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Last chance for a slow dance?

All the world fiddles as we near global warming’s point of no return

Illustration by Chuck Kerr

 

No one was advertising for an angry prophet when Jere Locke returned to Texas last year. But thanks to mainstream environmentalism’s aversion to the gloomiest — and, unfortunately, more accurate — messages from the climate frontier, the position was open.

It wouldn’t pay much. In fact, Locke would have to fund it himself. That was fine. The son of a wealthy Houston cotton trader, Locke didn’t need a high-figure salary. Most importantly, he believed.

Locke was living in Thailand in 2006 when Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was released in the United States. Bilingual and politically connected, Locke was tapped to help edit a version for Asian audiences. After repeated viewings, the film became just troubling enough to inspire the 64-year-old to start looking for more information. As it turned out, the United Nations was prepping the streets of Bali for a highly charged international climate congress. “Sixteen months ago, I didn’t know squat,” Locke says. “I just kind of wandered into Bali, essentially.”

In December 2007, he joined other activists camped outside the United Nations Climate Change Conference to witness an exercise in futility. With signs of warming now undeniable, the European Union was anxious to meet the recommendations of the International Panel on Climate Change by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions 3o percent before 2020. Cutting global emissions that quickly should keep the planet under a 3.6-degree temperature increase over pre-industrial averages, the level at which a majority of climate scientists believe global warming may become unforgivably destructive.

Though the Bush Administration had been forced to admit the reality of global warming after years of suppressing, censoring, and misrepresenting science, the United States’ representative wanted … nothing. No caps on carbon. No mandate.

Nothing — or something very close to it — won out. The rich agreed to help the poor acquire cleaner technologies, but specific greenhouse-gas reductions for developed nations were not included in the final Bali “Roadmap.”

On Locke’s last day in Indonesia, a small group of non-profit negotiators walked over to brief their fellow agitators. Locke remembers asking an obviously exhausted Filipino woman from the Third World Network if she at least saw a glimmer of light down the road, any reason for hope. The woman just stared at Locke and then began rattling off — again — all the problems still facing negotiators.

“She couldn’t even hear what I had just said,” said Locke. “That’s when I went home, and I just started reading, and I read everything I could get my hands on.”

Soon, the ex-pat cotton-trader’s son became the crazy guy at the teahouse who wouldn’t shut up about carbon emissions and melting glaciers, tipping points and coal.

“Eventually I settled down as I integrated all this new, very disturbing information,” he said.

Metaphorically, the current crisis is not unlike the story of dancing Shiva.

Long before Michael Flatley became the Lord of the Dance, there was a Lord of Dancers. Without question, the Hindu deity Shiva has performed his “Dance of Bliss” more times than the Riverdancers have overwhelmed an unexpecting stage.

Shiva, however, is not the undisputed dance master. Kali, the goddess of destruction, makes regular attempts at the crown. During one such contest, Kali went wild with lust for blood, and her rage threatened to consume the world. Thankfully, Shiva stepped in and brought her back into step for a creation dance instead.

Globally, we are at a similar point of negotiation — choosing, amidst the chaotic pulse of collapsing banks and coughing industry, the way forward. Literally choosing between creation and destruction.

***

When he reemerged from his conversion experience, Locke began to lobby the board of his family trust, the Texas Harambe Foundation, to give its remaining money — about $900,000 — to groups fighting climate change.

After winning out, he returned to Texas to preach the Gospel of Doom just as scientists were discovering that the world has been warming a lot faster than expected. Some were beginning to suggest that the potential for so-called “runaway” global warming with catastrophic results was becoming a likely result of our collective inaction.

As a prominent energy state, Texas plays a pivotal role in the drama.

Considered as a “whole other country,” as the tourism motto goes, the Lone Star State is the seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. Led by a cabal of politicians downright feisty about keeping it that way, the state has made little progress toward slowing or reversing the distinction. One activist tells me that even the explosion of wind power and more recent energy-efficiency programs in the state has barely slowed the growth of greenhouse gases billowing out of Texas.

But it is not just the Lone Star State’s leadership Locke and many other climate activists are targeting. In the next few days, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman is expected to release a draft “cap-and-trade” bill in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. While a similar effort died a miserable death during the twilight of the Bush Administration, the political environment has changed dramatically since then. Obama campaigned on a platform that not only recognized the serious portents of global warming, but expected to capitalize on the explosion of renewable energy technologies needed to address it. Which is not to say there aren’t still critics.

Texas Republican Representative Joe Barton, a committee member, welcomed news of the carbon-reduction effort by mocking its European forerunner in cap-and-trade as a failure at reducing carbon dioxide and suggesting any “cockamamie climate change bill” would only reinforce our current economic depression.

