America Will Fail on Climate Change

Cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is billions over budget. (Image: Wikimedia)

America Will Fail on Climate Change

I touched on this in my conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I'm a climate pessimist. I don't believe the United States -- or the world -- will do nearly enough, nearly fast enough, to hold the rise in temperatures to safe levels. I think we're fucked. Or, at the least, I think our grandchildren are fucked.

I touched on this in my conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I'm a climate pessimist. I don't believe the United States -- or the world -- will do nearly enough, nearly fast enough, to hold the rise in temperatures to safe levels. I think we're fucked. Or, at the least, I think our grandchildren are fucked.

If you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system -- to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities -- you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn.

1) We've waited so long that what America needs to do is really, really hard -- and maybe impossible

In the early 1990s, scientists converged on 2degC as the level of warming the world could (probably) safely endure. "We said that, at the very least, it would be better not to depart from the conditions under which our species developed," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, one of the scientists who helped devise the 2degC limit, told my colleague Brad Plumer. "Otherwise we'd be pushing the whole climate system outside the range we've adapted to."

There's disagreement as to whether that actually is a safe level of warming. "Two degrees is actually too much for ecosystems," wrote George Mason University's Thomas Lovejoy in the New York Times. "A 2-degree world will be one without coral reefs (on whichmillions of human beings depend for their well-being)."

We're on track for 4degC of warming -- which is nearly the temperature difference between the world now and the Ice Age.

Either way, we've waited so long to begin cutting emissions that two degrees looks flatly impossible. We're on track for 4degC of warming -- which is nearly the temperature difference between the world now and the Ice Age. That's a nightmare for the planet. The World Bank tried to model it and realized that they had no idea what would happen -- or whether humans could manage. There's "no certainty that adaptation to a 4degC world is possible," they concluded.

In April 2014, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that to stay below the 2degC limit, global greenhouse-gas emissions would have to fall between 1.3 percent and 3.1 percent each year, on average, between 2010 and 2050. And because the US is such an aggressive emitter, the adjustment would have to be sharper here.

It gets worse. The world isn't going to sharply cut emissions this year. It isn't going to sharply cut them next year. And every year we wait the adjustment gets more violent -- and more impossible.

"Ten years ago, it was possible to model a path to 2degC without all these heroic assumptions," says Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Plumer. "But because we've dallied for so long, that's no longer true."

This is the awful math of climate change now: the question isn't whether we'll fail. It's how badly we'll fail. It increasingly looks like success is holding warming to 3degC rather than 4degC or worse. That is to say, we are redefining success as a milder strain of failure.

2) The people most affected by climate change don't get a vote


This map from Standard & Poor's lays out the shocking unfairness of climate change: The US, which has historically been the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions (though China passed us in 2006), is one of the countries least affected by global warming.

As my colleague Matt Yglesias explained, "very few of us are subsistence farmers. Relatively few of us live in river deltas, flood plains, or small islands. We are rich enough to be able to feasibly undertake massive engineering projects to safeguard our at-risk population centers. And the country is sufficiently large and sparsely populated that people can move around in response to climate shocks."

But globally speaking, almost all Americans live incredibly carbon-intensive lifestyles. We drive in big cars and live in big homes and fly on big planes and eat lots of meat. We buy lots of stuff and go lots of places and produce lots of waste and use lots of fuel. In 2010, Americans emitted about 17.6 tons of carbon per person. India, by contrast, emitted about 1.7 tons of carbon per person. Yet India is bright red on that map of carbon vulnerability while the US is deep, calming green.

Carbon emissions disproportionately benefit the US and disproportionately harm countries that are not the US. Yglesias put it well: "Our political system is reasonably well-designed to handle local threats to local interests.... But the reality of the climate change problem is much scarier than that -- it's a global threat to worldwide interests, and the people with the most at stake don't get a vote."

3) We're bad at sacrificing now to benefit later


Climate change is already causing problems around the world (these nine maps show how it's already affecting the United States). But this is the drizzle before the storm.

As you can see on the Congressional Budget Office's chart of projected temperature increases, climate change doesn't steadily ratchet up the pain. Temperatures don't rise by 0.2degC in this decade, and then 0.2degC in the next decade, and then 0.2degC in the decade after that, and so on. Instead, temperatures rise slowly at first and then begin accelerating as the earth's natural defenses get overwhelmed or cooked. The structure of the problem doesn't mesh well with the strengths of the American political system. Major policy changes tends to happen in American politics when the pain of inaction dwarfs the pain of action at that moment. Health-care reform, for instance, was meant to address the pain the uninsured were facing. The bank bailouts and the stimulus were aimed at a financial meltdown happening that second. The Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit passed because seniors were crying out for prescription drug coverage. Tax cuts are so popular because having more money now is way more appealing than having less money now.

