CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Bill Clinton came into office pledging to take action against global warming. His vice president was the world's most knowledgeable politician on the subject. The two served in a time of unparalleled prosperity. But Mr. Clinton and Al Gore leave having accomplished nothing, simply because global warming was too politically painful to address head-on. The coda to their failure was last month's bumbling of the Kyoto Accord talks, when America's unwillingness to cut fuel use meaningfully drove the rest of the world away from the bargaining table.
Now George W. Bush takes office. His party platform calls for more research into the issue; he has waffled on it. His choice for energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, is a Michigan senator who worked hard to protect Detroit from stricter fuel-efficiency standards. And his nominee for chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey, muddled the science of climate change with the chemistry of the ozone hole in an interview last week. (They are separate problems; the second was addressed by the Reagan administration's ending of chlorofluorocarbon production.)
We environmentalists have somehow failed to communicate that no more pressing danger faces the planet than global warming. And so perhaps it makes sense to offer just the briefest of primers, one more stab at saying what is happening in the atmosphere of our planet.
In the simplest terms, the sky is filling with carbon dioxide. As we burn fossil fuels, we emit this gas; it is not pollution in the normal sense since it doesn't choke us or make us sick. But its molecular structure traps heat near the planet that would otherwise radiate out to space. The latest scientific consensus, leaked from the International Panel on Climate Change last fall, is that Earth will heat by three to six degrees Fahrenheit in this century, making it far warmer than at any point in human history. The panel's worst-case projection is a jump of 11 degrees, taking us deep into the realm of science fiction. Both projections are much higher than the 1995 numbers.
Even the lower projection carries ominous implications for anyone living near sea level, for anyone in the path of storms and for great swaths of the rest of creation. We are talking about the de-creation of the sweet planet we were born onto.
The only way to slow the warming is to reduce our use of fossil fuel — especially we Americans, who use five times more per capita than the average earthling. The American negotiators who undermined the Kyoto treaty talks were big on the idea of responding to the warming by planting trees. Trees do absorb carbon dioxide, but not enough. And the latest research makes it plain that as forests heat up, too, and organic decay accelerates, these supposed "carbon sinks" will turn into carbon sources. A late fall article in the journal Nature estimated that by the century's end carbon pouring from forests could add two degrees to the panel's global warming totals.
Yet no American politician can bear to do anything to restrict our piggish use of coal and gas and oil — not to raise energy prices or legislate against the plague of gas-guzzling SUV's. During the campaign, Mr. Gore even demanded that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve be opened to keep fuel prices down.
No wonder Americans produce 12 percent more carbon dioxide annually than they did when Mr. Clinton took office, according to Energy Department figures. Figures released in October by the department show that Americans used 1.3 percent more fossil fuel in 1999 than in 1998. So much for "voluntary measures."
One plausible reading of the new scientific data is that we've waited too long already. Ice is melting in the Arctic and in our glaciers at a galloping pace. Coral reefs are bleaching to extinction in warmer water. We may have set in motion forces deeper than we may be able to deal with. So environmentalists have no choice but to press harder — to make the case that this is the most morally compelling issue of our time. Because even if we swallow our fear to approach the problem optimistically, one thing is certain. We don't have another decade or another administration to waste.
Bill McKibben is a fellow at Harvard's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life and author of ``Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously.''
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company