Barton’s noises echo Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, perhaps the most venerated hub of misinformation for the remnant of rabid climate-change deniers. Inhofe warned that the earlier Lieberman-Warner effort, the Climate Security Act of 2007 — finally debated and subsequently laid to rest last summer — would raise energy prices by 65 percent and cost Americans “millions” of jobs. Of course, back when the U.S. was swamped in $4-a-gallon gas such boogeymen found fertile ground. The bill was killed before it ever reached the House.

None of the climate-related bills filed since even attempt to meet the IPCC’s recommendations to stop the continuing rise of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2015 and reduce them dramatically by 2020.

***

It’s been two years since the IPCC released its last report on global warming, which elevated the link between human industry and our global climate breakdown from “likely” to “very likely.” From a probability perspective, we’re talking about leaping from around a 60-percent likelihood to 90-percent certainty.

In that report, the panel considered several models of global greenhouse-gas emissions and what they would mean in terms of environmental outcomes, some of the worst of which are being realized now. As the emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide have accelerated faster than the IPCC predicted, so has the pace of melting sea ice and glaciers, locking in startling rises in sea levels this century. Recent reports also suggest that a huge swath of the hemisphere — from the Southwestern United States all the way to Colombia — will be entering a state of “perpetual” drought in the near future.

Last summer, just a couple of weeks after Congressional Republicans succeeded in killing the Climate Security Act, Thomas Fingar, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In terms even the most gung-ho interventionists could understand, Finger explained that the anticipated global humanitarian disasters linked to climate change — wars over increasingly scarce resources, and displaced coastal and island residents that some say could number in the billions this century — would severely challenge the American military.

“The demands of these potential humanitarian responses may significantly tax U.S. military transportation and support force structures, resulting in a strained readiness posture and decreased strategic depth for combat operations,” Fingar said.

The U.S. Climate Change Science Program, consolidating a range of recent research, found that severe drought in the Western and Central United States — so-called “megadrought” conditions that may last for hundreds of years — is probably underway.

Oregon State University professor Peter Clark, lead author of Abrupt Climate Change, told Science Daily at the time, “If the models are accurate, it appears this has already begun.”

Richard Seager, a Doherty Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, told the Current he will release new analysis in a few months that will show whether the drought now gripping San Antonio and much of the West is the beginning of what will simply become known as “the new climate.”

Thanks to these dramatic new understandings of climate science, expect the national debate to soon include not only how best to ramp down our emissions, but how to relocate coastal residents, reinforce or abandon threatened highways and bridges, and revolutionize our water-treatment and delivery network across the West. “Adaptation” will become the new global-warming buzzword.

***

-- Jere Locke, Texas Climate Emergency

After a brief stint working with Environment Texas, Locke formed his own non-profit, the Texas Climate Emergency. He doesn’t take members on guided hikes or birding trips. He likely doesn’t know which washing machines are anointed by the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star program or the details of the latest travesty involving aerial gunners and land-locked wildlife. He will, however, tell you without hesitation that everything we know and enjoy about this planet, our gracious host, is in jeopardy unless we get our greenhouse-gas emissions under control ASAP.

It’s been a hard few weeks for Locke. He’s groggy when I reach him on the phone. He admits he has been up since 3 a.m. thinking. “People don’t understand the scope of the problem, at all,” he says, sounding defeated.

The past years’ drumbeat of daunting scientific findings motivated scientists gathered the week before at a three-day conference at the University of Copenhagen to issue a stream of nightmarish warnings. The lab coats were foregoing their normally tempered language to issue clarion calls to an anxious international media.

Perhaps the newest information shared was about sea levels. Two years ago, IPCC scientists didn’t know enough about what was happening at the glaciers, so they bid low, saying that the sea wouldn’t rise more than 59 centimeters this century. But Australian scientist John Church told Copenhagen crowds that ocean levels could leap as much as two meters by 2100, while the pace of devastating flooding increases dramatically.

Whispers among some attending scientists, as related by UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot, are suggesting that it may already be too late to keep the warming to a survivable level. The activists and organizers watching the world’s window of opportunity close are pushing especially hard now to get a tough climate bill out of the U.S. Congress and hopefully keep the world beneath the magic target of 3.6 degrees of warming.

Of course, to do that will require the rest of the world.

With the Kyoto Protocol limping toward oblivion in 2012, the details of its successor are supposed to be finalized in Copenhagen this December. However, Obama has already lowered his emissions aim, offering to commit the United States only to reaching 1990 levels of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, falling far short of IPCC’s recommendations.

