Climate Debate: Two Futures, One Choice

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Now that Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer have introduced their climate bill in the United States Senate, this fall will be all about the dogs. To get the 60 votes they need to pass a bill, progressive Democrats will be trying to turn Blue Dog Democrats into Green Dog Democrats.

Welcome to the dog days of autumn. Watch for progressives to offer milk bones, kibbles and bits to coax their more conservative colleagues into commitments that conscience alone should be sufficient to dictate.

The challenge for leaders in the Senate, as it was in the House, will be to prevent the climate bill from being negotiated into something far less than required to reinvent the American economy and reverse our greenhouse gas emissions, and to do both quickly.

Whether Senate leaders succeed in producing public policy that averts climate disaster will depend in large part on how they frame the debate.

Here are three suggestions:

1. Climate Change is Not a Matter of Belief

The fence-sitters in Congress must be made to understand that climate change is a matter of physics and chemistry and associated science and not something that can be bargained away.

We might quibble about precisely what global warming will do to us and how quickly it will happen, but the bedrock reality, already evident in the world around us, is that the atmosphere, the oceans and other natural systems vital to life have reached the limits of their tolerance of economic growth at any cost. They can’t absorb more damage, not without making the planet a very unpleasant place for life as we know it.

This may be a difficult fact for many senators to accept. Congress usually is an auction house and a horse-trading arena. But carbon emissions are to the atmosphere what virulent cancer cells are to the body. We can’t wish them away. We can’t bargain with them. If we want to survive, we must treat them as quickly and aggressively as we are able, with the very best tools we have.

2. There Is No Such Thing as Business as Usual

Senators who want to protect their constituents from change, including rust belt and fossil energy industries, are voting for an outcome that cannot happen. Senators who tell their constituents they can continue living and doing business in the old carbon-intensive economy are not leading. They are pandering.

The reality is, we face a stark choice between two futures.One is a future of unmitigated climate change that proves disastrous to ecosystems, our economy, our national security, our public health and our public debt as government at all levels struggles to deal with a nation of Katrinas – not just hurricanes, but extreme weather events, severe drought, the loss of coastal communities and infrastructure, killer heat waves, more pests and diseases, and so on. That is the future we will create by default if we try to prolong business as usual.

In the second future we still will see evidence of climate change – we’ve made that inevitable by refusing to act earlier – but we will have made the transition to an economy powered by clean resources and technologies, in which we have stopped relying on foreign and finite fuels, and in which sound environmental practice and socially responsible behavior are ingrained in all we do.

3. We Are Not an Island

We have been isolationists many times in our history. In the context of climate change, for example, the Senate decided during the Clinton years that the United States would stand alone in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. But climate change makes clear that one nation’s pollution is every nation’s problem. We are interconnected with other societies and nations in a global economy, a global energy market, and a planetary commons.

As the military establishment has concluded, poverty, dislocation and unrest in any part of the world have national security implications for the United States. That is especially true with climate change, which will destabilize some of the most volatile regions of the world.

Because we live in an interconnected world, it is in the self-interest of rich nations to help poor nations satisfy the basic needs of their people with environmentally benign resources and behaviors. Technical and monetary assistance to the developing world – one of the sticking points in reaching an international climate deal – is not charity; it is necessary for our mutual assured survival.


This will be a busy fall for progressives as they try to figure out how to craft a climate bill that gets the votes of moderates and conservatives.

For example, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio wants language that protects steel, glass, paper, aluminum and other energy-intensive industries.

Coal-state senators want to protect the industries that produce, haul and burn the most carbon-intensive and dirtiest of fossil fuels. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, where mining companies are blowing up mountains, destroying streams and rivers and polluting groundwater for cheap coal, wants a bill whose carbon-cutting goals are relaxed enough to buy time for the development of carbon capture and storage technologies. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana also wants a bill that bets heavily on clean coal technology to protect the mining industry in his state.

But by most estimates, "clean coal" technology is more than a decade away, if it proves plausible at all. Leading climate scientists tell us that carbon emissions from industrial nations like the U.S. must peak around 2015-2017 and begin a rapid decline. We don’t have time to relax our timetable for emission reductions or to wait for untested new technologies to save us.

In these new frames, policy makers must start asking different questions:

    — The question senators should be asking is not “How will I protect my current industries?”

    It’s “How can I help the industries and workers of the old economy make the transition to the new energy economy, as rapidly and seamlessly as possible?”

    — The question is not “How long will our coal and oil supplies last?”

    It’s “How much of these fuels can the atmosphere stand, and how quickly can we move away from them?”

    — The question is not “Why should we send more money to developing nations?”

