Monday, November 26, 2012

The Age of Climate

It was difficult for a student in history, even for an Americanist, to avoid encountering the work of the brilliant historian Eric Hobsbawm while blundering through graduate school.  He was too influential.  He wrote for the most part about Europe and he wrote without apology as a committed Marxist.

Hobsbawm died two months ago, 95 years old.  Most people, if they've heard of or read Hobsbawm, know him as the historian that re-classified the centuries, the long 19th century from 1789 to 1914, the short 20th century from 1914-1991.  It was his way of defining eras (although he took his inspiration from Braudel) as his book titles make clear: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848The Age of Capital, 1848-1875The Age of Empire, 1875-1914; The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991.

I was thinking about Hobsbawm in those October weeks when the presidential election was thrown into doubt after the first debate.  Contemplating a 21st century unfolding under the leadership of Mitt Romney and a resurgent Republican Party was, well, unsettling, and it helped in those doubt-ridden moments to take a longer view of events—Hobsbawm is good for that sort of thinking.  And then inevitably, I couldn't help but wonder (probably like everyone else who read his books) what sort of title our strange 21st century deserves.  The answer I arrived at (pretty quickly, too) was this: we are in the century of the environment, the age of climate change.

Global warming is a corrupted public debate that really shouldn't be a debate at all.  The science is quite clear and absolutely dire.  Yet somehow there's a significant portion of the national population that does not believe it or doesn't care.  Right-wing media deserves some of the blame.  It's easy, for instance, to vilify Fox News for spreading misinformation, and we should since they reach such a large audience.  On the other hand there's a good argument to be made that anyone watching a show with hosts this vapid is really looking to be misled.  The editors at the Wall St. Journal opinion page, however, really ought to know better.  They published this letter by 16 scientists—at least half of whom were linked to the oil and gas industry—claiming there was nothing to worry about regarding global warming.  Afterwards the Washington Post and Forbes called the Journal out for biased journalism.  Forbes noted that the Journal editors not only published a letter riddled with falsehoods, but refused to publish this letter from 255 other scientists arguing, with actual facts, that global warming was real. (Yes, when Forbes takes on the WSJ, something is afoot.)

If Forbes isn't compelling enough, it might be worth considering this 2011 column from that radical tree-hugging pinko hippie rag known as the Economist:
A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else—the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack—all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth.
(Side note: Brits are great—see my love-fest for Hobsbawm above—but they need to use more Zs.  "Civilisation" looks too weird to me.)

When climate scientists and environmentalists present the unvarnished truth, the scope of the challenge that climate change presents humanity becomes all too clear.  James Hansen, NASA scientist and modern-day climate Cassandra, has been publicly calling for urgent action on climate change ever since he testified before Congress about global warming in 1988.  This spring he published an editorial in the New York Times about the Canadian plan to extract oil from its tar sands that would mean "Game Over for the Climate."  And that piece was not nearly so grim as Bill McKibben's article in Rolling Stone, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," which lays out the tremendous financial stake the fossil fuel companies have in continuing to sell oil, gas, and coal.

As October rolled by, it was all the more depressing to realize that climate change, the most important issue of our time, went virtually unmentioned in the presidential election.  Not one of the moderators during the debates raised a question about it.  But, as McKibben has noted, nature will provide a series of "teachable moments" as global temperatures continue to rise.  Hurricane Sandy was the latest, causing Michael Bloomberg to endorse Obama and Businessweek to publish this cover article in the last week of the campaign.

It would be tempting to read into recent developments, like the acceptance of the climate change scientific consensus by centrist publications like Forbes, the Economist, and Businessweek, that the public debate had passed a tipping point and political action might ensue.  It's hard to say, though, since all the political oxygen is getting sucked up by the "fiscal cliff" debate (a jaw dropping irony in which the entire fourth estate agreed to call something that isn't really a crisis at all an apocalyptic name while politicians continue to ignore climate change).

One dismal view is that, as Sandy recedes in the rear-view mirror, climate change will again sink back into the black hole of national politics.  After all, there isn't much incentive for Democrats to raise policy initiatives designed to fight climate change when the House is controlled by Republicans who deny that climate change is occurring.  In fact, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and the Environment, John Shimkus, had this to say about rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide:
It's plant food ... So if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere? ... So all our good intentions could be for naught. In fact, we could be doing just the opposite of what the people who want to save the world are saying.
Yikes.  We're in trouble.  And while Republican congressmen are the worst offenders, it doesn't help that a supposedly common-sense Republican intellectual (and in this case I use that term loosely) like David Brooks blamed the politicizing of global warming on Al Gore and not Republicans like Shimkus.  Why?  Because Gore made An Inconvenient Truth and won a Nobel prize.  After that, according to Brooks, "no Republican could stand shoulder to shoulder with him and survive."  It's a stunner of an analysis, not unlike blaming Lincoln for politicizing emancipation or Gandhi for politicizing nonviolence—"No British imperialist could stand shoulder to shoulder with Gandhi and survive."  So true, David.

On the more optimistic side, some people who are fighting for science, for humanity, and for the earth refuse to be silenced.  They continue to shift the public discourse.  The New York Times featured a series on Hurricane Sandy in this week's Sunday Review.  Bloomberg has written about growing momentum for a carbon tax for which even Exxon-Mobil has recently indicated support.  Whether the tax becomes reality or not in the coming year (and it's a crazy long shot), the business consensus is building that it will be better to transition to a low-carbon economy in a predictable way facilitated by a tax rather than abrupt emergency actions taken after disasters. Meanwhile, multiple outlets have called for Obama to use his executive authority and the expansive powers of the EPA to fight climate change without Congress. Fredd Krupp in Politico wrote that Obama should take immediate steps to limit methane leaks from natural gas distribution. Chris Mooney in Mother Jones offered this five part climate plan for Obama's second term.

It still looks bleak, but with Obama in the White House and in charge of the EPA, there's a chance for progress in the next four years.  What we really need, of course, is consensus for action from across our political spectrum and across the international community.  Republicans have to make this their cause too.  Climate change is the great test of our era.  Sooner or later we will all be soldiers in this fight.

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