Feb/Mar 2013

Hot and Bothered

A trio of books shows how far we are from getting serious about climate change—and the disastrous consequences of continued inaction

Coral Davenport

<strong style="font-size: 10pt;">DURING THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN</strong>, every Republican candidate but one—Jon Huntsman—questioned, denied, or, in the case of Mitt Romney, openly mocked climate change and its consequences.

“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” Romney said to laughter at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

That carefully crafted throwaway line was stunning for many reasons. For starters, Romney spoke in a city that climate scientists have singled out as among the likeliest to suffer destruction as a result of rising sea levels. And as he accepted the GOP nomination last August, more than half the country was gripped by a record drought that killed crops, dried up water supplies, sent food prices soaring, and is now projected to be the most expensive natural disaster in US history. Eight weeks later, Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the East Coast and offered an all-too-vivid case-study demonstration of why rising sea levels—which contributed to Sandy’s devastating storm surge—are no laughing matter.

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Hurricane Sandy damage to the New Jersey coastal town of Mantoloking, October 31, 2012.

While Romney made sport of the idea of climate change, President Obama managed to make it almost all the way through the campaign without any substantive mention of the issue, although on the night of his reelection he gave it a post-Sandy nod, saying, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t . . . threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

Still, there’s little chance that Obama will enact a meaningful climate-change law in his second term. Plenty of members in the Republican-majority House still scoff at the science of climate change. And many Democrats are still uneasy about taking substantive action on climate issues. After all, a law that would strike at the heart of the problem would probably increase energy costs, hurt oil and coal companies, and require American voters and businesses to make economic sacrifices today—all in order to keep the already dire state of the global climate from getting worse over the next two generations. Try backing a bill like that and then running for reelection in two or four years: It’s the stuff of political strategists’ nightmares.

So now a frightening question is emerging: Is the problem of climate change beyond the capacity of governments to solve?

Humans have, after all, never before tried to solve something like this. The scale of the problem is vast—in part because it’s caused by almost everything we do. It’s created by the fuel that powers our cars and factories, lights our homes, and makes steel, plastic, and cement, and that in the coming years could help lift billions of people out of poverty.

The pollution caused by burning that fuel traps heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet—setting up a chain reaction of global impacts. And as we’ve seen over the past year alone, higher average global temperatures are already causing more powerful storms, increased flooding, stronger droughts, deadlier heat waves, water shortages, crop die-offs, and an increase in the spread of diseases like malaria. A warmer climate has already increased the acidity of the ocean, slowly killing coral reefs and shellfish. What’s happened so far is just a preview—the first dominoes to drop in what scientists and economists say is an approaching global-scale catastrophe.

It’s not as though governments haven’t tried to intervene in the crisis before. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change first convened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Since then, the UN has slogged toward one global-warming goal: a world treaty that would cut fossil-fuel emissions enough to prevent an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Scientists describe that 2-degree increase as a planetwide point of no return: It’s the average temperature at which polar ice sheets will melt, triggering rapid sea-level rise and the devastation of the planet’s coastlines and island nations—and the juncture at which many regions of the world will become too hot and dry to grow food.

It’s now evident that the UN has failed to prevent this outcome. In November, a scientific study in the journal Nature Climate Change concluded that the amount of fossil-fuel pollution already baked into the atmosphere makes a global average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century effectively inevitable.

And that’s if we’re lucky. Economists and political scientists are already planning for the impacts of much higher increases in emissions and temperatures, based on the expectation that governments won’t act. In November, the World Bank put out a study on what to expect in a world in which average temperatures have risen 4 degrees Celsius, or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit—a document that lays out a world of one catastrophe falling rapidly after another.

As alarm grows about global warming, so, too, does the churn of new books addressing the science and politics of climate change—and of climate remediation. Our understanding of the fundamentals of climate change is constantly evolving, and as more details emerge, the emerging consensus points more decisively in the same direction.

That’s why the time is ripe for a full update of MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel’s essential little volume What We Know About Climate Change. At just 128 pages, Emanuel’s book clearly and succinctly explains the current state of the science of climate change.

The first edition of this book was published in 2007, but much has changed since then. In climate science, new research has further strengthened the now-overwhelming consensus that human activities cause climate change. And much has changed in our political landscape, too.

“Even while science has reached a strong consensus that climate is indeed changing, that the change is caused mostly by us, and that it poses important risks, public recognition and concern about these risks has diminished, particularly in the United States,” Emanuel writes. Although he doesn’t mention the subject in his book, the GOP’s renewed embrace of climate-change denial prompted Emanuel, a lifelong Republican, to renounce his party affiliation during last year’s campaign.

