At any given moment we face as a society an enormous number of problems: there's the mortgage crisis, the health care crisis, the endless war in Iraq, and on and on. Maybe we'll solve some of them, and doubtless new ones will spring up to take their places. But there's only one thing we're doing that will be easily visible from the moon. That something is global warming. Quite literally it's the biggest problem humans have ever faced, and while there are ways to at least start to deal with it, all of them rest on acknowledging just how large the challenge really is.
What exactly do I mean by large? Last fall the scientists who study sea ice in the Arctic reported that it was melting even faster than they'd predicted. We blew by the old record for ice loss in mid-August, and by the time the long polar night finally descended, the fabled Northwest Passage was open for navigation for the first time in recorded history. That is to say, from outer space the Earth already looks very different: less white, more blue.
What do I mean by large? On the glaciers of Greenland, 10 percent more ice melted last summer than any year for which we have records. This is bad news because, unlike sea ice, Greenland's vast frozen mass sits above rock, and when it melts, the oceans rise-potentially a lot. James Hansen, America's foremost climatologist, testified in court last year that we might see sea level increase as much as six meters-nearly 20 feet-in the course of this century. With that, the view from space looks very different indeed (not to mention the view from the office buildings of any coastal city on earth).
What do I mean by large? Already higher heat is causing drought in arid areas the world over. In Australia things have gotten so bad that agricultural output is falling fast in the continent's biggest river basin, and the nation's prime minister is urging his people to pray for rain. Aussie native Rupert Murdoch is so rattled he's announced plans to make his NewsCorp empire (think Fox News) carbon neutral. Australian voters ousted their old government last fall, largely because of concerns over climate.
What do I mean by large? If we'd tried we couldn't have figured out a more thorough way to make life miserable for the world's poor, who now must deal with the loss of the one thing they could always take for granted-the planet's basic physical stability. We've never figured out as efficient a method for obliterating other species. We've never figured out another way to so fully degrade the future for everyone who comes after us.
Or rather, we have figured out one other change that rises to this scale. That change is called all-out thermo-nuclear war, and so far, at least, we've decided not to have one. But we haven't called off global warming. Just the opposite: in the 20 years that we've known about this problem, we've steadily burned more coal and gas and oil, and hence steadily poured more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of a few huge explosions, we've got billions of little ones every minute, as pistons fire inside engines and boilers burn coal.
Having put off real change, we've made our job steadily harder. But there are signs that we're finally ready to get to work. Congress is for the first time seriously considering legislation that would actually limit U.S. emissions. The bills won't be signed by President Bush, and they don't do everything that needs doing-but they're a start.
We need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement-as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we're not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the automakers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.
And the international community meeting in Bali in December overcame U.S. resistance and began the steps toward an international treaty that will be ready in 2009. The talks are going slowly, largely because of American intransigence, but George Bush won't be president forever, so there's at least a chance we'll re-engage with the rest of the world.
If we do, there are steps we can take. Because the problem is so big, and coming at us so fast, those steps will need to be large. And even so, they won't be enough to stop global warming-at best they will slow it down and give us some margin. But here's the deal:
We need to conserve energy. That's the cheapest way to reduce carbon. Screw in the energy-saving lightbulbs, but that's just the start. You have to blow in the new insulation-blow it in so thick that you can heat your home with a birthday candle. You have to plug in the new appliances-not the flat-screen TV, which uses way more power than the old set, but the new water-saving front-loading washer. And once you've got it plugged in, turn the dial so that you're using cold water. The dryer? You don't need a dryer-that's the sun's job.
We need to generate the power we use cleanly. Wind is the fastest growing source of electricity generation around the world-but it needs to grow much faster still. Solar panels are increasingly common-especially in Japan and Germany, which are richer in political will than they are in sunshine. Much of the technology is now available; we need innovation in financing and subsidizing more than we do in generating technology.
