Why Copenhagen May Be a Disaster

Most political arguments don't really have a right and a
wrong, no matter how passionately they're argued. They're about human
preferences -- for more health care or lower taxes, for a war to secure
some particular end or a peace that leaves some danger intact. On
occasion, there are clear-cut moral issues: the rights of minorities or
women to a full share in public life, say; but usually even those of us
most passionate about human affairs recognize that we're on one side of a
debate, that there are legitimate arguments to the contrary (endless
deficits, coat-hanger abortions, a resurgent al-Qaeda). We need people
taking strong positions to move issues forward, which is why I'm always
ready to carry a placard or sign a petition, but most of us also realize
that, sooner or later, we have to come to some sort of compromise.

That's why standard political operating procedure is to move slowly,
taking matters in small bites instead of big gulps. That's why, from the
very beginning, we seemed unlikely to take what I thought was the
correct course for our health-care system: a single-payer model like
the rest of the world. It was too much change for the country to
digest. That's undoubtedly part of the reason why almost nobody who ran
for president supported it, and those who did went nowhere.

Instead, we're fighting hard over a much less exalted set of reforms
that represent a substantial shift, but not a tectonic one. You could --
and I do -- despise the insurance industry and Big Pharma for blocking
progress, but they're part of the game. Doubtless we should change the
rules, so they represent a far less dominant part of it. But if that
happens, it, too, will undoubtedly occur piece by piece, not all at

Moving by increments: it frustrates the hell out of many of us, and
sometimes it's truly disastrous. (I just watched Bill Moyers' amazing
recent broadcast of the LBJ tapes in the run-up to the full-scale
escalation of the Vietnam War, where the president and his advisors just
kept moving the numbers up a twitch at a time until we were neck deep
in the Big Muddy.) Usually, however, incrementalism, whatever you think
of it, lends a kind of stability to the conduct of our affairs -- often
it has a way of setting the stage for the next move.

We may have to
wait years for the next round of health-care reform and, in the
meantime, doubtless many people will suffer, but here's the one thing we
know: what we don't do now doesn't foreclose future progress. In fact,
it may make it more likely -- if, after all, people grow comfortable
with the idea of a "public option," then the next time around the
insurance industry won't be able to make actual, honest-to-God public
medicine seem so scary.

Climate Change as Just Another Political Problem

When it comes to global warming, however, this is precisely why we're
headed off a cliff, why the Copenhagen talks that open this week,
almost no matter what happens, will be a disaster. Because climate
change is not like any other issue we've ever dealt with. Because the
adversary here is not Republicans, or socialists, or deficits, or taxes,
or misogyny, or racism, or any of the problems we normally face --
adversaries that can change over time, or be worn down, or disproved, or
cast off. The adversary here is physics.

Physics has set an immutable bottom line on life as we know it on
this planet. For two years now, we've been aware of just what that
bottom line is: the NASA team headed by James Hansen gave
it to us first
. Any value for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the
atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible "with
the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is
adapted." That bottom line won't change: above 350 and, sooner or
later, the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, hydrological cycles are
thrown off kilter, and so on.

And here's the thing: physics doesn't just impose a bottom line, it
imposes a time limit. This is like no other challenge we face because
every year we don't deal with it, it gets much, much worse, and then, at
a certain point, it becomes insoluble -- because, for instance, thawing
permafrost in the Arctic releases so much methane into the atmosphere
that we're never able to get back into the safe zone. Even if, at that
point, the U.S. Congress and the Chinese Communist Party's Central
Committee were to ban all cars and power plants, it would be too late.

Oh, and the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already at 390
parts per million, even as the amount of methane in the atmosphere has
been spiking in the last two years. In other words, we're over the edge
already. We're no longer capable of "preventing" global warming, only
(maybe) preventing it on such a large scale that it takes down all our

So here's the thing: When Barack Obama goes to Copenhagen, he will
treat global warming as another political problem, offering a promise of
something like a 17% cut in our greenhouse gas emissions from their
2005 levels by 2020. This works out to a 4% cut from 1990 levels, the
standard baseline for measurement, and yet scientists have calculated
that the major industrialized nations need to cut their emissions by 40%
to have any hope of getting us on a path back towards safety.

