Last weekend, thousands of volunteers from surrounding states braved freezing temperatures to help people of North Dakota and Minnesota stuff sand bags for levee enhancements in a mostly successful attempt to contain the historic rise of the Red River. Twisters ripped through Mississippi, injuring scores of people, while a blizzard blasted Colorado and the Gulf coast endured yet another beating from severe storms.
Simultaneously, alarm bells rang in the Arctic. Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska said in New Science. "The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them."
Methane is about 20 times more powerful than the original catalyst for global warming, carbon dioxide. We have entered the dreaded period where secondary effects of global warming could take the climate challenge completely out of our control.
As the world prepares to meet at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to set standards for cutting greenhouse gases, President Barack Obama's historic opportunity to set policy to reverse climate change is fleeting. The United States may be unfashionably late to the meeting unless we have our own, meaningful climate policy in place before December.
In the economic stimulus package, President Obama dedicated billions for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Obama promises 5 million new, green jobs that cannot be outsourced, boosting our economy. We recently got word that mountain-top removal coal mining has been put on hold, at least temporarily.
These colossal changes would have been unimaginable even a few months ago. So what's the problem?
Carbon Cap and Trade: Cap Yes, Trade No
Put simply, the carbon trading that President Obama supports is an unenforceable, shell game that allows polluters to pay to pollute. Shifting greenhouse gas pollution around is not going to result in the dramatic cuts in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases that we need. The New York Times reported failures in Europe last December, "Four years later, it is becoming clear that system [cap and trade] has so far produced little noticeable benefit to the climate - but generated a multibillion-dollar windfall for some of the Continent's biggest polluters."
President Obama proposes that we cap or reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below that by 2050. While his proposal is more ambitious than most current local or state-level proposals, given the magnitude of the problem, those reductions are inadequate to the challenge that we face.
Susan Solomon, a climate scientist with NOAA, recently concluded that climate change is irreversible. Rather than a reason for despair, Solomon sees her conclusion as a reason to get our solution right. James Hansen, top climate scientist at NASA said, "We can still roll things back, but it is going to require a quick turn in direction."
We must see this serious situation as an opportunity for transcendent change, a chance for American ingenuity and creativity to shine once more. But our timeline for getting it right is short. We cannot continue business as usual even for a few more decades.
In his paper, Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Society Aim, Hansen said recently, "The evidence indicates...that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350 ppm."
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Nearly 2 decades ago, in their first scientific assessment, the statured scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change told us that "In order to stabilize concentrations at present day concentrations (353 ppm), an immediate reduction in global anthropogenic emissions by 60-80 percent would be necessary."
Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute believes that in order to reach 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to cut carbon dioxide 80% below 1990 levels by 2020, several generations sooner than the Obama Administration proposal.
Fossil Fuel vs. Renewable Energy Economy
More broadly, America must kick the fossil fuel habit. America's dependence on fossil fuel is still gouging us at the gas pump. Home heating and cooling costs are skyrocketing. The fossil fuel economy is stoking wars in the Middle East, fouling our air and water, jeopardizing our national security and exacerbating catastrophic climate change.
President Obama acknowledges that our dependence on other nations for fossil fuels imperils the national security of the United States which now depends on propping up a few shaky authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
But he still extols the virtues of so-called clean coal. Regardless of how it is processed, all coal is a dirty, polluting, non-renewable energy source, contributing up to 40% of fossil fuel related carbon dioxide. An average coal plant in the United States produces 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.
The miasma that is coal, cannot be cleaned. Coal plants also emit carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic and lead, all poisonous in high amounts. In addition, while temporarily prohibited, coal mining companies engage in the heinous practice known as mountain-top removal, annihilating the subtle, ancient beauty of our Appalachian Mountains and streams.
Residents of Tennessee are still dealing with a coal ash spill that released billions of gallons of toxic sludge. The New York Times reports that there are more 1300 similar dumps across the country, mostly unmonitored. They contain poisonous slime and are vulnerable to collapse, threatening water supplies and human health.
We must move beyond fossil fuels altogether, especially so-called clean coal, a phony, public relations term designed by the fossil fuel industry to promote their lethal product. Clean, renewable, non-nuclear energy -- like solar, wind and geothermal -- is the basis upon which we must rebuild if our economy and our planet are to survive and thrive.
Although we need to get 100% of our energy from renewable sources within 10 years, President Obama says on his website, we must "ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025."
If this were an ordinary issue incremental, politically palatable steps made over the long term may be appropriate. But gentle approaches don't make sense when our survival on this planet may depend on a swift, dramatic response. If President Obama wants to bend the arc of history toward a planet that can sustain human civilization, the time for bold leadership is at hand.