To hit the IPCC’s target, the U.S. would need to nearly halve its current releases for a 50-50 shot at stopping runaway warming.

Since 1990, U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions have climbed more than 17 percent, from 6,085 million metric tons to 7,125 million metric tons in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available from the EPA. Still, after years of delay, the domestic debate too often morphs notions of scientific necessity into questions of political advisability.

Environmental activists engage in a similar struggle. Organizers constantly wrestle with how best to deliver the message of global warming while increasing their message reach and membership. After all, it is these members who will, at least theoretically, keep the heat on lawmakers to enact change. But has anyone bothered to tell these fledgling converts the jig is just about up?

***

Do environmentalists soft-sell climate change?

Sure, says Public Citizen’s campaign veteran Smitty Smith, director of the pro-consumer group’s Texas office. For a reason. “When you’re an organizer … you’ve got to be able to pull the center as fast and as far as you can. Oftentimes the center has not begun to understand just how great the crisis is.”

Strategically, it pays to lead with other issues, says Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas,

“We know from all the polling it’s better to lead with clean energy than to start with a global-warming frame,” Metzger said.

Energy policy ranks sixth in voter priorities, he explains. Global warming is at the bottom of the list in slot 20, according to the Pew Research Center. “Thankfully, they are, of course, inextricably linked, and Obama has been talking about them in that way for years now,” Metzger said.

Unfortunately, global warming’s poor showing also means in many cases the true scope of the problem is not being driven home by those who know it best.

In Texas, it’s propelled Locke even farther into the fringe. It’s an isolating post.

“I really feel like we’re out there all by ourselves most of the time. It’s just lonely,” Locke says. “No one is telling people it isn’t just that you’re going to lose the barrier islands. You’re gonna lose Houston and Corpus and all the cities along the coast over time. And this isn’t a drought of a few years we’re talking about. We’re talking about permanent drought.”

While Locke has challenged the established environmental community in Austin, no one is challenging him on the facts.

“Jere is out there pushing the edge and saying, ‘This is what the most recent science is showing about how severe things are and how fast we’ve got to make changes,’” Smith said. “While oftentimes the rest of the environmental community is not being quite as outspoken because they’re afraid they will lose some of the people that they’re just beginning to engage in this discussion.”

***

Even though Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth has conquered the suburbs with the science of climate change, Republican opponents of climate action are correct on one key point. Cap-and-trade will make energy more expensive. That is the point.

The burning of coal and petroleum products is the leading contributor to global warming through the release of long-lived carbon dioxide, which acts as a blanket in the upper atmosphere, trapping an increasing amount of the sun’s heat. In the last 100 years, global land temperatures have increased by about 1.3 degrees, with most of that warming occurring in the past 50 years. Many researchers are worried that as greenhouse emissions and temperatures continue to increase, the planet may hit one of several possible “tipping points” that would accelerate global warming, resulting in more rapid and irreversible changes.

If we hit 3.6 degrees, it is likely major systems would collapse — that the Amazon Rainforest would wither, for instance, becoming a major emitter of greenhouse gas rather than a reliable “sink” that absorbs them —and propel us even further into the abyss. From this perspective, coal may be the most expensive energy choice we could possibly make. Still, we can’t seem to shake it.

In San Antonio, city-owned CPS Energy is preparing to bring what perhaps should be one of the nation’s last coal plants online next year. “Spruce Two” began construction in 2005, long after the dangers of carbon emissions were well understood and studies were beginning to suggest that energy efficiency could make such power plants unnecessary.

To protect its investment and fulfill its mandate to provide the city with “low-cost” power, CPS joined the Climate Policy Group, a lobbying organization that advocates suicidally against capping carbon emissions at coal plants until “commercially available control technologies” are available. Unfortunately, it is expected to take decades before a new generation of coal plants with the ability to trap and bury their carbon emissions could be operational. Worse yet, we don’t know if we will be able to store CO2 so that it does not release back into the environment.

After many failed attempts to regulate greenhouse gases in the United States, another flurry of craziness is near. The first climate bill of the 111th Congress was filed Monday by Representative Lloyd Doggett, describing how an auction board would be governed to lead carbon cap-and-trade reductions.

Complementary regulation is expected to roil the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce in the next few days. Karen Lightfoot, a spokesperson for Representative Henry Waxman, said her boss will release a draft climate bill before the end of March.

That has focused the attention of Texas activists — perhaps especially Metzger’s Environment Texas — on committee member Congressman Charlie Gonzalez.

