By William Espinosa
President Obama’s proposal to modestly curb carbon emissions from power plants is – if carried out—a serious one. But opposition was immediate, so is there reason to think anything will really change this time? The warnings have been issued before, the underlying process has been understood for decades, yet at least in the United States, no serious response emerges into action. And even when climate change and the human contribution are admitted, a curious fatalism sets in— it’s too late, responding is too expensive, India and China won’t join us, it’s God’s business. Is there now reason for hope?
It’s easy to attribute resistance to the manipulations of the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry and their ability to scare the nation with images of Godzilla Government and economic collapse. And to be sure there is uncertainty in any forward projection in a complex system. But is that really the story? Is there ambivalence even in Obama’s own proposal?
Climate change is not a new issue. For at least a quarter century we’ve known about the problem with a certainty that would have made any rational person buy insurance. In the 19th century we knew that the earth’s climate changed and that certain gases absorbed more infrared energy than others. In the early 20th century, Svante Arrhenius, postulated global warming from man-made CO2 emissions over a long term. By the 1970s, a rise in atmospheric CO2 and the Earth’s temperature during the industrial era was documented.
In the 1980s, consensus was forming among climate scientists and governments were warned. In 1988 UNEP organized a conference calling for action. In 1992, at the UN sponsored Earth Summit, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and a companion agreement on biodiversity were approved. This in turn led to the Kyoto Protocol which set both binding and voluntary CO2 emissions limits. But Kyoto was doomed from the start because the US wouldn’t have any part of it. Twenty years later—and with CO2 concentrations up another 12% over pre-industrial norms– no broad substitute has emerged.
“Cheap” insurance policies have been available and can be easily expanded. They range from energy conservation, to solar power applications (see a sample list at Informed Comment, 3/22/14), to wind power generation, to cleaner-burning biomass stoves, to name just a few. They might not solve the whole problem but they would make the risk of a catastrophic climate shift a lot smaller. The mechanisms for economic adjustment aren’t secrets either—education, training, government investments and incentives for alternatives in affected regions and nationally, substitution of a carbon tax for taxes on work.
In the past we’ve had no difficulty responding to serious man-made environmental threats even when industries warned of economic ruin. During the Reagan era, within ten years of the first alarm about CFC’s, an international convention was put in place to protect the ozone layer. At the height of the Cold War, with militaries and industries anxious to test “better” nuclear weapons, the major powers stopped atmospheric and underwater nuclear testing to avoid irradiating populations. Within ten years of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, DDT use was curtailed, even in the face of predictions of doom. “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson,” a scientist/executive of the American Cyanamid Company intoned, “We would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”
Americans relish large challenges. Kennedy and Johnson launched us to the moon—a feat accomplished in eight short years. During WWII over initial business resistance, the “arsenal of democracy” grew up in three brief years. When three thousand people were killed on 9/11, the United States launched two wars and spent more than four trillion dollars to counter the threat. Climate change threatens the wellbeing of hundreds of millions including Americans. Even the military has recognized the danger for years. Yet no concerted response is put forward, no national agenda emerges.
Why? The problem, I would suggest, goes deeper than the fossil fuel industry or the dysfunction of American politics. The phenomenon of climate change, I believe, challenges some core collective beliefs, provoking deeper anxieties. Consciously and unconsciously, fear drags on our intentions and clouds our thinking. “Fear is the mind-killer,” the Bene-Gesserit warned in Dune. To name a few now-in-doubt precepts:
1. Nations are sovereign within their borders.
2. The United States is an exceptional nation that can always prevail.
3. The US way of life is benign and benefits the world.
4. Consumption is the measure of economic growth and health.
5. God gave humans natural resources for enterprising individuals to exploit.
Frontier values and opportunities still endure.
At least on Earth, climate change threatens to make this last forever untrue and nine billion people can’t become American-type consumers. The United States can’t solve the climate problem at the nation-state level. Our activities have caused harm way beyond our borders and we need everyone’s help—even those whom we have harmed. “We are all Bangladeshi’s now,” as someone memorably put it.
Ever since we became farmers and village/city dwellers, our values have formed around the notion that it was for humans to tame nature. “That quantum leap beguiled us with an illusion of freedom from the world that had given us birth,” E.O. Wilson wrote, watching waves of extinctions and pleading for change. The mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee offers another perspective. The outer threat reflects an inner state of selfishness and greed. Moreover, the ecological challenge was an opening for humankind to make an evolutionary leap. But, Vaughan-Lee contends, we missed the opportunity to manifest a consciousness of unity (with humans, with nature) and now the end of the West is coming.
I don’t believe the apocalypse is here but I do believe that the challenge is deep and that more scientific studies aren’t going to change much. What is needed is a collective change of perception and heart. Solutions can’t be buried in regulatory techno-jargon or disingenuously offered up, as President Obama just did, as a response to child asthma. If the effort is serious, the fate of coal miners can’t be ignored (cf. Obama’s speech). US trade negotiators can’t be promoting dirty oil and unfettered fracking rights at the same time.
From the bottom up and from the top down, we need to acknowledge the moral, political and spiritual issues that the climate change phenomenon brings forth. These are likely greater than the economic and technical challenges. Fears need to be addressed and not left to fester and magnify problems. As noted above, much can be done at low cost but this gets lost in a fear-filled debate. If President Obama truly wishes to address climate change, he needs to define the problem and the response with clarity and purpose. Relying on the better angels of our culture—a can-do practicality, good will towards others and an inextinguishable optimism– we have the capacity to adapt. We can build a better civilization on a co-evolving planet but we have to stop thinking we’re so exceptional we can defy the laws of chemistry.
William Espinosa is the author of the science fiction eco-thriller