Wanted: A Climate Bailout

What a difference an emergency makes. Scare people enough and $700 billion can materialize almost overnight. The White House can repudiate its core economic philosophy--government should leave markets alone--within hours. Congress, where spending bills sometimes wait years to reach the floor, can pass one of the costliest laws in its history within days. Even the endlessly fickle media can provide 24/7 news coverage, making the emergency the topic on everyone's mind.

When will we see this same sense of urgency devoted to the greatest emergency of our time? You wouldn't know it from our politicians or TV shows, but the climate crisis is even more serious than the financial crisis. The financial crisis, while painful and severe, can be resolved, given time and wise policies. The climate crisis, not so. The earth's climate system has tipping points beyond which no return is possible. Yet there is a very real danger right now that sliding oil prices will lull the public into an even deeper complacency.

The system passed the first major tipping point twenty years ago, when, according to 1988 Congressional testimony from James Hansen, the chief climate scientist at NASA, man-made global warming began. A second tipping point was passed a few years ago, when global warming began triggering climate change: abnormal droughts, storms and other extreme weather. The problem is, once climate change begins, it cannot simply be turned off. The inertia of the climate system ensures that even if every country in the world went green as quickly as possible, the earth would still be locked into fifty more years of rising temperatures and the impacts they unleash. Thus, by 2050 European summer temperatures will routinely reach the record highs experienced in 2003, when an estimated 70,000 people died. The snowpacks atop many of the world's mountains--a source of drinking and irrigation water for more than a billion people--will have melted and shrunk. Sea levels will be rising significantly.

We are now in danger of passing a third tipping point--the descent into cataclysmic, irreversible climate change. Hansen returned to Capitol Hill in June, on the twentieth anniversary of his 1988 testimony, to warn that the earth is on the verge of "disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control," causing "mass extinction, ecosystem collapse and dramatic sea level rises." To avert this catastrophe, Hansen continued, "is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year"--that is, by the end of 2009, when the world's governments will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate new reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Every candidate running for election, and every journalist covering them, should be required to spend the twenty minutes it takes to read Hansen's latest testimony, because they obviously still don't get it. We face a code-red emergency. At stake is the survival of human civilization. Yet the candidates and media treat global warming as just another issue. Even Barack Obama, who takes the problem seriously, seems not to grasp the urgency of the moment. (The same is true in Europe, where governments have invoked the economic downturn as grounds for delaying emissions cuts.)

The United States and the world need to launch a climate rescue plan that is at least as ambitious as the financial rescue plan. We need a massive shift of government incentives and funds away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and other low-carbon alternatives. We must also end rampant deforestation, which causes 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions while imposing enormous economic costs. (A new study by the European Union found that deforestation costs far more every year than the financial crisis, because when forests disappear humans must pay for ecosystem services--storage of water, neutralization of carbon dioxide--that previously were free.)

The good news is that a massive green jobs and investment program is economically appealing and politically plausible. The program would pay for itself over time by generating additional income, profits, innovation and market opportunities, which doubtless accounts for the support it has gained from such mainstream sources as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, not to mention the Democratic presidential nominee. A green jobs and investment program is the core of Obama's proposed energy policy as president, but he is still thinking too small: he proposes spending $15 billion a year for the next ten years, when the crisis calls for spending much more, much faster.

Friends of the Earth was the first environmental group to oppose the $700 billion bailout, warning that it would put the next president "in a fiscal straitjacket." But a straitjacketed Obama should still spend big to go green, says Friends of the Earth president Brent Blackwelder. "There is enormous public support for it, and it's what the climate requires." It's also what the economy requires: with a recession/depression threatening the global economy, deficit spending is the least of our worries. Only massive pump-priming through well-targeted government spending can protect jobs and living standards and stimulate an eventual recovery. Take a lesson from the Wall Street bailout, adds Blackwelder; a climate rescue plan must not reward the same bad actors that got us into this mess. Just as the financial crisis stems from investment firms exploiting insufficient government regulation, so the climate crisis stems from energy corporations blocking regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, in part by misrepresenting the science of global warming. In his recent testimony, Hansen declared that the CEOs of fossil energy corporations "should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature," adding that he welcomed the chance to testify. In the meantime, let's at least strip those CEOs of their de facto veto power over government policy. Otherwise, the green revolution--our best hope against impending climate chaos--will come late or not at all.

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