We need to change our habits-really, we need to change our sense of what we want from the world. Do we want enormous homes and enormous cars, all to ourselves? If we do, then we can't deal with global warming. Do we want to keep eating food that travels 1,500 miles to reach our lips? Or can we take the bus or ride a bike to the farmers' market? Does that sound romantic to you? Farmers' markets are the fastest growing part of the American food economy; their heaviest users may be urban-dwelling immigrants, recently enough arrived from the rest of the world that they can remember what actual food tastes like. Which leads to the next necessity:
We need to stop insisting that we've figured out the best way on Earth to live. For one thing, if it's wrecking the Earth then it's probably not all that great. But even by measures of life satisfaction and happiness, the Europeans have us beat-and they manage it on half the energy use per capita. We need to be pointing the Indians and the Chinese hard in the direction of London, not Los Angeles; Barcelona, not Boston.
Building a Movement Most of all, we need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement-as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we're not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the auto-makers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.
Some of us have spent the last couple of years trying to build that movement, and we've had some success. With no money and no organization, seven of us launched StepItUp in January 2007. Before the year was out, we'd helped organize 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states-and helped take our once-radical demand for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by mid-century into the halls of power.
We haven't won yet-but we're way beyond what we could have expected when we began. Last November, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood at a podium in front of 7,000 college students gathered from around the country at the University of Maryland and led them in a chant: "80 percent by 2050." I'm as cynical as the next guy, but it feels like our democracy is starting to work.
It will need to work much better, though. We'll need to see a whole new level of commitment-to nonviolent protest, to electioneering, to endless lobbying. We'll have to be committed to an environmentalism much broader and more diverse than we've known-younger, browner, and insistent that the people left out of the last economy won't be left out of the new one. And we'll need to see it not just here but around the world. Because they don't call it global warming for nothing. If we're going to have a fighting chance, we'll need every nation pitching in-which means, in turn, that we'll have to understand where we all stand right now.
What about China and India? Here's the political reality check, just as sobering as the data about sea ice and drought: China last year passed the United States as the biggest emitter of carbon on Earth. Now, that doesn't mean the Chinese are as much to blame as we are-per capita, we pour four times more CO2 into the atmosphere. And we've been doing it for a hundred years, which means it will be decades before they match us as a source of the problem. But they-and the Indians, and the rest of the developing world behind them-are growing so fast that there's no way to head off this crisis without their participation. And yet they don't want to participate, because they're using all that cheap coal not to pimp out an already lavish lifestyle, but to pull people straight out of deep poverty.
Which means that if we want them not to burn their coal, we're going to need to help them-we're going to need to supply the windmills, efficient boilers, and so on that let them build decent lives without building coal-fired power plants.
Which means, in turn, we're going to need to be generous, on a scale that passes even the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild post-World War II Europe. And it's not clear if we're capable of that any more-so far our politicians have preferred to scapegoat China, not come to its aid.
I said at the start that this was not just another problem on a list of problems. It's a whole new lens through which we look at the world. When we peer through it, foreign policy looks entirely different: the threats to our security can be met only by shipping China technology, not by shipping missiles to China's enemies.
When we peer through the climate lens, our economic life looks completely changed: we need to forget the endless expansion now adding to the cloud of carbon and concentrate on the kind of durability that will let us last out the troubles headed our way.
Another Way to be Human Our individual lives look very different through these glasses too. Less individual, for one thing. The kind of extreme independence that derived from cheap fossil fuel-the fact that we need our neighbors for nothing at all-can't last. Either we build real community, of the kind that lets us embrace mass transit and local food and co-housing and you name it, or we will go down clinging to the wreckage of our privatized society.
Which leaves us with the one piece of undeniably good news: we were built for community. Everything we know about human beings, from the state of our immune systems to the state of our psyches, testifies to our desire for real connection of just the kind that an advanced consumer society makes so difficult. We need that kind of community to slow down the environmental changes coming at us, and we need that kind of community to survive the changes we can't prevent. And we need that kind of community because it's what makes us fully human.
This is our final exam, and so far we're failing. But we don't have to put our pencils down quite yet. We'll see.