Environment Texas helped organize a panel discussion in San Antonio last month that included Representative Gonzalez. But many were disheartened afterward that Gonzalez “failed to take the opportunity to clearly declare his support for a strong, science-based cap on global warming pollution,” according to Metzger.

Gonzalez has become a focal point for a lot of climate activists. They see him not as an automatic ally, but as liberal enough to be swayed over with popular pressure — particularly now that there is a Democratic administration at the helm.

Under Bush, Gonzalez became somewhat of a sore spot for progressives observing the Texas delegation. The League of Conservation Voters ranks Gonzalez fairly low on green issues (63 percent favorable), in part due to his support for lifting the offshore drilling ban. He got black marks from the climate community last year when he refused to endorse Waxman’s letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laying out the terms for strong global-warming legislation.

“More than 150 members of Congress, including three Texans, signed on to that letter. However, Congressman Gonzalez did not,” Metzger told the Current. “When asked about this, Congressman Gonzalez again took a pass on endorsing strong action on global warming.”

The Current provided a list of questions to Gonzalez in an attempt to gauge his attitudes about global warming and cap-and-trade. Would he support Waxman’s bill? Would he work to convince his colleagues to support it? Would he fight to make sure it lived up to IPCC recommendations on greenhouse-gas reduction goals?

Gonzalez’s office pledged to have the Congressman call us back, or at least provide written responses to our questions, but failed to do so.

There is a sense that Waxman’s committee may not be strong enough to deliver good global-warming legislation on its own. Some activists expect folks like Doggett at the House Ways and Means committee to provide the legislation that would tack on additional carbon costs in a more direct way. A Frankenbill would then be cobbled together on the floor of the House through a series of legislative maneuvers under Pelosi’s leadership.

***

What if Congress doesn’t pass legislation this year? What if Copenhagen in December is just a replay of Bali in 2007? How much time do we have?

It’s one thing to observe possible futures through an academic lens and muse over seven, eight, nine degrees in temperature rise. It’s quite another to consider the question in terms of human experience.

At what point do we cross the line where it becomes impossible to retain a planet that for millions of years has provided a hospitable place for our evolution and for tens of thousands of years has virtually swaddled us with prime habitat? When does the close grip of a lover’s tango disintegrate into the maniacal stomp of Kali?

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” Locke says. “It’s dire. The years are really precious right now.”

That old conservative IPCC estimate is that global greenhouse emissions must plateau by 2015 to keep temperatures from rising no more than 4.3 degrees. We still get the meter-or-more of sea-level rise and a permanent drought across the Southwest, but we would, theoretically at least, avoid the truly catastrophic impacts of Hollywood’s worst narratives.

“It’s IPCC, so it’s conservative. Chances are it’s going to be before 2015, this date. So you don’t want to start playing with dates at this point,” Locke adds.

A motivating report released last year by researchers at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and published by the Royal Society blames political inaction for a likely 7.2-degree temperature rise this century — about double the level the international community has been semantically struggling to meet, double the so-called “safe” upper limit of 3.6 degrees.

While most climate scientists agree the world must at least keep atmospheric greenhouse gases below 450 parts per million, prominent NASA climatologist and political lightning rod James Hansen recently co-authored a paper which found that the planet was better off not exceeding 350 parts per million. The current level of carbon dioxide stored in the atmosphere is about 387 parts per million (ppm) and growing by roughly 2 ppm per year. For most of human history — until industrialization began in the late 1800s — the level of CO2 has been fairly constant at 275 ppm.

The Tyndall report’s authors write that unless the world’s governments start reducing greenhouse emissions by more than six percent per year “it is difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession” keeping the atmosphere at or below 650 ppm.

Just our luck. A recent study of power-plant emissions in the Northeastern United States found greenhouse-gas releases dropped nine percent last year. With the current economic recession gripping the planet, the soonest full-bore industrial production — and the resulting carbon emissions — are expected to roar back to life is 2011. By that time, the United States could join the international community with an aggressive new climate policy in place and a “new Kyoto” could foreseeably slide out of Copenhagen. With market uncertainties removed, new green-tech businesses would finally be primed to blossom, rehabbing or supplanting those carbon-heavy industries that got us into this mess in the first place.

Perhaps then we’ll be thanking the profiteers and politicians behind our current global economic malaise, which has thrown the brakes, even if just temporarily, on our carbon output. It may be that greed and incompetence provided us this last chance — an opportunity to adjust to the unpleasant, but not ultimately fatal, climatic changes we have unwittingly created.

