The Common Good
March 2004

Sins of Emission

by Bill McKibben | March 2004

No politician seriously believes that Americans are willing to deal with global warming. Is it too late to prove them wrong?

"Sin," of course, is a word we've agreed to stop using in polite company-a cheap way of making an argument, its force eroded by its constant application to matters of personal style. So let's refer to the pattern of unfortunate option selection by the Bush administration when it comes to the environment. Two main types emerge.

There is the unfortunate option selection of commission. This covers the aggressive vandalism of the nation's landscape, a deliberate and carefully planned assault on every part of the nation's landscape. To give just a few examples on a very long list: The Bush administration has returned huge sections of the national forests to the tender ministrations of the logging industry on the pretext that this will prevent forest fires (the "Healthy Forests Initiative"); they are trying to let power plants increase the amount of sulfur and nitrogen that they are allowed to emit (the "Clear Skies" initiative); they have allowed mining companies to appropriate as much federal land as they would like on which to store the slag from their operations (the "Thanks for Campaign Contribution" initiative); and they have tried, despite millions of letters, to overturn earlier decisions on everything from saving roadless areas to banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone (the "Screw You" initiative).

And then there are the unfortunate option selections of omission. This category denotes something different: the willful and childlike blindness to physical reality, simply because it would be inconvenient to recognize it. For instance, in the years since President Bush was elected, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued its third assessment report, Climate Change 2001. Its authors, the world's leading climatologists, assessed all the peer-reviewed research of the last decade and calibrated all the planet's computerized climate models, concluding from their work that unless we take dramatic action to reduce our use of coal, gas, and oil, the temperature of this particular planet will increase something like five degrees Fahrenheit before the century is out. That would make it hotter than it has been on this particular planet for tens of millions of years.

Even with our current increase of one degree Fahrenheit, every major glacial system on earth is melting, the seasons are shifting radically, and both drought and deluge are on the increase. Five degrees - by no means the worst-case scenario - would literally be the largest change humans have ever made to the planet, and the largest change humans have ever faced. Those living on the margins would, of course, be affected the worst - many credible estimates suggest that the number of environmental refugees in this century will outnumber the political refugees of the bloody century we've just endured. And the rest of creation? An extinction crisis at least as bad as the last time a major asteroid hit, some 90 million years ago. Except that this time the asteroid is us.

So, in the face of that news, what has President Bush done? He has ended our participation in the Kyoto accords, the only (albeit timid) global effort to address this most global of problems. His vice president has scorned conservation as a "personal virtue" and proffered an energy plan that foresees dramatic and endless increases in fossil fuel production, refining, and combustion - foresees Americans producing 20 percent more carbon dioxide in the next generation even as the rest of the industrialized world is working hard to cut its emissions by that much or more. He has sued to stop state attempts to, say, modestly increase automobile gas mileage. He has allowed old friends in the energy industry to plunder deregulated electricity markets and then tried to pin the blame on environmentalists for not building new power plants. He has put a pitiful few billions of dollars for renewables into his new energy plan, while larding it with truckfuls of money for coal, oil, and gas. Oh - and he has forced his Environmental Protection Agency to remove the few pages on global warming from its annual ecological assessment.

You could, I think, call it all the "Go to Hell" initiative. Or if not literally hell, then someplace with a similar climate. It almost makes one sorry that we spent the word "sin" on worrying about who people happened to fall in love with: the willful destruction of the created world to maintain the habits of the last 40 years for another 15 probably deserves that label about as much as anything one can imagine. But never mind. At this point it's more important to figure out what to do about it.

The answer for the first category of problems is clear: If there's a vandal in the White House, then to make the vandalism cease he needs to leave. If you care about national forests, endangered species, Arctic refuges, toxic waste dumps, asthmatic children, unacidified lakes - you have to get rid of the president. Which of the Democrats replaces him doesn't matter all that much. Any of them would appoint bureaucrats from the broad mainstream of the environmental movement (which is also the broad mainstream of American thought - every year pollsters find 70 or 80 percent of Americans agreeing we should do more to protect our ecological inheritance). The basically sound policies that date back to the Nixon administration will be restored - people will resume slow, steady, unspectacular work on cleaning the air and the water. Nothing too dramatically terrible will happen. That's the good thing about your standard UOS of commission. You can just stop doing it - all you need is the willpower to resist the campaign cash from the guy who wants to dump his slagheap on the public desert.

