The Climate for Change
THE inspiring and transformative choice by the American people to elect Barack Obama as our 44th president lays the foundation for another fateful choice that he — and we — must make this January to begin an emergency rescue of human civilization from the imminent and rapidly growing threat posed by the climate crisis.
The electrifying redemption of America’s revolutionary declaration that all human beings are born equal sets the stage for the renewal of United States leadership in a world that desperately needs to protect its primary endowment: the integrity and livability of the planet.
The world authority on the climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after 20 years of detailed study and four unanimous reports, now says that the evidence is “unequivocal.” To those who are still tempted to dismiss the increasingly urgent alarms from scientists around the world, ignore the melting of the north polar ice cap and all of the other apocalyptic warnings from the planet itself, and who roll their eyes at the very mention of this existential threat to the future of the human species, please wake up. Our children and grandchildren need you to hear and recognize the truth of our situation, before it is too late.
Here is the good news: the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.
Economists across the spectrum — including Martin Feldstein and Lawrence Summers — agree that large and rapid investments in a jobs-intensive infrastructure initiative is the best way to revive our economy in a quick and sustainable way. Many also agree that our economy will fall behind if we continue spending hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign oil every year. Moreover, national security experts in both parties agree that we face a dangerous strategic vulnerability if the world suddenly loses access to Middle Eastern oil.
As Abraham Lincoln said during America’s darkest hour, “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” In our present case, thinking anew requires discarding an outdated and fatally flawed definition of the problem we face.
Thirty-five years ago this past week, President Richard Nixon created Project Independence, which set a national goal that, within seven years, the United States would develop “the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources.” His statement came three weeks after the Arab oil embargo had sent prices skyrocketing and woke America to the dangers of dependence on foreign oil. And — not coincidentally — it came only three years after United States domestic oil production had peaked.
At the time, the United States imported less than a third of its oil from foreign countries. Yet today, after all six of the presidents succeeding Nixon repeated some version of his goal, our dependence has doubled from one-third to nearly two-thirds — and many feel that global oil production is at or near its peak.
Some still see this as a problem of domestic production. If we could only increase oil and coal production at home, they argue, then we wouldn’t have to rely on imports from the Middle East. Some have come up with even dirtier and more expensive new ways to extract the same old fuels, like coal liquids, oil shale, tar sands and “clean coal” technology.
But in every case, the resources in question are much too expensive or polluting, or, in the case of “clean coal,” too imaginary to make a difference in protecting either our national security or the global climate. Indeed, those who spend hundreds of millions promoting “clean coal” technology consistently omit the fact that there is little investment and not a single large-scale demonstration project in the United States for capturing and safely burying all of this pollution. If the coal industry can make good on this promise, then I’m all for it. But until that day comes, we simply cannot any longer base the strategy for human survival on a cynical and self-interested illusion.
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