Hog Heaven, Part 2

Still a frat boy at heartLet’s face it: The Bush Administration has made a mess of things, as noted in Part 1. It is now clear, if it hasn’t been all along, that by the time George Bush leaves office, the White House will have wasted eight years of leadership on the Mother of All Issues.

If those eight years are a profound disappointment looking backward, then they are a profound tragedy looking forward. The head of the IPCC is spreading the message that the world community has seven short years to act decisively to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. John Holdren is among the prestigious U.S. scientists who now say more openly that the affects of climate change already are upon us. Dr. Jim Hansen now estimates that atmospheric concentrations of carbon must level off at 350 ppm, nearly 30 percent lower than everyone thought was needed to keep climate change at “safe” levels. Anyone who’s paying attention sees that the impacts of global warming are occurring much faster than predicted.

If this year’s weather extremes are a sample of climate change, how much worse will they be 10 years, 20 years or 30 years from now, as today’s rising and accumulating emissions take their toll?

The President’s and Vice President’s puerile behavior would be laughable if they weren’t the President and Vice President, and they weren’t acting like frat boys with the nation’s future. Dick Cheney neutralizes EPA’s climate findings by refusing to open his e-mail? George Bush laughs, punches the air and brags to world leaders that he’s the “world’s biggest polluter“?

All that’s left is to hunker down and hold our noses for six more months, and to hope that John McCain or Barack Obama will face the climate problem like adults, using the power of the office to protect America’s security in its fullest sense – our health, our health costs, our energy supplies, our economy and jobs, our safety from floods and fires and tornadoes, our relief from resource wars. These are not things for a President to joke about.

Is it realistic to hope that the next President will give us bold leadership on the conjoined issues of energy and climate security? Some who watch the messy policy-making process inside the Beltway are not optimistic. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar gives this assessment in Mother Jones:

The president will have advisers who will be whispering cautions about the risks of committing the prestige of any administration to aggressive energy goals. Those advisers will say with some credibility that a president can appear forward-looking on energy with a few carefully chosen initiatives and occasional optimistic rhetoric promoting alternative sources. They will say that the voting public’s overwhelming energy concern is high prices for gasoline and home heating, and that as long as the president appears attentive to those concerns they can cover their political bases without asking for sacrifices or risking the possible failure of a more controversial energy policy.

In a splendid essay published on July 4 (splendid because I completely agree with it), Australian businessman David Spratt and Philip Sutton of the Greenleap Strategic Institute make a similar point — not only about political leaders, but also about environmental leaders. A few excerpts:

Why has climate policy moved in such a painfully slow manner?…It seems as if there are two great tectonic plates — scientific necessity and political pragmatism — that meet very uneasily at a fault line…

We see reluctance on the part of organizations and people to go beyond the bounds of perceived acceptability. This results in the advocacy of solutions that, even if fully implemented, would not actually solve the problem. There is a sense that many of the climate policy professionals — in government, research, community organizations and advocacy — have established boundaries around their public discourse that are guided by a primary concern for “reasonableness”, rather that by a concern for achieving environmental and social sustainability.

In other words, we spend too much time asking what’s possible rather than what’s necessary. When courage is needed, pragmatism is the enemy. Or as the authors put it:

A pragmatic interdependency links many of these players in a cycle of low expectations and poor outcomes…It seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to break the cycle; but how can this be done? Part of the problem seems to be fear: those who are the first to move to a tougher position are worried about becoming isolated or losing credibility.

Or losing office. Or campaign contributions. Or a political appointment. Or the respect of more “pragmatic” colleagues.

One timid and time-tested approach might be called “incremental courage” — trying the minimum solution first and, if it fails, going to the next level of boldness. That approach won’t work anymore, Spratt and Sutton contend.

With global warming, we do not have the luxury of learning by trail and error. We have left the climate problem unattended for so long that we now have just one chance to get things right by applying a “no major trade-off” approach without a trial run. It will be a particular challenge for decision-makers, who have grown up in a political culture of compromise.

For those who have, in the past, downplayed the risks, changing position is now a matter of urgency, because what now needs to be done is not incrementally reasonable.

We’ve run out of time for a gradual retreat from denial. We can’t wait for another mega-disaster, then another, then another, to give increasingly deadly evidence that climate change is a clear and present danger, and to drive Americans to accept bold leadership from Washington. We need leaders who drive public opinion rather than being driven by it, who watch the road rather than the fuzz-buster.