Emanuel gives readers a deep dive into an explanation of the greenhouse effect—the physics concept that spells out how the massive amounts of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. He also takes on the central argument mounted by those who oppose efforts to curb global warming: that the earth’s climate has always varied—that throughout the millennia, the global atmosphere has gone through cycles of cooling and warming, caused by naturally occurring phenomena such as volcano gases, the tilt of the planet on its axis, and intense solar activity. All this is true, Emanuel says. But he also provides the research that illustrates how the spike in temperatures over the past century has gone demonstrably outside that range—and clearly shows that this spike is correlated with, and caused by, the increase of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, starting at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

“The recent upturn in global temperature is truly unprecedented,” he writes. “Almost all climate scientists today believe that man’s influence on climate has emerged from the background noise of natural variability.”

Emanuel explains how climate scientists do their work—plugging data such as the widths of tree rings and the carbon measurements from ice cores into computer models, testing the numbers again and again. In an important riposte to lawmakers such as Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has called global-warming research a hoax, Emanuel explains the careful process of independent peer review that has produced the most significant findings in the science of climate change.

He also stresses one crucial fact that’s long been clear to serious students of the issue: that there is now very little disagreement on the large-scale trends and likely consequences of global warming. These have been compiled by the Nobel Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of thousands of scientists working independently around the world, which in 2007 published a detailed summary of the state of climate science. (The group is producing an updated study this year.)

Chief among these findings: Carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased about 40 percent since preindustrial times, and they are now higher than they have been in at least the last 650,000 years. The earth’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, with most of the increase occurring from about 1920 to 1950, and again beginning around 1975. The year 2005 was the warmest in the instrumental record, closely followed by 2010 and 1998. Sea level has risen by about four inches over the past sixty years—and a little more than an inch of this rise occurred during the past decade. Arctic sea ice has decreased by 15–20 percent since satellite measurements began in 1978. And the acidity of ocean water has increased by about 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial era.

These are the facts—and the international scientific community, pace the James Inhofes of the world, now harbors little to no disagreement about them. In Overheated, Andrew T. Guzman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, compellingly lays out the specific shocks that these trends are likely to administer to human populations, their governments, and the bottom lines of their productive economies.

Guzman is not a scientist—he was trained as a lawyer and an economist. He has spent most of his career studying how international political systems work—and fail to work. He calls climate change “the single greatest international challenge of this century and beyond.”

The point of departure for Overheated is the now all-but-certain likelihood that the planet’s average temperature will increase by 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Guzman has compiled and synthesized the research and data on the impacts of climate change on coastal economies, water supply, agriculture, immigration, public health, and political instability. And he writes that, in the aggregate, “climate change may kill tens of millions or hundreds of millions and severely disrupt the lives of perhaps billions.”

Current climate data project that we should expect to see about a one-meter rise in sea levels by the end of the century. That’s expected to trigger a modern-day exodus—all around the world. For example, the Maldives, an island nation of 386,000, will likely be almost entirely wiped out—about 80 percent of the country is less than one meter above the ocean surface. The nation’s leaders have begun reaching out to other governments, including Australia, to negotiate a plan for a mass relocation for the population of their country. Other, smaller island nations with land at or below one meter above sea level—Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and more—are initiating similar negotiations to move their populations to higher ground. And then there’s Bangladesh—a country with about 150 million people. A sea-level rise of one meter will submerge about 17.5 percent of Bangladesh’s territory, displacing an estimated twenty million people.

Rising sea levels will be the first result of climate change to kick off a vast wave of migration. Guzman writes that in 2009 there were about sixteen million refugees and twenty-six million “internally displaced” people across the globe. The International Organization for Migration projects twenty-five million to one billion new “environmental” migrants by the end of 2050. Numbers like these portend a humanitarian crisis for which the world simply isn’t prepared. “It is not so much that we do not know where these people will go as it is that we do not like the answer,” Guzman writes. Millions of new climate exiles around the world likely mean the creation of refugee camps, heightened border tensions, displaced people streaming into cities in need of shelter and basic human services. These movements of population will strain natural resources and social structures, possibly to the breaking point.

As climate change brings floods to coastal settlements throughout the world, it will produce a dramatically different effect on the planet’s arid inlands. Climate change is already beginning to disrupt a central component of the world’s food and water systems by melting the glaciers and mountain snowpack that have for centuries supplied water to human civilizations—essentially acting as natural water-storage towers. The snowpack of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, for example, now furnishes about 65 percent of California’s water supply, and irrigates some of the largest agricultural regions in the country. Scientists forecast that by 2050 the Sierra snowpack will have shrunk by 25–40 percent. That sharp reduction in the water supply for the nation’s leading agricultural economy will trigger, in turn, shortages in drinking water and arable land, and spikes in food costs.

These new water shortages will be replicated all over the world—and will have a far more destructive impact in regions less prepared to cope with them than the United States. More than half of the people in the world live in watersheds of major rivers that originate with glaciers and snow in the mountains—and the data show that by the end of the century, many of those glaciers will be gone. “When they stop protecting us from floods, storing our water during wet seasons, and delivering it during dry seasons, we will have lost a water-management system that has been used by humans for millennia,” Guzman writes. “Nobody knows how we will manage without it.”