And even that 17% cut may turn out to be far too high a figure for
the Senate. Here's what Senator Jim Webb (a coal-country Democrat) wrote
to the president last week: "I would like to express my concern
regarding reports that the Administration may believe it has the
unilateral power to commit the government of the United States to
certain standards that may be agreed in Copenhagen... The phrase
'politically binding' has been used. As you well know from your time in
the Senate, only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a
treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment
on behalf of our country."

In any case, the Senate has decided that it will not debate any
climate-change bill until "the spring," after health care is settled,
and maybe entitlement reform, and perhaps even financial regulation. And
awfully close to the next election.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are apparently prepared to offer a 40%
reduction in the "energy intensity" of their economy by 2020. In other
words, they claim they'll then be using 40% less energy to make each yuan
worth of stuff they ship off to WalMart. Which is better than not
doing it, but more or less what the experts think would happen anyway as
China's economy naturally becomes more high-tech and efficient. It's at
best a minor stretch from "business as usual."

Meanwhile, the Indians almost sacked their environment minister after
the newspapers decided he was compromising the national interest by
engaging in real negotiations about global warming.

Meanwhile, the Australian opposition last week did sack their leader
for being willing to compromise on an already-compromised Emissions
Trading Scheme that would have capped carbon -- meaning nothing will


A Challenge Unique in History

A new analysis released Thursday by a consortium of European
think-tanks shows that the various offers on the table add up to a world
in which the atmosphere contains
650 parts per million and the temperature rises an ungodly five
degrees Fahrenheit.

What I'm saying is: even the best politicians are treating the
problem of climate change as a normal political one, where you halve the
distance between various competing interests and do your best to reach
some kind of consensus that doesn't demand too much of anyone, yet
reduces the political pressure for a few years -- at which time, of
course, you (or possibly someone entirely different) will have to deal
with it again.

Obama is doing the same thing with climate change that he did with
health care. He's acting with complete political realism, refusing to
make the perfect the enemy of the good (or, really, the
better-than-Bush). He's doing what might make sense in almost any other

Here, unfortunately, the foe is implacable. Implacable foes emerge
rarely. The best human analog to the role physics is playing here may be
fascism in the middle of the last century. There was no appeasing it,
no making a normal political issue out of it. You had to decide to go
all in, to transform the industrial base of the country to fight it, to
put other things on hold, to demand sacrifice.

Yet it's all too obvious that we're not dealing with it that way.
The president hasn't, for instance, been on a nonstop campaign to make
everyone realize the danger. When he went to China, he certainly reached
some interesting agreements about cooperation on automobile technology,
but that's not the same as seeking a wartime partnership.

Nor is the senate meeting late into the night figuring out how to
mobilize our country's resources and people in the struggle to save our
planet. Here's how Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill summed up the
mood: "I don't think anyone's excited about doing another really, really
big thing that's really, really hard that makes everybody mad."

Some of us have been trying hard to open some political space for
world leaders to step up to this challenge. We built a worldwide
movement at 350.org that managed to pull off the "most
widespread day of political action in the planet's history" (at least
according to CNN). In some places, it even sparked the desired result.
Ninety-two nations, all poor and vulnerable to the early effects of
climate change, have endorsed that radical 350 target.

Some of their leaders, like Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the
Maldives, a nation made up of more than a thousand islands in the Indian
Ocean, have emerged as tigers, ready to fight. No one would be
surprised to see him lead some kind of walkout from the Copenhagen
negotiations, since he's declared over and over that he won't be party
to a "suicide pact" for his low-lying nation; he is, in other words,
unwilling to treat global warming as a normal political issue.

We, however, couldn't get even the most minor player in the Obama
administration to come to one of the 2,000 rallies we staged across this
country. None of them were interested in jumping into the space we
were trying to open. If the U.S. is this willing to treat climate
change as politics-as-usual, most of the other major players will simply
follow suit.

They'll sign some kind of paper in Denmark -- that became all but
certain on Friday night when Obama announced he'd jet in for the
meeting's close. European leaders and some environmental groups may
then call it a "qualified success," and on we will go through more years
of negotiation. In the meantime, physics will continue to operate,
permafrost will continue to thaw, sea ice to melt, drought to spread.

It's like nothing we've ever faced before -- and we're facing it as
if it's just like everything else. That's the problem.

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