The Heat Is Online

A Modest Proposal To Stop Global Warming

Sierra – May/June 2001

A Modest Proposal to Stop Global Warming

While evidence continues to mount that humans are heating the globe, the world's nations squabble over a complex fix too timid to solve the problem. But we can stop global warming-by calling an end to the Carbon Age.

By Ross Gelbspan

The United States is constantly warning against the danger posed by "rogue states" like Iraq or North Korea. But last November we behaved very much like an outlaw nation ourselves by unilaterally scuttling climate talks at The Hague, Netherlands. More than half of the world's industrial nations declared their willingness to cut their consumption of fossil fuels to forestall global warming, but when the United States would commit to nothing more than planting a few trees and buying up cheap pollution allowances from poor countries, the talks collapsed.

The meeting was probably irrelevant anyway. As the three years of frustrating negotiations fell apart, the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which had previously projected an increase in average global temperatures of 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit this century, raised its upper estimate to 10.4 degrees. To restabilize the climate, declared the 2,000 eminent climatologists and other scientists, humanity needs to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions ten times more than the 5.2 percent reductions discussed at The Hague.

As heat records continue to be broken and extreme weather events intensify around the world, the reality of global warming is sinking in--everywhere, it seems, except on Capitol Hill. At the 2000 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the CEOs of the world's 1,000 biggest corporations surprised organizers by voting climate change the most critical problem facing humanity. European countries are planning drastic reductions in their CO2 emissions, while growing numbers of corporate leaders are realizing that the necessary transition to highly efficient and renewable energy sources could trigger an unprecedented worldwide economic boom.

This growing international consensus may show us the way to a workable global solution. Instead of The Hague's torturous haggling over the complex minutiae of virtually meaningless goals, the earth's nations could jointly initiate an aggressive worldwide effort to halt and turn back the ominous heating of the globe--and come out stronger, safer, and richer.

The alternative is dismal and frightening. A recent report from the National Climatic Data Center predicts ever harsher droughts, floods, heat waves, and tropical storms as the atmosphere continues to warm. "We found that extreme weather events have had increasing impact on human health, welfare, and finances," said the Center's David Easterling. "This trend is likely to become more intense as the climate continues to change and society becomes more vulnerable to weather and climate extremes."

This vulnerability is underscored by a financial forecast from the world's sixth-largest insurance company. Previous reports from property insurers had emphasized the financial risks to the industry itself, but last November Dr. Andrew Dlugolecki, an executive of the United Kingdom's CGNU, released a study projecting that infrastructure and other property damage, bank and insurance industry losses, crop failures, and other costs of unchecked climate change could bankrupt the global economy by 2065.

And the coming changes will occur 50 percent faster than previously thought, say researchers at the Hadley Center, the UK's leading climate-research agency. Previous estimates of the rate of climate change have been based on projections of the earth's capacity--at current temperatures--to absorb carbon dioxide through its vegetation and, to a lesser extent, its oceans. For the last 10,000 years, these natural "carbon sinks" have maintained atmospheric carbon levels of about 280 parts per million. Since the late 19th century, however, human use of coal and oil has escalated dramatically, leading to our present atmospheric carbon level of about 360 parts per million--a level not experienced in 420,000 years. In a blow to the United States' hope that planting forests in developing countries could absolve it of the need to conserve energy, Hadley's researchers found that photosynthesis slows as the climate warms. Plants' absorption of CO2 diminishes, and soils begin to release more carbon than they absorb, turning what had been carbon sinks into carbon sources.

Similarly, a team led by Sydney Levitus, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Climate Laboratory, found that while oceans absorb heat, that effect can be temporary. During the 1950s and '60s, the group found, subsurface temperatures in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans rose substantially while atmospheric temperatures remained fairly constant. But in the 1970s atmospheric temperatures trended upward--driven, in part, by warmth released from deep water. "[O]cean heat content may be an early indicator of the warming of surface, air, and sea surface temperatures more than a decade in advance," said Levitus. Later this century, his researchers predicted, the oceans may release even more heat into an already warming atmosphere.

That grim prediction was echoed by a report from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, which cast doubt on the ability of farmland or forests to soak up the vast amounts of CO2 that humanity is pumping into the atmosphere. "There is no natural 'savior' waiting to assimilate all the anthropogenically produced CO2 in the coming century," the report concluded.

The inadequacy of the percentage goals haggled over at The Hague was underscored by a research team led by Tom M. W. Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric

Research, which estimated that the world must generate about half its power from wind, sun, and other noncarbon sources by the year 2018 to avoid a quadrupling of traditional atmospheric carbon levels, which would almost certainly trigger catastrophic consequences. Writing in the journal Nature, Wigley's team recommended "researching, developing, and commercializing carbon-free primary power technologies . . . with the urgency of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program."

Far from recognizing that urgency, the United States' official position seems to be to minimize the severity of global warming. This recalcitrance can be traced to a relentless disinformation campaign by the fossil-fuel lobby to dismiss or downplay the climate crisis. For years, coal and oil interests have funded a handful of scientists known as "greenhouse skeptics" who cast doubt on the implications and even existence of global warming.

