Earth to Obama: No Negotiating With the Planet

By Bill McKibben, The New Republic - October 1, 2009

It's been a long year--Barack Obama has faced, in rough order, John McCain, global financial collapse, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Blue Dogs, the Progressive Caucus, the Gang of Six, Glenn Beck, Representative Joe Wilson (R-Hissy), and the third of Republicans convinced he was born somewhere else. Of course, minus the birth certificates, roughly the same has been true for Hu Jintao and Nicolas Sarkozy, for Angela Merkel and Manmohan Singh. That's what politics is--a series of challenges, which are rarely won or lost completely. You get part of what you wanted (everyone with health insurance), and maybe you leave other stuff for another day (the public option). That's why we call politics the pursuit of the possible.

And it's why the next big issue on the agenda is totally, scarily different. Assuming that the health care fracas eventually ends, Washington will tackle the president's other great priority for his administration--energy and climate. The House has already approved the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and a Senate version is expected at month's end. Even if Congress drags its feet, Obama will visit China in mid-November to likely conclude a bilateral pact that will set the stage for the huge Copenhagen climate conference in December. It promises to be one more big fight.

But, throughout the process, as industry and environmentalists, Chinese and Indians, Americans and Europeans push and prod each other, another more important negotiation will be going on behind the scenes. That negotiation features human beings--led more by Obama than anyone else on the planet--against physics and chemistry. It's not going to be enough to strike a deal with Beijing or Delhi, to meet in the middle on some mutually plausible scheme. A deal has to be struck with the climate itself, and the climate is unlikely to haggle.


In the summer of 2007, sea ice in the Arctic began to melt dramatically, many decades ahead of the schedule that scientists had previously predicted. Before the summer was out, there was about a quarter less ice at the pole than ever before in human history. That scared scientists, who began revising their calculations of how fast we would need to move to stay ahead of global warming. And this growing understanding has, in turn, changed the political demands on policymakers very dramatically. Obama, for instance, had initially campaigned on a pledge to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 80 percent by mid-century, and the Waxman-Markey legislation was designed to, more or less, meet that goal. All of a sudden, that target didn't seem like enough to meet the demands of the new science--researchers were now throwing around numbers like 40 percent cuts by 2020 in the developed world, which would require not a speedy conversion to renewable energy, but a forced march reminiscent of the rapid buildup at the start of World War II. On a global scale, the old goal--still embraced by the Obama administration--was to aim for a planet where atmospheric carbon dioxide topped out at 450 parts per million (ppm), and the temperature didn't rise more than two degrees Celsius. Under the old estimates, that would have been enough to stave off "catastrophic change." But what 2007 showed was that our current level of 390 ppm and a one-degree rise in temperature was enough to melt the Arctic. And it wasn't just the Arctic--scientists were reporting that high-altitude glaciers, flood and drought cycles, and even the chemistry of seawater were all showing the same kind of ahead-of-schedule change. In January of 2008, NASA's James Hansen--at the very least, the most prestigious climatologist employed by the U.S. government--released a paper setting a new target for staving off catastrophe: 350 ppm. It was embraced that year by Al Gore and, this August, by the chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri. That is, the two men who have been awarded Nobel prizes for their work on global warming say that we need to be aiming for far lower emission levels than what Washington currently intends.

So here's the politics. In Washington, and in Copenhagen, political realism dictates reaching some kind of deal. And the pressure from vested interests--mostly the fossil-fuel lobby--combined with the political fear of annoying voters with higher gas prices or lifestyle shifts means that the incentive for anyone who has to run for office anytime soon is to take the easiest possible deal. Look at Waxman-Markey, which has been revised to cut emissions just 17 percent by 2020--and even that comes loaded with loopholes written to win over particular congressmen with particular coal mines. And it barely passed--by seven votes. Scientific realism demands much more.

And scientific realism holds the trump card here. If you pass half a health care bill, you can always come back in a decade. People will suffer in the meantime, but it won't grow impossible to fix the problem: The Clinton debacle in the 1990s didn't mean that we couldn't try again this year. But, if we don't do what the science requires on climate change, the situation will get badly out of hand. In the last two years, methane levels in the atmosphere have begun to spike sharply, apparently because warming temperatures are now melting the permafrost that caps large deposits of the potent greenhouse gas. If we let the planet keep warming, we won't be able to shut that cycle off--we're clearly much closer to that kind of tipping point than we imagined just a few years ago. Half a job may not be better than no job at all.



Nine months into Barack Obama's administration, a few of his appointees still haven't been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Click through for a rundown on some of the remaining people who haven't been confirmed, and why.

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