The American political system is not good at trading sacrifice now to prevent crises later

Global warming isn't like that. The pain of doing something serious about the problem is upfront. But the worst effects of global warming won't be visible, even in America, for a long time to come. The true crisis is abstract while the sacrifice required to prevent it is tangible. The American political system is not good at trading sacrifice now to prevent crises later.

4) The effects of global warming are not easily reversible

In May, the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters reported that a major section of West Antarctica's ice sheet was melting into the ocean. "Together, the papers concluded that six large West Antarctic glaciers appear to be in a state of irreversible decline," reported Brad Plumer. "These glaciers will eventually melt entirely and take parts of the ice sheet with them, leading to an additional 4 to 13 feet of sea-level rise." Their total collapse will likely take centuries, but the more rapidly we warm the planet, the more quickly they'll drip into the ocean.

The American political system is designed to move slowly. The Founders feared haste, and so they made it, except in the rarest circumstances, impossible. As Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts wrote in their seminal essay "It's the Institutions, Stupid," "the game of politics in America is institutionally rigged against those who would use government -- for good or evil. James Madison's system of checks and balances, the very size and diversity of the nation, the Progressive reforms which undermined strong and programmatic political parties and the many generations of congressional reforms have all worked to fragment political power in America."

But most issues can wait. American presidents tried and failed for 80 years to create a national health system. The uninsured paid dearly for their failure, as did the wallets of American workers. But that failure didn't make it impossible to cover the uninsured in 2014. Similarly, America doesn't always pay down its debts in a timely fashion. That can lead to higher interest rates and even inflation. But the problem is solvable whenever the country decides to solve it. For most issues, failure in the past doesn't undermine success in the future.

Climate change isn't like that. Once the West Antarctica glaciers slip into the ocean they're gone. Once the carbon and the methane is released into the atmosphere we have no way to recapture it. Once the oceans rise and the permafrost melts we have no way to turn back the clock. As tremendous as our mastery of nature often appears, we are outmatched on the geologic scale.

If climate change were an issue like health-care reform or the budget deficit I wouldn't be a pessimist. My skepticism that we will act with sufficient force soon doesn't translate into a belief that the world won't want to act with force later. But climate change has a "game over" quality to it. Once we've filled the atmosphere with 800 or 1,000 parts per millions of carbon dioxide the consequences are out of our control.

5) The Republican Party has gone off the rails on climate change

In 1989, Newt Gingrich was one of 25 Republican co-sponsors of the Global Warming Prevention Act, which said "the Earth's atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use, and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions."

Top Republicans continued to fret over climate change in the 1990s and the 2000s. Sen. John McCain, for instance, introduced the first cap-and-trade bill into the US Senate. In Days of Fire, his history of George W. Bush's presidency, Peter Baker records Bush's mounting alarm towards the end of his presidency:

[Bush] found the science increasingly persuasive and believed more needed to be done. The end of his presidency loomed, and he did not want to be known as the president who stood by while a crisis gathered. Now he bristled not at the Hollywood types but at the notion that he did not care. In the past eighteen months, he had cited the danger of climate change in his State of the Union address for the first time, convened a conference of major world polluters to start working on an international accord to follow Kyoto, and signed legislation cutting gasoline consumption and, by extension, greenhouse gases. He even invited his old rival Al Gore for a forty-minute talk about global warming.

In 2008, the McCain/Palin ticket ran on a platform that included a robust cap-and-trade plan. Asked at the vice-presidential debate whether she believed in capping carbon emissions, Palin's answer left no room for ambiguity. "I do," she said.

She didn't. For her first major statement after the election, Palin wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to "make clear what is foremost on my mind and where my focus will be: I am deeply concerned about President Obama's cap-and-trade energy plan, and I believe it is an enormous threat to our economy."

It was Palin's position, not John McCain's, that captured the Republican Party. In 2010, Rep. Bob Inglis lost a primary challenge to a Tea Party candidate largely because he believed in global warming. "Saying that to the conservative base was rather dangerous," he says. "I knew it at the time. But now I really see how dangerous it was and maybe how perceptive in terms of political acumen people like Gingrich and McCain were. I think if Newt were on the phone with us, he'd say 'how did it work out for you, Bob?'"

There are political stances that minority parties take that are relatively easy to unwind when they regain power. Democrats always criticized Bush's "tax cuts for the rich," leaving themselves ample room to craft more progressive tax rebates. Republicans have hewed to "repeal-and-replace" as their response to Obamacare, making it clear that they want to pass a health reform of their own.

