March 13, 2008
Are Greens Tipping the Debate Away from what Really Matters?
Andy Revkin did an incisive piece on the claims around climate tipping points in the Times on Sunday. It was nice to have the antidote to Tom Friedman's apocalyptic column on tipping points just pages away.
In 2006 a retired software executive insisted to me that we had only 10 years to do something dramatic about climate change (because that's what James Hansen had told him). When I gently suggested that 10 years was not a scientific number but rather an arbitrarily political one, the executive accused me of being anti-science. But the funny thing is that in January of this year Hansen told the Guardian that we have only four years left for the U.S. to act -- coincidentally, the same length of time in Obama's first term in office.
The assumption behind all of it is that throwing out these numbers -- four years, 10 years, 350 ppm, etc. -- will provide the public and policy makers with a sense of urgency that global warming as an issue currently lacks. But there's no evidence to back up that assumptions. If any correlation were to be drawn, it would likely be the opposite, that the increasingly apocalyptic tone of those seeking action on climate change has resulted in an increasing number of voters (according to Gallup) who believe that the threat of global warming is being exaggerated.
While the tipping point discourse might make Hansen, Friedman, Gore, Romm et al. feel powerful and moral, it has done nothing to change the fundamental political economy of their preferred policy agenda, pollution pricing. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) isn't against cap and trade because he's a right-wing, market fundamentalist ideologue; the truth is that he's an outspoken, anti-globalization liberal. He's against cap and trade because of the impact it would have on his constituents, who depend on coal for 85 percent of their electricity, and who are trying to hang on to the last of their manufacturing facilities by a thread. That's not something that any amount
of scary stories about tipping points or inspiring ads about the need to repower America will change.
The only thing that will interrupt that dynamic is a fundamentally different climate policy agenda. Unfortunately, that's not something the big green groups and their allies in Washington have so far shown much interest in. A green group climate lobbyist in Washington who is sympathetic to a larger energy investment agenda recently told me that earlier this year Waxman (with the help of Green allies) killed technology-neutral loan guarantees in the stimulus by saying they all would have gone to nuclear, and to coal-to-liquid (which was clearly not the case) and that Waxman and green groups will now try to kill clean energy investments outside of any climate bill. This is what Ted and I helped do in 2003 (to our own Apollo energy legislation no less) when we were still being good green soldiers.
So much for urgent action to prevent tipping points.