Enormous amounts of money spent by their corporate sponsors have amplified the skeptics' voices out of all proportion to their standing in the scientific community, giving them undue influence on legislators, policymakers, and the media.

But with the skeptics being marginalized by the increasingly united and alarming findings of mainstream science, industry PR campaigns have taken to exaggerating the economic impacts of cutting back on fossil fuels. On the other side are more than 2,500 economists, including 8 Nobel laureates, who proclaimed in a 1997 statement coordinated by the think-tank Redefining Progress that the U.S. economy can weather the change, and even improve productivity in the long run.

Industry is also attacking the diplomatic foundations of the Kyoto Protocol--the international agreement The Hague meeting was meant to implement--claiming that the United States would suffer unfairly because developing countries were exempted from the first round of emissions cuts. Yet the rationale for this exemption--that since the industrial nations created the problem, they should be the first to begin to address it--was ratified by President George H. W. Bush himself when he signed the 1992 Rio Treaty.

The central mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, as promoted by the United States, is "emissions trading." That system was intended to find the cheapest way to reduce global carbon levels. It allocated a certain number of carbon-emission "credits" to each country, and then permitted nations with greater emissions to buy unused credits from other countries--for example, by financing the planting of trees in Costa Rica.

But international carbon trading turned out to be a shell game. Carbon is burned in far too many places--vehicles, factories, homes, fields--to effectively track even if there were an international monitoring system. Trading also became a huge source of contention between industrial and developing countries. In allocating emission "rights," for instance, all countries were given their 1990 emission levels as a baseline, but the developing nations argue that this would lock in the advantages of the already-industrialized First World. Many developing countries advocate what they claim is a far more democratic, "per capita" basis for allocating emissions, which would grant every American the same quantity of emissions as, say, every resident of India. (Currently, the average American is responsible for about 25 times more CO2 than the average Indian.)

A second level of inequity embedded in emissions trading is that industrialized countries could buy as many credits from poor countries as they want, banking those big, relatively cheap reductions indefinitely into the future. So when developing countries are eventually obliged to cut their emissions, they will be left with only the most expensive options, such as financing the production of fuel cells or solar installations.

Finally, carbon trading in itself can only go so far; its optimal use would be as a fine-tuning mechanism to help countries achieve the last 10 to 15 percent of their obligations. Measured against what it would take to actually cool the planet, emissions trading is ultimately a form of institutional denial.

Despite U.S. obstructionism, several European countries are now setting more ambitious goals. The United Kingdom last year committed to reductions of 12.5 percent by 2010, and a royal commission is calling for 60 percent cuts by 2050. Germany is also considering 50 percent cuts. Holland--a country at particular risk from rising sea levels--just completed a plan to slash its emissions by 80 percent in the next 40 years. It will meet those goals through an ambitious program of wind-generated electricity, low-emission vehicles, photovoltaic and solar installations, and other noncarbon energy sources. And a number of developing countries are voluntarily installing solar, wind, and small-scale hydro projects, despite their exemption under the Kyoto Protocol from the first round of cuts.

Some major industrial players are also reading the handwriting on the wall. British Petroleum, despite its attempts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is investing substantial resources in solar power. The company, which now promotes itself as "Beyond Petroleum," anticipates doing $1 billion a year in solar commerce by the end of the decade. Shell has created a $500 million renewable-energy company. In fact, most of the major oil companies--with the notable exception of ExxonMobil--now acknowledge the reality of climate change. In the automotive arena, Ford and DaimlerChrysler have invested $1 billion in a joint venture to put fuel-cell-powered cars on the market in 2004. And William Clay Ford recently declared "an end to the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine."

While some environmentalists dismiss these initiatives as "greenwashing", they mark an enormous change in industry's public posture. Only a year or two ago, working through such groups as the Western Fuels Association and the Global Climate Coalition, the oil and coal companies sought to dismiss the reality of climate change and cast doubt on the findings of the IPCC. Today, with these arguments largely discredited, the Global Climate Coalition has essentially collapsed. Oil and auto executives are beginning to choose a new approach: to position their firms as prominent players in the coming new-energy economy.

(This doesn't preclude backsliding. In March, conservatives' complaints persuaded Bush to break a campaign promise to regulate CO2 emissions from power plants—thus hanging out to dry EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman, who had widely promoted the idea, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who has called for a crash program to deal with climate change.)

U.S. labor unions are also facing up to the future, working with environmentalists on an agenda to increase jobs while reducing emissions--witness the recent call by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope for a "package of worker-friendly domestic carbon-emission reduction measures." Building and maintaining the necessary new energy facilities will take an army of skilled workers, which organized labor can provide.

Despite these encouraging developments, the United States continues to obstruct rather than lead the world in addressing climate change. Former president Clinton blamed the media, saying that until the public knows more about the threat there will not be sufficient popular support to address the issue in a meaningful way. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, oilmen both, are more inclined to protect the petroleum industry's short-term profitability than to promote its inevitable transformation.

