Bush Fiddles While World Burns

This week, Bush is hosting a global warming summit composed of the world's sixteen largest greenhouse gas emitters. Unlike the UN meeting held earlier in the week, it is not intended to actually deal with global warming. It's designed to kick the problem down the road to the next administration, while creating the illusion of progress - just like his Iraq policy.

Bush is pushing "aspirational goals" based on an index of carbon intensity - a measure of carbon emitted per unit of GDP. There are three problems with this approach.

First, it allows GHG emissions to continue to grow. Goals measured in terms of intensity are sort of like trying to lose weight by vowing to only gain two pounds a week instead of five. In the end, you still get fatter. And "aspirational" goals are equivalent to hoping the tooth fairy will cover your subprime mortgage. The third problem with Bush's approach is that it borders on criminal negligence, given the mounting scientific evidence that global warming will have devastating economic, environmental, social and national security consequences.

The plain fact is, in the real world, we've passed a tipping point. Stunned climate scientists have gone from forecasting possible disasters in the distant future, to observing current catastrophes in real time.

If you listen, you can hear the panic - and worse, the beginnings of resignation - in the normally staid voice of scientists when they report their findings on global warming. There's a growing awareness that we let this one get away from us, and that whatever we do, we are now irrevocably locked into some pretty nasty consequences.

Many of them seem almost shell-shocked. Listening to Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center on EarthBeat recently, you could hear that mix of urgency and resignation as he detailed the astounding speed with which the polar ice cap melted this summer.

Just last year forecasters were still predicting that an ice free polar region wouldn't happen until next century - today, most believe it will happen by the summer of 2030.

Or take sea-level rise. In February of this year, the IPCC's most likely estimate called for something less than a two foot increase by 2100.

Recently, climatologist Andrew Weaver, a lead author of the IPCC report, said, "We're going to get a meter and there's nothing we can do about it. It's going to happen no matter what, the question is when."

As Joe Romm points out in his blog, www.climateprogress.org, some scientists believe we'll see that one-meter increase by mid-century - meaning seas would rise by an average of nine inches per decade. If that happens, we'll see increases of a foot or more a decade by mid-century, and we'd be locked into that kind of increase for centuries.

James Hansen and others note that the geologic record shows that warmings comparable to what we're causing with human GHG emissions have resulted in sea-level increases of several meters, and that they occurred relatively quickly.

Since February, the challenge has shifted from avoiding barely manageable increases in sea level at the end of this century, to trying to prevent cataclysmic increases in our lifetimes.

Against this slow-motion tsunami, Mr. Bush proposes to mount an "indexed, aspirational" wall.

Shades of a global New Orleans.

There are those who think an ice free pole would be a good thing. But nothing happens in a vacuum here on earth. The side effect of an ice free pole is a shift in prevailing winds - the earth's weather makers. This would dry up the already parched west, setting off one of those increasingly ubiquitous feedback loops that never seem to make it into our climate models. The feedback would work as follows. First, dryer climates will cause more forest fires, which will result in massive releases of carbon. Meanwhile, forest cover will shrink, so there will be fewer trees to sequester the additional carbon, which will further accelerate the warming, which will increase the speed with which forests burn and shrink, etc. etc. etc. straight into a national inferno. Among the casualties would be our most treasured National Parks.

We're already seeing the bow wave of this phenomena. Wildfires are exploding across the planet. Here in the US, the statistics are grim and undeniable. From 1990 to 2000 we lost an average of 5.9 million acres of forest to wildfires per year (which was already an increase over the previous ten-year average). In 2006 wildfires claimed almost 9 million acres, and they've consumed about 8.2 million acres already this year. In just the last two years, the US has lost the equivalent to four New Jersey's to wildfires.

Perhaps we can all join President Bush and "aspire" that this calamity immediately cease.

The current ferocity of hurricanes has also stunned the experts. While Bush and his deniers were attempting to politicize the National Hurricane Center and blunt their forecast of more intense hurricanes in the future due to global warming, a funny thing happened: the future arrived early. The statistics on Atlantic hurricanes tell the story. Until recently, category 5 hurricanes (the most severe) were relatively rare. In the last decade, 8 of them ripped their way across the Atlantic - more than any decade on record. This year we've already had two, and one of them - Edgar- emerged from nowhere, going from a routine depression to a category 5 in the space of days. Only three other years have had more than one category 5 storm in the Atlantic (1960, 1961, and 2005). The trends on cyclone intensity in the Pacific are comparable.

Around the world, countries are waking up to the national security implications of global warming. The combination of rising sea-levels and more intense storms will create hundreds of millions of global warming refugees. The 28-foot storm surge of Katrina displaced a million people in the Gulf region, many permanently, something the richest nation on earth is still trying to cope with two years after the event. Imagine multiple events each year throughout the world. Estimates are that more than a 150 million permanent refugees could be created by mid-century from flooding alone.

Droughts are another source of refugees, as well as untold human misery and regional conflict. And here again, reality arrived early, way ahead of forecasts. In Africa, sustained droughts are one of the root causes of the genocide in Darfur, as nomadic Arabs compete with farming peoples for the diminishing share of arable land. In Australia, they are suffering the worst drought in a thousand years, and they've begun paying farmers to leave their farms. As Romm points out, Australia's governments and scientists have stopped using the term drought and they are urging the press to do likewise because the current climate is "the new reality." Last year, one Australian farmer took his own life every four days, becoming perhaps the ultimate global warming refugees.

Climate change is expected to dry up large portions of China, India, Africa, North America, and South America. The loss of mountain glaciers, which function to store water in dry areas, releasing it in Spring and Summer when it's most needed, will compound the problem.

If the dispossessed, the poor and the indigent are the breeding ground for terrorists, then we are turning the planet into a nursery for terrorism. Bush said we must drain the "swamps" which are the source of terrorism - but it will be the expanding deserts and drowned coasts that spawn tomorrow's terrorists. The Pentagon and the CIA have quietly taken notice of this phenomena, and they are seeking to raise alarms within government, but Mr. Bush is punting. You have to wonder, if preemption was necessary to protect us from imaginary threats and non-existent weapons in Iraq, why on earth aren't we doing everything in our power to prevent these real-world and real-time threats to national security?

Perhaps these hundreds of millions of displaced souls can "aspire" their way to water, food and dry land, or "index" their hunger and thirst.

Finally, even economists are beginning to recognize that the costs of ignoring global warming far exceed the costs of addressing it. The Stern Report projected that failing to address climate change could impose a permanent 20% drag on the global economy - equivalent to a continuous 1930's scale Depression - while acting to address it now would cost just 1% of the global GDP. Despite a lot of hand wringing by neoclassical economists over discount rates, Sir Stern's findings have held up.

Index that, Mr. Bush.

Many believe the Bush administration will go down in history as one of the worst, and they cite the Iraq fiasco and his assault on civil liberties and the Constitution as the reasons. But long after the ramifications of those admittedly egregious crimes have subsided, the effects of global warming will still be with us. Future generations will know that there was a critical time when we knew we had to act, and when we had the time to act to avoid global catastrophe, but that one man failed to exercise the leadership needed. They will know that man's name, the way we know Nero's, and they will spit on his memory.