Guzman also argues that climate change poses a unique and unprecedented threat to health and health systems around the world. As temperatures rise, mosquitoes will thrive year-round, supplies of food and water will decline, basic infrastructure systems such as those for sewage and irrigation will be strained. Add to all that the prospect of tens of millions of new refugees on the move, Guzman notes, and the new climate system will have produced ideal conditions for the spread of pandemics such as bird flu and SARS.

The cause of climate change is clear, and its consequences are rapidly coming into sharper focus. In The Carbon Crunch, Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist and a former special adviser to the European energy commissioner, tackles the solution to the problem head-on.

“The sheer scale of the challenge contrasts with the stuff of day-to-day politics,” he writes. “Nothing like it—not even regional conflicts—demands so much in terms of international cooperation and the need to take serious account of the welfare of future generations.”

Helm explains what governments have tried to do—and why, so far, they’ve come up terribly short. He focuses chiefly on the European Union, which to date has led the way on climate policy, enacting a cap-and-trade program, investing billions in renewable energy projects—and yet failing, Helm says, to make any serious impact on the global problem of carbon emissions.

For example, between 1990 and 2005, Britain reduced its carbon emissions by more than 15 percent. Most of that drop was due to economic changes that were already well under way, independently of any revisions in the country’s climate policy: Britain was simply deindustrializing, as the driver of its economy shifted from manufacturing to financial services. But at the same time, it increased its consumption of manufactured products like steel, from China, which has no limits on carbon pollution. That meant that while Britain’s own carbon pollution fell, its carbon consumption rose by more than 19 percent—leading to an increase in global-warming pollution.

Helm’s arguments are important—if you can get through them. Unfortunately, much of his book reads like it’s written for European policy wonks. American readers looking for a sure footing in the complicated politics of global warming will have difficulty trekking alongside Helm into the deeper weeds of EU climate policy. He doesn’t even bother to introduce or explain the significance of the key players in the story—such as Connie Hedegaard (the European commissioner for climate action) or Germany’s intriguingly named Pirate Party.

Still, Helm’s diagnosis of why government efforts so far have failed is by and large correct. He slams European politicians for propagating the false claim that real climate policy will be easy and affordable—a criticism that also resonates in US politics. In reality, serious efforts to mitigate carbon emissions will require a fundamental transition away from the energy sources that have powered our economy for more than a century toward sources that are new and not yet nearly scaled up. Such an effort, he cautions, will be difficult, costly, and unlike anything that’s been taken on before.

Helm’s prescription for a solution on the policy of climate change is also by and large correct—though the politics will be harder: Individual nations should ditch green-energy subsidies and instead strike the problem at its core with a straight tax on carbon emissions. And that tax can’t end at the border: It must also include what Helm calls a “carbon tariff,” which would add prices to imported goods, such as steel and plastic, based on the carbon produced in their manufacture.

In reality, though, a tax on carbon is just the first step. Taxing carbon pollution caused by coal and oil will drive the market away from the fossil fuels that cause global warming—but governments will also have to acknowledge that there isn’t yet a cheap, consistent, widely available form of purely clean energy that can be quickly scaled up to the levels required to replace fossil fuels.

In the United States, for example, renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal still only makes up less than 5 percent of the nation’s electricity mix, and it remains expensive, intermittent, and years from affordable competition with coal, oil, and gas.

That means governments and private industry will have to invest aggressively in research to find technology breakthroughs—presumably with at least some of the revenue of a carbon tax—but will also have to live through an uncertain period of technological trial and error.

And politicians, Helm says, should stop pretending all this can happen easily, and without sacrifice. It can’t. “There is no magic climate change free lunch,” Helm writes. “This sort of political deception has probably run its course.”

So how do governments get voters to go along with this? Helm offers one scenario in which citizens have sacrificed material comfort for a greater good—and even wound up reelecting the politicians who made them do it: war. Can a similar case be made, then, that the threat of climate change is worth some collective sacrifice?

Helm argues that we no longer have any other choice:

The sorts of investment programmes required could be very painful indeed. That is precisely where the war analogy is most telling: in moving from a peacetime to a wartime economy, room in the economy had to be found for the military production, and this was partly effected by squeezing consumption. Indeed it was so squeezed that rationing was widespread. Tackling climate change does mean lowering our standard of living from its current unsustainable levels, even after the economic crisis. There is no escaping this fact.

In other words: The suffering will come either way. The choice is between some voluntary suffering now, over which we still retain some control, or much worse involuntary suffering later. Now governments have to make that honest, painful case to voters and constituencies fed for far too long on climate deceptions and evasions. As this trio of books makes plain, it’s no great exaggeration to say that millions of lives, and untold economic devastation, hang in the balance.

Coral Davenport is the energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.