy, coupled with the outsourcing of jobs from industrial countries, has simultaneously heightened fears of further job losses in the industrial world and encouraged rising expectations in emerging economies. The result? Heightened opposition, in both the industrial and developing worlds, to any constraints on the use of carbon-based fuels, which remain our principal source of energy.

The decisive victory of democratic capitalism over communism in the 1990s led to a period of philosophical dominance for market economics worldwide and the illusion of a unipolar world. It also led, in the United States, to a hubristic “bubble” of market fundamentalism that encouraged opponents of regulatory constraints to mount an aggressive effort to shift the internal boundary between the democracy sphere and the market sphere. Over time, markets would most efficiently solve most problems, they argued. Laws and regulations interfering with the operations of the market carried a faint odor of the discredited statist adversary we had just defeated.

This period of market triumphalism coincided with confirmation by scientists that earlier fears about global warming had been grossly understated. But by then, the political context in which this debate took form was tilted heavily toward the views of market fundamentalists, who fought to weaken existing constraints and scoffed at the possibility that global constraints would be needed to halt the dangerous dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

Over the years, as the science has become clearer and clearer, some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart.

Simultaneously, changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as “socialist” any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace.

From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption. After all has been said and so little done, the truth about the climate crisis — inconvenient as ever — must still be faced.

The pathway to success is still open, though it tracks the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing. It begins with a choice by the United States to pass a law establishing a cost for global warming pollution. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation, with some Republican support, to take the first halting steps for pricing greenhouse gas emissions.

Later this week, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman are expected to present for consideration similar cap-and-trade legislation. I hope that it will place a true cap on carbon emissions and stimulate the rapid development of low-carbon sources of energy.

We have overcome existential threats before. Winston Churchill is widely quoted as having said, “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes, you must do what is required.” Now is that time. Public officials must rise to this challenge by doing what is required; and the public must demand that they do so — or must replace them.

Al Gore, the vice president from 1993 to 2001, is the founder of the Alliance for Climate Protection and the author of “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.” As a businessman, he is an investor in alternative energy companies.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to Doing our best versus doing what’s required

  1. Liam Og says:

    Gore is bang on the button – again. He laid it out clearly five years ago in his film, and nothing has changed since then, at least not in a good way. Am glad to see him getting ‘back in the fight’ on this climate skeptic scam nonsense. Weighing up a few mistakes out of thousands of pages of hard science versus a tissue of industry-funded lies by industry-funded liars and the odd idealogue thrown in is not leading me, or any other sane observer, to doubt what the science is telling us. “What a fool believes, the wise man has the power to reason away” (no, that wasn’t JFK or Gandhi, pretty sure it was the Doobie Brothers!)

  2. James R says:

    “a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands…” Well said, Sir! Watched ‘The Road’ over the weekend and am still reeling after it. There it is, laid out, not in black and white, but in a dirty, dull burnt-out gray, stretching to eternity in every direction.

    While I had the utmost admiration for the man trying to keep his son alive against hopeless odds, I’m afraid I’m with his wife in wanting to get it over with a hell of a long time before that. That’s the future OK. Cormac McCarthy nailed it here.

    ….90 million tons of shit pumped into the sky every 24 hours, 365 days a year, and we’re all supposed to look surprised when the wheels fall off a few more years down The Road…

  3. Lenny B says:

    “It’s an exceptionally inconvenient truth. Only one American in three believes that human beings are responsible for climate change: a polling result 10% down on where opinion rested the year before. Worse, the number of Americans who believe that climate change is a hoax or a scientific conspiracy – not doubting, just damned blank certain – has doubled since 2008.

    “Add in those who assert that the changes, if any, are of “no significant concern”, and you’ve got 30% of the US denying, scoffing and just walking on by” – Peter Preston, Guardian.

    Preston concludes: “the plain fact is that we surely need a prophet, not yet another committee. We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince – not because he preaches apocalypse in gory detail, but in simple, overwhelming terms. We need to be taught to believe by a true believer in a world where belief is the fatal, missing ingredient”.

    George Monbiot has a quite different take entirely:

    He sums it up thus: “The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.”

    John, I’ve got a funny feeling you can relate pretty well to Mr Monbiot on this score!

  4. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    You may not convince all of the people, or even half of them, but in practice you only have to convince the powers that be – the government, the ‘permanent government’, key media and industry figures. So keep at it, John. Gormley and Ryan have done well in getting Cowen & Co to agree to some far-reaching energy and infrastructural changes, so it’s not like the FFers are not amenable to new thinking. But we need plenty more where that came from, and a little more cohesion within the Greens.

  5. Ian says:

    Of course businessmen claim to want to “bring everyone along” in a cosy consensus on climate policy. Most of them are likely naive and fuzzy-minded about the way society and politics works, and others are trying to keep their show on The Road as long as possible without changing it.

    History teaches us that
    1. Governments are controlled by powerful and wealthy interests, not the people’s interests.

    2. Major social movements have changed policy and culture not by creating a consensus across the board but by building a critical mass of people to create a crisis that forces a change in policy. (Trade unions, civil rights, suffrage, Irish independence etc)

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