    It is “What can we do to help end extreme poverty around the world so that we create greater security, greater economic and environmental stability, fewer resource conflicts, and vast new markets for green goods and services?”


As they decide which of our two futures they will support, senators should dust off the landmark study issued last June by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the work of 13 federal agencies. Although it was the first major climate report of the Obama Administration, its conclusions are based on science reports produced by the Bush Administration.

Overall, the report concludes that climate change already is reshaping our lives in the United States with warmer winters, heavier downpours, rising sea levels and drought. The report goes on to offer federal scientists’ best predictions of what will happen region by region if we try to continue business as usual. Here is a sample:

    Southwest: Climate change will produce more intensive drought in this region, resulting in increasingly scarce water supplies and conflicts for water between industries, agriculture and cities. Climate change will result in higher temperatures and invasive species that “accelerate transformation of the landscape”; more flooding with risks to people, infrastructure and ecosystems; and a disruption of the region’s unique tourism and recreation industries. Sen. John McCain should keep this in mind as he weighs whether his advocacy for more nuclear power will stand in the way of his vote for a strong climate bill.

    Great Plains: If Sens. Byron Dorgan and Tester oppose a strong climate bill, they will in effect support more droughts and disappearing water resources in their region. Most of the region’s water comes from the High Plains aquifer, where withdrawals already outpace recharge. Climate-induced drought and faster evaporation will further stress this vital resource. As a result of this stress and higher temperatures, agriculture, covering 70 percent of the Great Plains states, will suffer declining productivity.

    Midwest: Without forceful action against climate change, Sen. Brown’s region will suffer more frequent, severe and longer-lasting heat waves. The water level in the Great Lakes will decline, affecting shipping, beaches, ecosystems and infrastructure. The region will experience bigger and more intense rainfalls leading to more flooding, along with periods of water deficits. Flooding will endanger local economies, public health and infrastructure. Agriculture will be hurt. Livestock production will become more costly due to heat, while spring flooding will delay planting seasons. Insect pests and weeds will increase.

    Southeast: Average summer temperatures will increase 10.5 degrees Fahrenheit under a high-emissions scenario, stressing people, animals, plants and the built environment. Pavement and rail lines will buckle from the heat. Diminishing water supplies are “very likely” to affect the regional economy and its natural systems, and lead to more water conflicts between states. Southeastern coastal states will experience more intense hurricanes (higher wind speeds, more rain and bigger storm surges) due to rising ocean temperatures and sea levels. Low-lying areas, including some communities, will be inundated more frequently, some permanently. The region will suffer major disruptions to its ecosystems, along with the benefits those systems provide. It will be transformed from the Sun Belt to the Heat Belt, adversely affecting quality of life in the region and resulting in a decrease in population.

    Northeast: Warming temperatures will shift maple syrup production from the United States to Canada. Dairy and fruit production will diminish, too, as well as lobster and cod fisheries. The length of the snow season will be cut in half across much of the region. Winter sports, which now contribute $7.6 billion annually to the region, will be hurt; only one part of the region, farthest north, will be able to support a viable ski industry. As in other regions, hotter temperature and poorer air quality will cause problems for human health, particularly in cities.

    Other Coastal States: Sea level rise already has resulted in the loss of 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands in Louisiana during the past century, weakening the Gulf Coast’s natural buffer against hurricanes. Coastal senators who oppose strong climate action will sentence their constituents to significant increases in sea levels that endanger homes, communities, roads, energy facilities and other infrastructure in low-lying and subsiding areas. For example, about 2,400 miles of roads and 250 miles of freight rail lines could be inundated along the Gulf Cost alone. Coastal dead zones will increase in size and intensity in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

It should be apparent that there is no business as usual. There is no status quo. There are only two futures, one bleak and dangerous, the other challenging but still fundamentally bright and hopeful.

Senators will have to choose which future they support and which America they represent: a no-can-do nation that fails to rise to the preeminent challenge of our time, or a can-do nation that mobilizes its energy, genius and patriotism to remake the country so that it prospers in the 21st Century.

Senators who worry about the impact of higher fossil energy prices on businesses and families vastly underestimate the power of clean energy technologies, the coping skills and innovative capacity of the American people, and the willingness of their countrymen to pitch in for our common global good.

We face two futures, but there is only one responsible choice. Let that be the framework in which climate action is debated in the weeks to come.


See also:

Government Report Brings Climate Change to America’s Backyard

Without a Functioning Ecosystem, There Is No Economic Growth

Corn and Soy – Crops that Feed the World – Face Steep Drop Off As Climate Changes

Taking Personal Responsibility for Climate Change

From ‘Cope’ to ‘Hope’: Twitter to the Rescue

(Charts: U.S. Global Climate Research Program)