But the GOP hasn't simply opposed Obama's bills. They've abandoned their own legislation and even begun questioning the very fact of climate change. "I think it's an inexact science," McCain said in 2010, "and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change." They've left themselves little room to enact sensible policies when they regain power. The chilling effect of the GOP's increasingly radical position is clear: when some of the right's smartest policy thinkers came together to pen a governing agenda for reform conservatism, they didn't mention global warming at all.

6) The international cooperation required is unprecedented, and maybe impossible

In 2006, China passed the United States as the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide. And their emissions aren't projected to peak until 2030. They talk about capping carbon emissions, but as Plumer writes, there's little reason to be optimistic. "So far, when China has had to choose between economic growth and cutting its emissions, it usually chooses growth."

At the same time, the hope is that India will continue to develop and Indonesia will continue to develop and Brazil will continue to develop and Sub-Saharan Africa will see growth surge. All that development is carbon intensive, at least using current technologies. If all goes well for the world's poor it's going to go very badly for the planet.

This is climate change's ugliest tradeoff: it pits our most fundamental economic goal against our core environmental imperative. In the modern world, better lives are more carbon-intensive lives. As people get richer they want to eat meat and drive cars and live in bigger homes and travel to wonderful places. They know that America powered its growth with cheap fossil fuels and they don't find it very credible when we warn them against doing the same -- particularly when we're not radically upending our lives and our economy to transition to renewable fuels.

In a dangerous but brilliant essay, Chris Hayes builds on work by Bill McKibben to put numbers to what we're asking countries and companies to do. The basic estimate is that we can safely burn about 565 gigatons of carbon by midcentury. But experts think there's about 2,700 gigatons of carbon in proven fossil fuel reserves -- and much more might yet be discovered. Consider what that means:

The work of the climate movement is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground. That stuff you own, that property you're counting on and pricing into your stocks? You can't have it.

Given the fluctuations of fuel prices, it's a bit tricky to put an exact price tag on how much money all that unexcavated carbon would be worth, but one financial analyst puts the price at somewhere in the ballpark of $20 trillion. So in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world's most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth.

The nearest thing to an economic analogue in American history, Hayes argues, is abolitionism. But this isn't just about America. This carbon is locked underground in China and Uzbekistan and Iran and Russia and Nigeria and Venezuela. It's owned by energy companies, in some cases, but it's owned by nations in others. The kind of international cooperation (and, perhaps, international redistribution) required to pass, implement and verify viable carbon caps is completely unprecedented, at least outside of wartime.

7) Geoengineering is nuts


"We don't know who struck first, us or them, but we know that it was us that scorched the sky," says Morpheus. "At the time, they were dependent on solar power and it was believed that they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun."

I think of that speech from The Matrix every time I hear people talk about blasting sulfates into the atmosphere to combat the consequences of global warming. It is easy to imagine a future in which the effects of climate change are considered the horrifying prelude to whatever insane thing we tried to do to reverse climate change.

And forget the technical leaps. Imagine the geopolitics. Who gets to decide how much sulfate to blast into the atmosphere? Who stops Kiribati from just going it alone because their island is in danger of being wiped out? What if Russia decides they like the new climate, and the agricultural possibilities it unlocks, better?

Not to be a killjoy, but it's hard to believe that the consequences of the huge, unpredictable changes to the global climate can be safely reversed by further efforts to make huge, unpredictable changes to the climate.

So what now?


Pessimism isn't popular in Washington -- or anywhere else. I don't think I've ever met a politician who didn't say they were a "congenital optimist." And everyone knows that depression doesn't go viral on Facebook. Every time I've turned pessimistic copy into an editor I've been asked to add a section on what could be done.

I could add that section here, too. I could make up a more optimistic story. I just don't believe it (though -- and I mean this seriously -- I would be deeply grateful to anyone who could convince me of it). The world is failing to do nearly enough on climate change nearly fast enough. That isn't to take away from the incredible work of the activists trying to push politicians further and faster, or to deny the possibility that a once-in-a-generation storm will upend the politics or a tremendous technological breakthrough will render the problem moot. Pessimism shouldn't be considered fatalism. And impossible fights have been won before.

Perhaps more to the point, climate change isn't binary. There's not a single state of success and a single state of failure. Warming the world by 2.5 degrees Celsius is a whole lot better than warming it by three degrees Celsius. Warming the world by three degrees Celsius is vastly less catastrophic than warming it by four degrees Celsius. There are manageable failures and there are unmanageable failures. We're currently on track for an unmanageable failure. I think it's possible that we can slowly, painfully pull ourselves towards a manageable failure, but I'm not willing to call that optimism.

On climate change, the truth has gone from inconvenient to awful. Right now we're failing our future. And we will be judged harshly for it.

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