Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout

No, 450 is not politically possible today. Nor is 550. Nor is action sufficient to stave off 1000 ppm and 6°C warming.

OK, that was clear before because Congressional conservatives can certainly block the necessary action and demagogue the energy price issue — and they obviously intend to (see “Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“).

But I think the financial bailout bill story has yet more sobering lessons:

  1. Multi-hundred-billion-dollar-sized government action happens only when there is a very, very big crisis. Yes, lots of people out there think happy talk about clean energy and green collar jobs is mainly what you need to get a massive government spending program. Not gonna happen. The happy talk can help sell the needed policies, but without the crisis, it leads nowhere.
  2. A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a crisis to be “very, very big” is that it must be labeled as such by very serious people who are perceived as essentially nonpartisan opinion leaders. In this case, it was the panic from people like uber-billionaire Warren Buffet and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and even people like CNBC’s Jim Cramer (yes, he shouts a lot, but he called this meltdown a year ago and has a lot of credibility with the media).
  3. In addition, bad things must be happening to regular people right now. It was quite interesting that the House in particular voted down the original bailout but reversed itself in large part because of the ensuing stock market meltdown and in part because they started to hear from all of the small and large businesses in their districts that the credit market was freezing up.
  4. The credible people must say that the government action is going to solve the problem. This is a crucial point also missed by lots of people. If Buffet and Bernanke and Cramer said the sky is falling but your plan ain’t going to stop it, then your plan is dead, dead, dead.

What does this say about the climate and peak oil predicament?

  1. We have one very big crisis that requires multi-hundred-billion-sized government action (peak oil). And we have a far, far bigger and more dangerous crisis that requires far, far more government action (global warming). The “good news,” if one can call it that, is the crises are real and imminent — and they do lend themselves to government-led solutions. Also, like the bailout, the total dollar “cost” of the solution is not the total dollar cost to the taxpayer, since, for the bailout, the underlying financial assets the government will buy have value and, for global warming, the cap-and-trade bill plus clean tech push will create massive energy savings and whole new industries.
  2. But we simply don’t have a critical mass of credible nonpartisan opinion leaders who understand the nature of our energy and climate problem (see “Most opinion leaders just don’t get global warming“). When the heck are people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates going to speak up on dire nature of the global warming situation, rather than, say, scoping out climate-destroying investments in Canada (see “Gates and Buffet to invest in tar sands and spawn more two-headed fish“)? Yes, we have virtually the entire scientific community begging for strong action, but they aren’t opinion leaders in this country anymore and indeed they aren’t credible to a large segment of U.S. society (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP“). Meeting this necessary condition for serious action is greatly complicated by the conservative crusade against climate action, which is not just a disinformation campaign but a concerted effort to label any scientist or journalist or opinion maker who speaks out on global warming as just a stooge of the left-wing eco-imperialists — “environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation,” as Charles Krauthammer put it, or “more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives” as George Will put it (see “The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science“). In short, the disinformation campaign seeks to discredit all credible calls for action.
  3. Bad things are happening to real people right now thanks in part to human-caused climate change — droughts, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather, and on and on. But many environmentalists and journalists downplay the causality or think it is a mistake to talk about those things (see “The NY Times Blows the Wildfire Story” and “The NY Times Blows the Drought Story, too” and “Gustav, climate, drilling — Some enviros self-censor, but should progressives?” and “The Washington Post’s Joel Achebach doesn’t understand basic climate science“). And, of course, we have the disinformation campaign telling everybody either that the future won’t be too bad. Michael Crichton says he is “underwhelmed” by the problem after his “review” of the science. George Will says that climate change might even be “beneficial,” and NYT columnist Jon Tierney writes, “There’s a chance the warming could be mild enough to produce net benefits.” Heck, we even have the GOP VicePresidential pick telling 70 million Americans last week that climate change impacts stem from “cyclical temperature changes on our planet.” In this classic denier myth, all we have to do is wait and the storm will pass.
  4. The government-led climate and energy actions that might be politically possible today won’t solve the crisis. That was certainly true of the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill (see “Boxer bill update: Probably no U.S. CO2 emissions cut until after 2025“). Consider the peak oil/energy dependence crisis. Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is a semi-credible opinion maker who has certainly been raising the alarm on peak oil. But he has ignored the climate problem and offered an energy independence plan that won’t actually make us energy independent and is neither practical nor a good idea (see “Pickens’ natural gas plan makes no sense and will never happen” and “Memo to T. Boone Pickens: Your energy plan is half-brilliant, half-dumb.” And since he won’t change which politicians he supports, you can’t change what policies Congress will support (see “Pickens in a pickle: He embraces progressive policies but not progressive politicians“). So he is not merely flushing his money down the toilet, he is actually confusing the public on what the actual solution might be. Similarly, some people think that we should focus our messaging on “energy independence not global warming,” but they propose spending $30 to $50 billion a year on technology, a plan that does not seem to have any major Congressional support, nor is it likely to garner much since a government-spending-based approach can’t possibly solve the peak oil/energy dependence crisis, which inherently requires a very strong regulatory component.