Thus, the public debate is still stuck in the ineffective Kyoto framework. So two years ago, a small group of energy executives, economists, energy-policy specialists, and others (including the author) fashioned a bundle of strategies designed to cut carbon emissions by 70 percent, while at the same time creating a surge of new jobs, especially in developing countries.

At present, the United States spends $20 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuels and another $10 billion to subsidize nuclear power. Globally, subsidies for fossil fuels have been estimated at $300 billion a year. If that money were put behind renewable technologies, oil companies would have the incentive to aggressively develop fuel cells, wind farms, and solar systems. (A portion of those subsidies should be used to retrain coal miners and to construct clean-energy manufacturing plants in poor mining regions.)

The strategy also calls on all nations to replace emissions trading with an equitable fossil-fuel efficiency standard. Every country would commit to improving its energy efficiency by a specified amount--say 5 percent--every year until the global 70 percent reduction is attained. By drawing progressively more energy from noncarbon sources, countries would create the mass markets for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them competitive with coal and oil. This approach would be easy to negotiate and easy to monitor: A nation's progress could be measured simply by calculating the annual change in the ratio of its carbon fuel use to its gross domestic product.

A global energy transition will cost a great deal of money (although not nearly as much as ignoring the problem). Until clean-energy infrastructures take root, providing clean energy to poor countries would cost several hundred billion dollars a year, say researchers at the Tellus Institute, an energy-policy think tank in Boston. A prime source for that funding would be a "Tobin tax" on international currency transactions, named after its developer, Nobel prize-winning economist Dr. James Tobin. Every day, speculators trade $1.5 trillion in the world's currency; a tax of a quarter-penny on the dollar would net about $300 billion a year for projects like wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and vast, solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East.

Unlike a North-South giveaway, the fund is a transfer of resources from the finance sector--in the form of speculative transactions--to the industrial sector--in the form of productive, wealth-generating investments. Banks would be paid a small percentage fee to administer the fund, partly offsetting their loss of income from the contraction of currency trading. Creation of a fund of this magnitude would follow the kind of thinking that gave rise to the Marshall Plan after World War II. Without that investment, the nations of Europe could be a collection of impoverished, squabbling states instead of the fruitful and prosperous trading partners we have today.

This approach has another precedent, in the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that ended the production of ozone-destroying chemicals. It was successful because the same companies that made the destructive chemicals were able to produce their substitutes. The energy industry can be reconfigured in the same way. Several oil executives have said in private conversations that they can, in an orderly fashion, decarbonize their energy supplies. But they need the governments of the world to regulate the process so that all companies can make the transition simultaneously, without losing market share to competitors.

The plan would be driven by two engines: The progressive-efficiency standard would create the regulatory drive for all nations to transform their energy diets, and the tax generating $300 billion a year for developing countries would create a vast market for clean-energy technologies. It has been endorsed by a number of NGOs -- India, Bangladesh, Germany, Mexico, and Britain, among others. While the plan will require refinement, it is of a scale appropriate to the magnitude of the problem.

Ultimately, the climate crisis provides an extraordinary opportunity to help us calibrate competition and cooperation in the global economy, harnessing the world's technical ingenuity and the power of the market within a regulatory framework that reflects a consensus of the world's citizens. The very act of addressing the crisis would acknowledge that we are living on a finite planet and foster a new ethic of sustainability that would permeate our institutions and policies in ways unimaginable today. It could subordinate our current infatuation with commerce and materialism to a restored connection to our natural home, ending the exploitative relationship between our civilization and the planet that supports it.

Angry nature is holding a gun to our heads. Drought-driven wildfires last summer consumed 6 million acres in the western United States. Last fall, the United Kingdom experienced its worst flooding since record-keeping began 273 years ago. In Iceland, Europe's biggest glacier is disintegrating. And the sea ice in the Arctic has thinned by 40 percent in the last 40 years.

We have a very small window of opportunity. The choice is clear. The time is short.


Ross Gelbspan is author of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription (Perseus Books, 1998). He maintains the Web site, a project of the Green House Network.

EDITOR’S SIDEBAR: How to End – and Reverse – Global Warming

Turning down the earth’s thermostat will take a 70 percent reduction in our current level of carbon emissions. That’s a big job – but not impossible. Here’s one blueprint to get there:

¨ Redirect the $300 billion the world currently spends on subsidies for fossil fuels to renewable power: solar systems, wind farms, geothermal and fuel cells.

¨ Require every country, whether developed or not, to commit to specific increases in carbon efficiency – say, 5 percent – until the goal of 70 percent is met.

¨ Fund renewable-energy projects in the developing world through a tax on international currency speculation. Such a tax could raise $300 billion a year to help other nations avoid the industrial world’s mistakes. Combined with the progressive reduction schedule above, it would provide a monetary incentive for innovation and introduction of renewable technologies.

This isn’t the only possible formula, but any approach to reversing the warming of the earth’s atmosphere must be at least as ambitious. The transition will be dramatic, but not necessarily painful – unless we delay too long.

-- Paul Rauber, senior editor, Sierra