Earth Tones

This summer's melting of the nine-foot-deep ice cap at the North Pole into a mile-wide lake shocked the public out of its long-standing denial about the reality of global warming. According to new findings released in September by researchers at the National Climatic Data Center, the pace of climate change is accelerating. The world can expect to experience more intense droughts, floods, heat waves, and hurricanes. And in October the World Meteorological Organization said the massive flooding in southern Asia and simultaneous record drought in northern Asia may signal increasingly profound climate change.

Nature provided the setting for Al Gore to make global warming a central theme of his campaign. But despite his eloquent 1992 book on the subject, Earth in the Balance, Gore has sidestepped and minimized the greatest environmental threat in history. His campaign has viewed the book as a liability.

During the GOP convention, the White House announced that the United States can meet most of its emissions-reductions targets under the Kyoto accords by planting trees rather than switching to high-efficiency and renewable technologies. Trees! The new administration proposal allows natural absorption of carbon dioxide by trees and croplands to count toward the 7 percent reduction in carbon emission mandated by 2010 in the Kyoto agreement. The policy was intended as a pre-emptive strike calculated to blunt a predictable Republican attack against Gore's environmentalism.

Addressing autoworkers outside Detroit in October, George W. Bush cited Gore's book: "'The internal combustion engine,' Mr. Gore wrote, and I quote, is 'a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we're ever again likely to encounter,'" Bush said. He added: "To every worker in the auto industry, to the million midwesterners whose jobs depend on the auto industry, I say your work is literally the engine of our American economy."

There is, of course, no reason a switch to high-efficiency hybrid cars or cars powered by fuel cells would require fewer autoworkers. But that didn't stop Bush from exploiting a bogus issue. Ironically, Bush's remarks came a week after a declaration by William Clay Ford, Jr., the chairman of Ford Motor Company, of "the end of the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine."

The real issue, according to more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations, is that the world must rapidly reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent to avert catastrophic climate change. Even if the administration's tree proposal were adopted globally--and if barren areas were reforested and existing forests preserved--they would absorb less than 15 percent of that total.

In principle the administration is committed to the (quite inadequate) Kyoto Protocol. In practice it has been paralyzed by relentless attacks from the fossil fuel lobby. Appalled by U.S. inaction, other countries are moving unilaterally. Britain just committed to reducing emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Holland will reduce emissions 80 percent in the next 40 years. Germany is planning 50 percent cuts. They will meet those goals by replacing coal and oil power with fuel cells, and with solar, wind, and biomass energy sources--not by planting trees.

While Bush acknowledges the climate crisis, he rejects the Kyoto Protocol as bad for U.S. business and unfair to U.S. workers since it would exempt developing countries from emission cuts until the second round of the treaty. As president, Bush would eventually stumble across the fact that it was his father who signed the treaty exempting poor countries from the first round of cuts.

During the candidates' second debate, Bush ignored a flood of increasingly robust, confirmatory findings by suggesting the science is still inconclusive. Encouraged by his disingenuous dismissal of the science, political conservatives launched yet another round of misinformation--this time misrepresenting a study by a team of scientists led by Dr. James Hansen of NASA. That study argues that while CO2 is the dominant "greenhouse" gas, several secondary gases--methane, CFCs, and soot--may be accelerating the pace of climate change. (These gases trap in more heat than CO2 but stay in the atmosphere for a much shorter time.) The study suggests that cutting these gases might slow the rate of change and buy more time to deal with the far greater challenge of decarbonizing the world's energy supplies. Predictably, a few well-funded "greenhouse skeptics" turned the study on its head, saying it proves we do not need to reduce carbon emissions.

But the skeptics and their few remaining sponsors--notably the coal industry and ExxonMobil--are increasingly isolated within the fossil fuel community. Since December the main industry group opposing action on global warming, the Global Climate Coalition, has been abandoned by Ford, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Texaco, the Southern Company, and others.

Gore should draw courage from the sea change taking place among corporate leaders. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last January--in a development underplayed by the press--the CEOs of the world's 1,000 largest corporations, along with a number of heads of state and finance ministers, voted climate change as the most urgent problem facing humanity. Several oil executives, off the record, say they can decarbonize their energy supplies and move their companies into hydrogen, solar, and wind energy. But they need regulation by the world's governments that allows them to phase into clean energy in lockstep--without losing any competitive standing in the industry.

Given this profound change of attitude, the new president could begin with three simple--but very large-gauge--strategies:

  • Redirect the $20 billion a year in federal subsidies away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy. (Some of the money would go to retrain displaced coal miners.) This would create a large incentive for big oil companies to become aggressive developers of clean energy.

  • Press hard at the Kyoto negotiations for progressively more stringent efficiency standards for fossil fuels: Every nation would begin at its current baseline to improve its fossil fuel efficiency until the 70 percent reduction is attained. That would require the increased use of noncarbon energy sources, which would create the mass market to bring down their costs and make them competitive with fossil fuels. (International carbon trading could be used to fine-tune a wholesale global energy switch.)

  • Spearhead the creation of a large fund to transfer renewables to developing countries. Virtually all poor countries would love to go solar; virtually none can afford it. One source of revenue could be a "Tobin tax" on international currency transactions, which now total $1.5 trillion per day. A tax that extracted a quarter of a penny per dollar would net $300 billion a year to finance wind farms in India, solar assemblies in Mexico, and fuel cell factories in China. The global climate respects no national boundaries. The coming pulse of carbon from poor countries threatens our own national security.

    Signs of emerging corporate support for this kind of sweeping approach include BP Amoco's recent ad campaign trumpeting BP as standing for "Beyond Petroleum." Shell has created a new $500-million renewable-energy company. Ford and DaimlerChrysler have invested $1 billion in fuel cell cars. Texaco is moving into noncarbon technologies in a big way.

    Given the oil industry backgrounds of both Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, a shift by a Bush administration on the climate issue would be the most dramatic reversal since Nixon went to China. But given the massive wealth-creation potential in a global energy transition, many of Bush's corporate supporters may be more alert to this opportunity than Gore, with his political timidity and his penchant for small-gauge technocratic approaches.

    A leader with courage and vision could ignite the process with one simple message: A properly framed energy transition would create millions of jobs--especially in the developing world. It would jump-start the renewable-energy industry into a central engine driving growth of the global economy. It would dramatically expand the world's overall wealth, stability, and equity. It would transfer significant capital from the financial to the industrial sector. And by transforming poor countries into robust trade partners, it would ultimately extend the baseline conditions for human peace.

    Once upon a time, Al Gore almost had it right. Earth is not in the balance. We are. This time around, the next president will have a very small window of time to get it right. ยค

  • Back to Planet Bush, Planet Gore by Jedediah Purdy