I find only one glimmer of hope from the financial crisis. Congress and the executive branch acted before the real disaster happened, before we ended up in another Great Depression, indeed before we even technically entered a recession.

So perhaps we can act on climate before the real disaster happens. Yes, I realize that Washington acted because everyone understood we were only days or weeks away from complete financial meltdownm and we obviously can’t wait to act until we get anywhere near that close to the climate precipice.

We must act on climate within the next few years — decades before the real, preventable disaster happens. Indeed, no plausible action the nation and the world will take could have significant impact on the the climate for probably the next three decades. It is the post-2040 Hell and High Water scenario, crossing the point of no return to 6°C (or higher) warming, that we are trying — or rather, should be trying — desperately to prevent.

The response to the financial bailout crisis obviously offers no comfort to people hoping we can act decades before the true climate catastrophe hits. But I choose to see the glass as one-tenth full. Why?

The unknown wild-card factor here is presidential leadership. We have never had an inspirational president who was genuinely committed to serious climate action and who actually campaigned on a broad and deep agenda that would put us on a path to solve the problem (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“).

Right now, Obama’s plan is not politically possible. And not just because conservatives oppose it and will demagogue it, but also because moderates don’t get the problem and have been politically intimidated by the demagoguing. And because scientists, environmentalists, and progressives have had poor and inconsistent messaging. And because the traditional media still does a grossly inadequate job (see “Media enable denier spin 2: What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?“).

But true leaders have transformed what is politically possible in the past. That is where hope lies today.

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20 Responses to Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout

  1. Ronald says:

    Well written. And you got everything in there.

    Every state has a public university with scientists. Why aren’t they in mass having an affect on the journalists in the states to have more articles on global warming.

    A place to start might be if some newspapers carried this websites articles in a regular column. I’d be better than the stuff I read in my states papers now.

  2. Ronald says:

    In a country where Sarah Palin has a 44 percent favorable rating and 37 percent unfavorable, will it or can it ever take a problem vexing as global warming seriously.

  3. john says:

    I am in violent agreement with you, Joe.

    Basically, people’s actions are driven by the lymbic- our primitive lizard brain; so even in the presence of a rationally-based consensus, we are not likely to get action until we experience a visceral and palpable threat from global warming.

    Perhaps our challenge, then, is to figure out how to appeal to this lymbic brain which holds reason hostage to fear.

  4. llewelly says:

    The credit crisis is not real. Even if it is, it’s a natural cycle, caused by sunspots. See here.

  5. charlie says:

    The analogy does not really hold water. Congress/Administration didn’t act in a timely fashion — they waited six months. All this started in the spring and last summer. Not to mention the lack of international coordination. (See the ECB refusing the cut rates in the spring) So this “bailout” isn’t a example of systemic success — it is an example of how public policy decisions get pushed off the table until they blow up.

    [JR: Everything you cite is actually more of an argument for the analogy between the two. Obviously Washington didn’t act in a timely fashion on the financial crisis. Obviously Washington hasn’t acted in a timely fashion on global warming — ten years ago was really the time to get serious. Same with the lack of international coordination, except this time it is in reverse. We acted, but Europe didn’t. And I never said this bailout was an example of systemic success. But in fact that is yet another analogy to climate change, since I have no doubt that whatever Congress passes on climate in the next two years won’t be the final climate bailout. No analogies are perfect, and a central argument of this blog is that climate change is a unique challenge, the greatest challenge humanity faces. But I still maintain there are lessons to be learned from the areas that are analogous. And I hope I haven’t left the wrong impression: I certainly agree that “It is an example of how public policy decisions get pushed off the table until they blow up” — where the heck do you think we are on climate?]

  6. Koen says:

    Question is, what would be labeled a “big, big, crisis”? If hundreds of tons of methane started popping out of the Arctic tomorrow, would that make a big crisis? Or an ice-sheet or two disappearing (again) in the Antarctic.

    We already lost 1/3 of coral reefs worldwide, and that barely made headlines.