But that still leaves you with the unfortunate option selections of omission - the refusal to do anything serious about the biggest issues, like global warming. And sadly, that's going to be a tad harder. Because, you see, it's not exactly Bush's fault entirely. Truth be told, the Clinton administration knew all about global warming too - Al Gore had written a book about it, for heaven's sake. But in their eight years in office, they didn't bother to expend much political capital on the issue - there weren't a lot of Oval Office speeches explaining why it was a bad idea to convert our auto fleet to semi-military vehicles, for instance. In fact, in the eight years of the Clinton administration, even while the rest of the world was negotiating the Kyoto treaty, we managed to increase our carbon emissions by 15 percent.

In fact, since Bill Clinton was the most sensitive instrument ever devised for reading the political opinion of his countrymen and women, you could almost say that this is our fault too. No politician seriously believes that Americans are willing to do the things that dealing with global warming will require: paying more for gasoline and other fossil fuels; underwriting the cost of developing new renewable technologies; paying to share those technologies with India, China, and the rest of the developing world so that they don't follow our path; and using less stuff. That's the trouble with your average UOS of omission - to conquer it, you have to do something positive.

The sad part, of course, is that we know eventually we will have to deal with this problem. No one seriously thinks that 100 years from now we'll be burning coal, gas, and oil to power our economy the way we do today. We're going to run out of some of them, and even before we do the environmental price will be too high to pay. The question is, how quickly can we make the transition? If it takes 60 or 70 years, then we buy into civilization-altering levels of climatic disruption. If we do it in 20 or 30 years, then maybe we can hold temperature increases to, say, three degrees - miserable, but perhaps not catastrophic. (Perhaps not - we're going into unexplored territory on the thermometer, and there's reason to believe we may already have crossed thresholds that will lead to very serious damage). But knowing that we'll eventually have to deal with it and actually dealing with it are two different propositions. The temptation - for our politicians and for ourselves - is always going to be to postpone the pain for the next one in line. Let the next Congress deal with it; let our kids deal with it. Let this cup pass.

TRUTH BE TOLD, there was a long period when there wasn't all that much we could do. People gave Earth Day speeches (I gave Earth Day speeches) with fingers crossed - it was all very well and good to tell people to use renewable energy, but renewable energy until a few years ago meant guys with pony tails out in their backyards trying to figure out what direction to point the solar panel that connected to an array of 20 batteries down in the basement that needed to have their water level checked every few days. It wasn't going to sell. But that's changed - the first wave of actual, usable new technology has arrived. I drive around in a hybrid electric Honda Civic that looks like every other Honda Civic ever built, costs less than $20,000, and gets better than 50 miles to the gallon. The Europeans have built vast wind farms - Denmark gets a fifth of its power from the wind. (And not because Denmark is freakishly windy - Iowa is the actual Saudi Arabia of wind.)

If we got serious about this transition now, we could not only head off some of the climate trouble, we could also do great things for our communities. Imagine a world where people drew their juice from an array of wind turbines a few miles away. Imagine a vastly decentralized power grid that didn't depend on the brute power of ExxonMobil and the 82nd Airborne - that didn't require slave labor to build pipelines through dense jungle, that didn't need young men and women to travel halfway around the world to shoot at and be shot by people who had the great misfortune to live atop reservoirs of crude. Imagine a defensible energy supply - physically defensible, and morally too.

But that will only happen if we start soon. If we wait until we're pushed against the wall, then the same large-scale forces that have gotten us into this mess will be the ones we turn to in order to get us out. ExxonMobil will be the dominant wind company - which will be an improvement, but not as much of an improvement.

Sometimes environmentalists ask themselves: What will it take to open people's eyes? What level of hurt will it require? - because people are already hurting. As temperatures rise, mosquitoes are colonizing new parts of the tropics and subtropics, and taking malaria and dengue with them. I had dengue a couple of years ago, and it defines grim. But I was a rare exception - mostly these diseases kill people who we in the industrialized world apparently couldn't care less about. (Ironic, too, since those people produce essentially nothing in the way of emissions - I got dengue in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where the bicycle rickshaw is the standard mode of transit.) This summer, however, 12,000 citizens of France died in the course of a week when the temperature hit completely unprecedented levels and didn't cool off much even when night fell - precisely the kind of phenomenon that every computer model indicates is more likely as carbon dioxide builds up in our atmosphere. These were real people in our sense of the word. French, yes, but they had cars and refrigerators and televisions and modems and pet dogs and every other thing that defines our own Western species.

Remember - these 12,000 people just like us did not die because of a "natural disaster" or an "act of God." They died because we've pumped too much carbon into the atmosphere. Many, many, many more will die in the same way, and in a thousand other ways, unless we get down to work and soon.

The alternative is to turn away yet again. But that would be…an unfortunate option selection.

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, was a visiting scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont when this article appeared.

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