Our Favorite Planet
Imagine if President Bush announced a plan for Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs that declared: They will cease accumulating nuclear weapons by 2025. We will accomplish this through incentives and voluntary action, without mandates.
Mr. Bush would be ridiculed, but in essence, that's the plan he announced for climate change on Wednesday. He set a target for halting the growth in carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, without specific mandates to achieve that, and in the meantime he blasted proposed Senate legislation for tougher measures as unnecessary.
Unnecessary? When scientists detect accelerating melting in the Arctic and confidently predict centuries of coastal retreats and climate shifts, endangering the only planet we have?
Now let me pause for a special request: If you're a skeptic about climate change, stop reading here.
That's because the skeptics have mostly made silly arguments — that climate change is a "hoax" — when there is a much better argument available for them: that the remedies favored by environmentalists, like a cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions, probably won't do the job.
Three respected climate experts made that troubling argument in an important essay in Nature this month, offering a sobering warning that the climate problem is much bigger than anticipated. That's largely because of increased use of coal in booming Asian economies.
For example, imagine that we instituted a brutally high gas tax that reduced emissions from American vehicles by 25 percent. That would be a stunning achievement — and in just nine months, China's increased emissions would have more than made up the difference.
China and the United States each produces more than one-fifth of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. China's emissions are much smaller per capita but are soaring: its annual increase in emissions is greater than Germany's total annual emissions.
"We've gotten this hopelessly wrong," said Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, one of the authors of the Nature article. "If we approach this from reducing emissions we get nowhere. Driving Priuses may be good, but it's not going to accomplish what we need."
Mr. Pielke and his colleagues argue that the best hope for salvation will be investment in new technologies — and that's why I asked the climate deniers not to read this column, for it can sound a bit like President Bush's "solution."
The difference is that Mr. Bush has used modest investments in hydrogen as a substitute for immediate action, while what we need is vast investments on top of a drive to curb emissions through a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. In the best of worlds, it will be enormously difficult to persuade China and India to rely less on coal-fired power plants, and it will be utterly impossible unless we take serious steps ourselves.
"The message is, let's change light bulbs and let's be more efficient," Mr. Pielke said. "But let's do more than that. The solution lies in transformational technologies."
Solar power is one of the most hopeful technologies but still produces about 0.01 percent of U.S. electricity. The U.S. allocates just $159 million for solar research per year — about what we spend in Iraq every nine hours.
Other renewable technologies, including wind power, also merit far more investment; it's appalling that subsidies continue to support oil and coal, and that money should be diverted to renewables. Since 1979, U.S. spending on energy research has shrunk by approximately half, taking inflation into account. Spending on military research, meanwhile, has more than doubled and now amounts to roughly 20 times what is spent on energy research.
Then there is geo-engineering, or tinkering with our planet to overcome our past tinkering. One proposal is to inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the effects of volcanic eruptions in cooling the planet. Another is to fertilize the sea with iron particles to encourage the growth of plants that would suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Then there are more bizarre proposals for giant sunshades to orbit the earth, or for space-based solar panels.
So the next president should start a $20 billion-a-year program (financed by a pullout from Iraq) to develop new energy technologies, backed by a carbon tax and cap-and-trade system. Each of the presidential candidates favors some form of a cap-and-trade and would mark a step forward from President Bush's passivity — although John McCain's recent proposal for a summer holiday from the gas tax would be a deplorable step in exactly the wrong direction, unless he hopes to turn his land in Arizona into coastal property.
The bottom line is that none of the candidates focus adequately on climate change, for this will be one of humanity's great tests in the coming decades — and so far we're failing.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular New York Times columnist.
© 2008 The New York Times