    There is one alternative. If I remember well (I was very young then :), once upon a time the US had a president who “for no good reason” decided to get a man on the moon, and less than a decade later, you had your man (even men) on the moon. At a much smaller scale, the current president of France, when Minister of the Interior, decided that it was time to lower the number of people killed on french roads. In less than two years, and with almost no popular support, reduced that figure by about 50%. I don’t keep statistics, but I think almost everyone can tell similar tales about people who have a dream and want to share it with the world.

    So all we need is statemanship (or should that now be “worldmanship”?). But that’s a resource that seems in very short supply these days.

  7. P. G. Dudda says:

    Reminds me of a couple lines in a song by The Cranberries:

    Thunder and lightning won’t change what I’m feeling
    And the daffodils looked lovely today…

    The deniers are all out admiring the daffodils while N’Awlins drowns…

  8. Jonas says:

    Sorry, 450ppm is a disaster.

    Serious people only talk about 350ppm. Please, Mr Romm, you have to take climate change serious. Our aim must be reducing atmospheric CO2 from current 384ppm to 350ppm. Anything less is a declaration of war against the planet.

    [JR: I take it you don’t actually read this blog.]

  9. Rick says:

    “The deniers are all out admiring the daffodils while N’Awlins drowns…”

    thats pretty old news. It was dramatic just as Galveston was dramatic this year, but those events don’t stir up any “fight the climate” fervor. Not a bit.

    You need a sudden major sea level rise everywhere. Anything short of that will be ignored. You need 20 major cities underwater at the same time.

    A sudden meaningful political swing towards climate action is not coming in the mean time.

  10. paulm says:

    The US Gulf coast is now in for a devastating hurricane every couple of years on average. It one happens again next year or one hits New York there will be big time action.

    The problem now is that America is bust. There is no money left in the kitty. A major recession is on the books and probably depression. Being positive, this actually buys us some time and gives breathing room to address Climate Change issues.

    There needs to be leadership and there needs to be direct action and there needs to be more panic from climate scientist and professionals.

    (Why is it meteorologist don’t get Climate Change? I think there is a big time chip on their shoulders. If they were rooting for CC issues that would be a big help!)

    Climate Change Direct Action Now!

  11. Rick C says:

    Well what can I say? Soylent Green anyone?

  12. hapa says:

    The only refuge from the bears is in managing energy costs. Very tough to recover when running your equipment puts you in debt.

    When is it OK to start talking about the war-time footing cure for financial depression? We’ll have to build our way out of the hole. If we were being careful, we knew there would be money troubles from the double-whammy of bubble burst and critical commodity costs.

    Same cure: ecological balance via targeted command economics and debt forgiveness.

  13. max says:

    The world has already been (hopefully) saved from destruction by international cooperation once-namely the Montreal protocol. In that case, it required the appearance of an ozone hole to compel action. Of course, the solution was not perceived to be as onerous. In the case of CO2, perhaps, if we are lucky, during Obama’s first term, with leadership and the near complete loss of Arctic ice, more forceful action will ensue-as another reader put it: a “man on the moon” type of concerted activity towards a mutually agreed upon goal. I do agree with you, it would be helpful to have more opinion leaders like Buffett and Gates and Bernake putting climate change on the top of their agenda.

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    Yep, I’m with you all the way, Joe.

    I covered the financial mess/global warming/peak oil parallels over on The Cost of Energy just the other day: The flameout as foreshadowing.

  15. Skeptic says:

    I must respectfully disagree.

    With global temperatures having most recently peaked in 1998 (at least in the last half of the 20th century) and with many of the warmest years on record in the 1930’s (according to NASA, not me) when man-made carbon emissions were only beginning to be pumped into the atmosphere, I fail to see the significance of 450 PPM. Carbon levels continue to rise and global temperatures have fallen for the last decade – hardly a short and insignificant period of observation.

  16. Rick C says:


    Give it up man. There was a drop in average temperate below the mean trend but the average global temperature continues to this year to rise.

    That’s an old argument that has long since lost its credibility.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Skeptic — Here are the decadal averages from the HadCRUTv3 global surface temperature product:

    Do note that the global tempertures are now much warmer than in the 1930s.

  18. Kathy N says:

    There are so many things going so wrong everyday in the enviroment it just leaves me stunned that everyone is not involved in solving this crisis.
    I find little hope for the future if the Baby Bush is elected. And as for keeping below 450ppm I don’t think it is possible now even if we all (the world) started to work right this minute. I think by 2012 we are in for some really bad amplifing affects from both the artic and antartic that will shake the world. My guess is no one will question the FACT of Climate Change then.

  19. Rick says:

    I think what it is is there are just too many things going on for everybody to focus on one thing. Be it climate or health care or money or work or war and peace. It’s just paralysis.

  20. Skeptic says:


    Your graph cuts off at the year 2000. What’s the average so far for 2000-2008?