It's been a big week for the atmosphere. Monday, the Supreme Court ruled five to four (Hang on, Justice Stevens!) that the Clean Air Act does allow the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Just because the EPA can regulate CO2 doesn't mean it will, at least not under the current administration, but we can all hope 2009 is not too late to pull the planet back from the brink of destruction.In another Monday ruling - this one unanimous - the court ruled that existing power plants that have been rehabbed or expanded must meet the same (stricter) standards as new power plants. Just to clear up any confusion, this case has been kicking around since 1998, when the Clinton administration tried to hold utilities to the higher standard. It's unlikely the case would have been generated under the current boss.
Tomorrow, in news that's not so good, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the second part of its fourth assessment report. Part one, released in February, said scientists are 90 percent certain the Earth's warming trend is caused by human activity. Tomorrow's release will discuss specific effects. For example, scientists are 90 percent certain earlier bird migrations and shifts of species' ranges toward the poles are caused by human-induced global warming.
Last autumn, when the carbon dioxide case was being argued, Justice Antonin Scalia challenged Massachusetts's Assistant Attorney General James Milkey to demonstrate the "imminent harm" to Massachusetts if the EPA does not regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Mr. Milkey, shockingly unprepared for the question, mumbled something about how rising sea levels might wash away some coastline. Massachusetts, et al, won the case, Mr. Milkey's poor answer notwithstanding. (Hang on, Justice Stevens!) What he should have said - and this was clear long before last fall - is that many species of fish are migrating out of Massachusetts waters and into Canadian waters, where Massachusetts fishermen are not allowed to catch them. That's not "imminent harm," it's actual ongoing economic harm and it's going to get worse.
While it's good the powers that be are finally beginning to pay attention to global warming, we don't have time to sit back and celebrate. We have to move from information to action. Harvey Wasserman, the Ohio-based historian and environmentalist has initiated a reverse history project called "Solartopia."
Solartopia is a history of the next two decades, with the historian standing in 2030 and seeing that 2007 was the year we woke up and started doing things right. "Doing things right" means using power in the most efficient ways available to us, it means using design to exploit natural advantages to keep buildings warm in winter and cool in summer. It means passive solar technology, photovoltaics and solar trough collectors. It means wind power and distributive generation (a fancy way of saying "generating small amounts of power where it's needed instead of generating huge amounts in one place and moving all over"). It means investigating and perfecting technologies to reap energy from tides and oceanic thermal differentials.
The Solartopian success Harvey (I just can't bring myself to call him "Mr. Wasserman") sees also means having the sense not to panic and start building new nuclear plants or get gulled into thinking that burning coal can ever be "clean."
To track progress in our journey to Solartopia, Harvey has an on-line "Solatopian Clock." (http://www.solartopia.org/) The clock's online hand will move accordingly as we draw nearer to our Solartopian goals.
As even politicians and the mainstream media now agree, the global warming debate is over. Everyone agrees it's real. The daunting challenge now is to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
If Harvey's Solartopian history is right and we start making smart decisions this year, we'll still have some hard times ahead. It's inevitable; we've done too much damage already. The other task on the road to Solartopia is to create communities - social, political, economic - that will care for the victims of global warming. They're among us already in the Katrina diaspora. There will be more people displaced by storms, floods, droughts and, eventually, rising sea levels. It's important that we treat them with compassion, because we will all, one way or another, be victims of global warming before we get to Solartopia.
The choice before us is: more resource wars or the road to Solartopia. Neither future will be easy, only one will be rewarding.
© Mark Floegel, 2007