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The Truth on Warming
Published in the July 8, 2002 issue of The Nation
The Truth on Warming
by Mark Hertsgaard
 

The journalist I.F. Stone used to joke that the government issues so much information every day, it can't help but let the truth slip out every once in a while. The Bush Administration's recent report on global warming is a classic example. Though far from perfect, it contains some crucial but awkward truths that neither George W. Bush nor his environmentalist critics want to confront. Which may explain why the Administration has sought to bury the report, while critics have misrepresented its most ominous conclusion.

U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 made headlines because it contradicted so much of what the Administration has said about global warming. Not only is global warming real, according to the report, but its consequences--heat waves, water shortages, rising sea levels, loss of beaches and marshes, more frequent and violent weather--will be punishing for Americans. The report's biggest surprise was its admission that human activities, especially the burning of oil and other fossil fuels, are the primary cause of climate change. Of course, the rest of the world has known since 1995 that human actions have "a discernible impact" on the global climate, to quote a landmark report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the White House has resisted this conclusion. After all, if burning fossil fuels is to blame for global warming, it makes sense to burn less of them. To a lifelong oilman like Bush, who continues to rely on his former industry colleagues for campaign contributions as well as senior staff, such a view is nothing less than heresy.

No wonder, then, that Bush and his high command have virtually repudiated the report. Although their staffs helped write it, both EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham claimed they were unaware of the report until the New York Times disclosed its existence on June 3. Bush himself dismissed it as a mere product of "the bureaucracy," that oft-vilified bogyman of right-wing ideology. But he could equally have blamed his own father. The only reason U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 was compiled in the first place is that George Bush the First signed a global warming treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit that obligates the United States to periodically furnish such reports to the UN (one more reason, it seems, to despise treaties). But somebody in the Administration must have seen trouble coming, because the report could not have been released with less fanfare: It was simply posted on the EPA's website, three unguided links in from the homepage. If you weren't looking for it, you'd never find it.

The Administration has been hammered for issuing a report that on one hand admits that global warming threatens catastrophe but on the other maintains there is no need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. The report squares this circle by arguing that global warming has now become inevitable, so we should focus less on preventing it than on adapting to it. To deal with water scarcity, for example, the report advocates building more dams and raising the price of water to encourage conservation. Critics see such recommendations as proof that the Administration is doing nothing about global warming. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

The worst thing about the new global warming report is that it is absolutely correct about a fundamental but often unmentioned aspect of the problem: the lag effect. Most greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for approximately 100 years. The upshot of this undeniable chemical fact is that no matter what remedial steps are taken today, humanity is doomed to experience however much global warming the past 100 years of human activities will generate. That does not mean we should make matters worse by continuing to burn fossil fuels, as Bush foolishly urges; our children and grandchildren deserve better than that. It does mean, however, that we as a civilization must not only shift to green energy sources immediately but also begin planning how we will adapt to a world that is bound to be a hotter, drier, more disaster-punctuated place in the twenty-first century.

Many environmentalists know it is too late to prevent global warming; the best we can do is minimize its scope. They don't like to admit this truth, because they fear it will discourage people from making, and demanding, the personal and institutional changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is that risk. But a truth does not disappear simply because it is inconvenient. Besides, a green energy future would mean more, not less, economic well-being for most Americans, while also increasing our chances of avoiding the most extreme global warming scenarios. Sometimes the truth hurts. But avoiding it will hurt even more.

Mark Hertsgaard is the author, most recently, of Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future (Broadway). His new book, The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

© 2002 The Nation Company, L.P.

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