Catastrophic climate change is the primary preventable threat to the health and well-being of all Americans — as readers of this blog already understand and as pretty much everyone else will figure out in the coming years. Keeping total planetary warming as low as possible — ideally below 2°C, which it turn requires keeping atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 450 ppm — will become the central organizing principle for all US energy, environmental, economic, and international policy over the next two decades, and will almost certainly remain so for the next two centuries.
While this is a long-term problem, “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment,” as IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri warned last fall. Beating 450 ppm is certainly not politically possible now, as I have argued in a long ongoing series (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution” for all the links). Indeed, the recent climate debate in the Senate makes it painfully clear that conservatives are prepared to go down with the climate ship (see “Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“). The current oil drilling ‘debate’ only underscores how hopeless the climate situation is until progressives occupy the White House (see “Will the GOP’s cynical lies destroy the chance for serious energy and climate policy?”
That said, the next president is almost certainly going to pass some sort of climate legislation establishing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions that kicks in around 2015. Again, it won’t be easy to pass a serious bill, but if we had a president who was capable of truly inspiring people and who actually believes in government-led clean energy policies, then I think it will happen.
But — and this is where Biden comes in — even if that legislation is strong enough to put this country on the path towards rapid and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the entire U.S. effort will certainly fall apart if the next president is not able to negotiate a serious international treaty that encompasses all major emitters. Yet it has become increasingly clear in recent months that achieving a serious, binding international treaty is even more politically implausible a task than passing serious, binding domestic legislation. And that is because Russia has emerged as a country that is likely to be every bit as much an obstacle as China and the United States currently are.
The Chinese Challenge
I have written about China extensively already, and no one should underestimate the difficulty of getting them to embrace the necessary reductions in projected emissions and then in absolute emissions [see "The immorality of China's coal policy is breathtaking (literally)" and "China sells its soul for liquid coal" and "The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate"]
But everyone I know who knows the country tells me that the Chinese leaders understand that global warming will be catastrophic for them — even if those leaders mistakenly believe they can “go back and solve climate change after they get rich,” which has been the standard procedure for how Western countries dealt with traditional environmental problems. Sadly, that approach won’t work with climate because the climate system almost certainly has tipping points (see, for instance, “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return“).
Also, the Chinese are capitalists and are already poised to become the leading producer of both solar PV and wind turbines. And they could run their entire country on baseload solar, if they figure out fast enough that it is the renewable with the biggest potential as a primary power source (see “Concentrated solar thermal power — a core climate solution“) and if they return to their strong energy efficiency policies from decades past (see “China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative“).
I cling to the view that Chinese could be brought around if their customers all applied enough pressure to them — assuming of course that those customers, including us, are all prepared to take the necessary measures themselves, which is far from obvious (see Hansen’s trip report finds “sobering degree of self-deception” in Germany, UK, Japan).
But Russia may be even more problematic, and not just because they are more self-destructively nationalistic than China (or us). Russia does not have a good solar resource. But they do have a lot of coal and oil — and they very much want to stake a claim to the rich oil resources in the Arctic.
Moreover, they may (mistakenly) think global warming is good for them. Since it will create a navigable Arctic and open up “currently inaccessible energy resources,” no less an authority than The Economist has written, “warming is likely to make Russia richer rather than poorer.” Sad — but quite untrue, especially since we are on path to far overshoot any degree of warming that could possibly be beneficial to Russia (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction“).
Perhaps the most important climatic tipping point is in Russia — the Siberian tundra. If that defrosts, then avoiding the equivalent of 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will be all but impossible. After all the tundra contains more carbon than the atmosphere does, and much of it would likely be released as methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Indeed, we have some evidence that may have already started.
Russia does have a staggering amount of wind potential, but it tends to be in the sparsely populated areas. Russia will need to be convinced that some combination of nuclear, wind, and natural gas can provide all the power it needs — but the even harder task will be convincing them not to use all that oil and coal they have.
Indeed, the great challenge for the world in the next three decades is not so much aggressively deploying low carbon technology — although that would not be easy it would certainly be straightforward both technologically and economically. The great challenge for the world is political — convincing countries (and states) to leave a lot of the cheap fossil fuel resources they have, especially coal, in the ground, and to agree to import low-carbon electricity from other countries (or states).
That will require not merely strong domestic action by the world’s richest country, the one that has admitted by far the most cumulative amount of carbon dioxide. It will also require global leadership by us, the ability to negotiate one-on-one and collectively with every major country in the world. The Democratic team now has onboard someone who not only gets global warming, but who is certainly one of the most qualified people in the country to help lead that effort from the White House, which is where it must be lead from.
And that makes Biden a great Vice Presidential choice for Obama, the nation, and the world — that and the fact that picking him signals the Democrats might finally put up a strong fight in the face of the hailstorm of lies and disinformation they face every four years.