Maybe the American people sense that. Maybe that’s why we’ve responded so strongly to Sen. Obama’s theme of change.

I’ve heard that there’s a plaque on the wall of Wal-Mart headquarters, inscribed with a quote from Sam Walton. It says: “Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy. We don’t want continuous improvement, we want radical change.”

Indeed we do.

6 Responses to Hog Heaven, Part 2

  1. Ronald says:

    The effort needed to make the energy source and efficiencies needed are best described by a World War II effort or we need a Manhatten project or Apollo project to get to Low and non carbon energy sources. It might better be described by our American Civil War (ACW.)

    In 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave his ‘nation devided’ speech saying that a country that is half free and half slave can not stand (or something like that.) And people could rally around that. The platform to the Republican convention in 1860 that nominated Lincoln was the Declaration of Independance Preamble and the need for freedom ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ for all people. Well, we today need a declaration for lowered carbon dioxide release for the health of our planet and climate for the next 50 generations. That can also be a basic right that can be assured with by a little bit of wealth. That basic principle is what should be rallied around.

    Had Lincoln’s speech mentioned the cost of what if would take for this nation to go from ‘half slave and half free’ to what it was, he would not have been elected. How could anybody vote for him if he would have told you we needed to have a 4 year war with 620 000 killed on both sides that divided the country. But our costs to get away from carbon to non carbon energy are lower than the ACW. From estimates I have read, the costs are from 0.6 percent to 2.0 percent of GNP. One obvious problem is the costs are unequal, to those who own and whose job is dependant on carbon fuels will lose the most and those who will own and work in the non-carbon fuels will gain the most.

    But it is still needed to do.

  2. Joe, this is the crux of it. Most of the discussion – such as what goes on at Andy Revkin’s place (with all due respect) is beating round the bush. That kind of blah-blah could conceivably go on forever with very little getting accomplished. Unfortunately, that’s probably what will happen because politicians love to hear themselves speak and hate to take risks in the present to address risks in the future.

    Yes, this is akin to mobilizing for WWII. Had there been blogs in 1941 we could have talked our way through the next four years and found ourselves negotiating for peace with Hitler and Hirohito.

    So what will it be? More weather-related disasters year-by-year until we’re overburdened with recovery, rebuilding and disaster relief? Or some definitive change today?

    Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!

  3. JMG says:

    That’s interesting about the Wal-Mart quote, because most of my master’s was spent studying continuous improvement, particularly the ideas from Japan, Inc. — a country that’s about 10x as energy efficient as the US.

    I have long thought that the US fascination with the “home run” — the idea that a base hit is somehow inferior to the long ball — is one of the roots of our energy problems. Those lucky enough to live at the dawn of new technologies can hope to hit those long balls — to make those “radical innovations.” But in most fields the victory goes to those who patiently seek incremental improvements. This is not to say that you should not seek big gains — but, in the US, we tend to skim and, if we don’t see obvious points for big gains, we quit. The real winners are those who are willing to keep squeezing the sponge after everyone else thinks it’s already dry, and who squeeze out gains, year after year after year.

  4. phillip says:

    the germans did a study on crop growth and found that increased co2 levels increased crop yields.

    AND if anyone wants a copy of the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing cost analysis , just email me and ill be glad to send it. It is VERY informative.

  5. John Hollenberg says:

    > the germans did a study on crop growth and found that increased co2 levels increased crop yields.

    However, the projections from the IPCC 2007 Summary Report include huge regional problems due to water shortages linked to global warming:

    Africa – By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This
    would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition.

    Australia/New Zealand – By 2030, production from agriculture and forestry is projected to decline over much of southern and eastern Australia, and over parts of eastern New Zealand, due to increased drought and fire.

    Latin America – Productivity of some important crops is projected to decrease and livestock productivity to decline, with adverse consequences for food security. In temperate zones, soybean yields are projected to increase. Overall, the number of people at risk of hunger is projected to increase (TS; medium confidence).

    Source for above:

  6. phillip says:

    Theres a Dr. Soon with Harvard that did a excellent presentation on global warming. It points to sun activity as the source .
    The head of the weather channel did a presentation on it as well.

    What people dont seem to mention is how carbon cap and trade will raise the electric bill of the average consumer. And how it will effect jobs.