When Kali had her tantrum that imperiled the world, Shiva used the power of illusion to transform himself into a crying baby. A maternal impulse overwhelmed the dark goddess. She pulled back from the brink and began to suckle Lord Shiva.

An illusion like that would come in handy right now as we choose our way forward. Anything to move us beyond our short-term dreams and personal ambitions. To see those in need around us. Gauging by the numbers, this may be our last chance for a slow dance. Our last opportunity to keep Kali pacified, dancing the dance of creation. •


Tumultuous Tango

A waltz through the science of global warming

Ha! Ha! Dance the Hambopolska!
1896 Svante Arrhenius suggests burning coal could raise the planet’s temperature.

How ’bout that Lindbergh! Lindy Hop!
1930s Amateur scientist suggests warming in North America due to Arrhenius’s proposed greenhouse effect.

Do the Twist
1961 Cold War military funding means climate sciences get $$$. Shows greenhouse gases are building in the atmosphere.

Disco Fever
1979 US National Academy of Sciences report finds it “highly credible” that doubling CO2 in atmosphere will result in as much as 8.1-degrees of global warming.

Screw dancing. Mosh!
1980s Reagan Administration dismisses reports linking CO2 to 1981’s hottest-year-on-record claim — and just about everything else warming related.

Dance Dance Revolution?
2001 After Clinton betrays Gore over Kyoto, IPCC says it is “much more likely than not” that civilization faces severe global warming.

Two Left Feet
2004 After years of censoring scientific reports on climate change, Bush Administration finally says greenhouse gases are the only likely explanation for recent warming, but still won’t sign Kyoto.

Hot Foot
2007 Oh shit! IPCC says prepare for world temperatures rising between 2.5 and 11 degrees.

Kali Remix
2009 Gathering of scientists at Copenhagen announce most upper-limit IPCC projections of climate change have been surpassed. Is it time to talk about adaptation?

And the U.S. still has no plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 


Cap-and-trade

Lingo behind polluter Limbo

Rather than issue a Divine Proclamation banishing carbon from the kingdom, the mood in Washington is for a more business-friendly approach to global warming legislation. The thinking is to put a price on carbon-dioxide pollution and allow companies to buy and trade it until they are no longer in the business of producing it.

Under a Clean Air Act amendment, cap-and-trade was used to clear the skies of the sulfur dioxide blamed for Acid Rain. That program was largely hailed as a success and achieved dramatic reductions at about half the cost of more traditional top-down regulation.

A CO2 pilot cap-and-trade program in the European Union got under way in 2005. While it hasn’t resulted in universal carbon reduction yet, it also hasn’t been the economic disaster some predicted. In fact, according to analysis by MIT researchers, the program has had an “imperceptible” impact on the European economy.

So, don’t be afraid, get to know cap-and-trade.

Here’s how it works:

Set the cap

Congress sets a magic number as the upper limit of permissible CO2 pollution.

Get your token

A certain number of pollution credits are sold — or given — to industry. (We like the sold option, which could create up to $300 billion that could be used to help states and low-income residents manage temporarily higher energy bills, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)

Make the trade

Polluter A reduces emissions below the targeted goal, leaving them with extra credits.
Polluter B just can’t stop belching carbon.
Polluter B is allowed to purchase pollution credits from Polluter A.

Buy some habitat

Instead of buying credits from another polluter, you can earn credits by investing in carbon-reducing projects outside the United States. Save a rainforest; pollute for a year.

Get small

Then, just like Limbo dancing, the pollution bar is lowered for another round. Repeat.

Cap-and-dividend

Try this sexy tweak!
You may have noticed that in the above scenario the polluter pays the government for fouling the air. But who owns the air you breathe? If you think the federal government does, then keep pushing for cap-and-trade. If you think people share it in common, then consider this modification.

Rather than trust the government to reimburse select electricity and gasoline users, push for cap-and-“dividend.” In this model, the money raised by auctioning carbon credits is paid out to all U.S. citizens. Heck, it works in Sarah Palin country. Proceeds from the sale of state oil leases are doled out this way under the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Supporters prefer cap-and-dividend for its built-in equity: Everyone gets the same amount. Those who are frugal with their carbon-based energy will save more of their dividend than those going hogwild in their Hummers.

Text by Greg Harman
Illustrations by Chuck Kerr


Peter Clark on abrupt climate change

Richard Seager on permanent drought

Malcomb Cleaveland on global-warming deniers

 


What does a meter of sea-level rise look like in Texas?


Brownsville gets coastal


Corpus builds new bridges


Galveston phones for a lifeline

Investigate for yourself. Check out the University of Arizona's Department of Geosciences' computer model. What would two meters look like?

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