The Heat Was On

The same policy recommendations for stemming climate change that looked sound 20 years ago still look sound.

Re-reading the article I wrote for the November/ December 1988 issue of World Watch was startling— and discouraging.

The article, titled “The Heat Is On,” was written just a few months after NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the U.S. Senate, reporting that for the first time there was clear scientific evidence of global warming— and that it was most likely caused by human activity.

I wrote at the time, “Only rarely are public policy turning points so clearly marked. Scientists had accumulated empirical evidence for a phenomenon with the potential to fundamentally alter life on Earth.” I devoted much of the remainder of the article to laying out a strategy for dealing with climate change.

Twenty years later, Hansen’s testimony still looks like a turning point for climate science, but not the kind of turning point for climate policy that I anticipated. In the years since, there’s been a lot of heat—but sadly, not a lot of action.

What happened to the bright hopes of 1988? Optimists at the time pointed to the relatively rapid response to the threat of ozone depletion. In the face of clear scientific evidence of a threat—and with cooperation from the most affected industries— the international community had come together in just a few years to sign an agreement to phase out the worst ozone-damaging chemicals. Climate change is a far larger threat, and as with ozone, scientific evidence pointed to a clear need to act. But the economic scale of the needed transition was vastly larger in the case of climate, and those who felt they would be disadvantaged were quickly mobilized.

A political war over climate change was soon under way, with fossil fuel lobbyists and a handful of “climate skeptics” working hard to convince the public that climate change was not the scientific reality that most scientists had concluded it was. Dr. Hansen, who is a government employee, found his reports edited by a White House lawyer with no scientific credentials but with an impressive employment history—with the oil industry.

Climate legislation was considered by the U.S. Congress soon after Hansen’s 1988 testimony, but none of the proposed bills was ever enacted. At the international level, diplomats soon began work on the Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted by world leaders at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That agreement and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that followed are just now beginning to have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions. And the binding emission limits in the Kyoto Protocol still do not cover the two largest emitters—the United States and China.

European countries have moved forward with extensive climate policies, including an emissions trading system, but the decision by the Bush Administration in 2001 to aggressively oppose both domestic and international climate policy has until recently stymied progress at the global level.

While politicians and diplomats have battled, global emissions of carbon dioxide, the key human-caused greenhouse gas, have risen 40 percent since 1990 and are still headed steeply upward. Two decades have been wasted, and we have not yet addressed one of the gravest problems humanity has ever faced. During the past year, however, the climate issue has unexpectedly reached a second turning point as both the scientific and public consensuses on the need to act have mushroomed.

Compared with 1988, we now have a much better understanding of the potentially catastrophic nature of climate change. The latest science suggests that even small changes in the energy balance of the planet can cause a cascade of secondary changes. There was a time when tropical palms grew at the North Pole and the sea level was 60 meters higher than it is today. But it is not a world we would recognize—or with which we are prepared to cope.

Humanity got to where it is today by being an adaptable species. But we have never confronted a problem whose scope is global and time frame is intergenerational. In his most recent research, Jim Hansen has concluded that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world has a decade at most to turn greenhouse gas emission trends around. And because of the prior two decades of inaction, today’s effort will need to be more ambitious—at least a 50 percent cut in global emissions by 2050,with an 80–90 percent reduction in industrial nations.

Those are difficult—some would say Herculean—targets, but the world has advantages today it did not have in 1988. The powerful interaction of innovative policies, advancing technology, and growing investment have led to a pace of change in energy markets unseen since men like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford created the last great energy revolution a century ago.

The European Union has begun regulating greenhouse gas emissions,which it aims to cut 20 percent below the 1990 level by 2020. In the United States, nearly half the states and several hundred cities have enacted strong climate policies. And even China, where emissions are growing the fastest, is enacting a range of policies to improve energy efficiency and introduce clean energy sources.

Of the policy recommendations I made in 1988, I find that many are still relevant—indeed, some are included in one or more of the climate bills now before the U.S.Congress. My fervent hope is that the political and technological evolution that has occurred over these two decades will make such changes easier to implement. And it won’t take another two decades to know if the world is up to it.

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