For the past two centuries, at an accelerating rate, the basic composition of the Earth’s atmosphere has been materially altered by the fossil-fuel effluvia of machine culture. Human-induced warming of the Earth’s climate is emerging as one of the major scientific, social, and economic issues of the twenty-first century, as the effects of climate change become evident in everyday life in locations as varied as small island nations of the Pacific Ocean and the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The “greenhouse effect” is not an idea which is new to science.
It has merely become more easily detectable in our time as temperatures have risen and scientists have devised more sophisticated ways to measure and forecast atmospheric processes. The atmospheric balance of “trace” gases actually started to change beyond natural bounds at the dawn of the industrial age, with the first large-scale burning of fossil fuels. It became noticeable in the 1880s, and an important force in global climate change by about 1980. After an intensifying debate, the idea that human activity is warming the earth in potentially damaging ways became generally accepted in scientific circles by 1995.
Addressing the consequences of global warming will demand, on a worldwide scale, the kind of social and economic mobilization experienced in the United States only during its birthing revolution and World War II, and therein lies a problem. The buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a nearly invisible, incremental crisis. Carbon dioxide is not going to bomb Pearl Harbor to kick start the mobilization. Author Jonathan Weiner observes, “We do not respond to emergencies that unfold in slow motion. We do not respond adequately to the invisible” (Weiner, 1990, 241).
It has been said (not for attribution) that the best thing which could happen to raise worldwide concern about global warming would be a quick collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise worldwide sea level a notable number of feet over a very short time. When stock brokers’ feet get wet on the ground floor of New York City’s World Trade Center, all the world’s competing economic interests might mobilize together and provide the sociopolitical responses necessary to address the atmosphere’s overload of greenhouse gases before it is too late.
The same water that could lap at the ground floor of the Trade Center also would ruin most farmers in Egypt and Bangladesh and slosh in the lobbies of glass towers of Hong Kong and Tokyo. Perhaps, only then, might all of humankind heed the implications of Chief Seah’tl’s farewell speech a century and a half ago. We may be brothers (and sisters) after all. So far, humankind’s collective nervous system—national and international leadership, public opinion, and so forth—hasn’t done much about global warming.
As of this writing, the flora and fauna of the planet Earth are still in the position of a laboratory frog submerged in steadily warming water. This is not a secret crisis, just a politically unpalatable one. Al Gore, in Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, raised a sociopolitical call for mobilization against human-induced warming of the Earth: “This point is crucial. A choice to ‘do nothing’ in response to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand” (Gore, 1992, 37).
In his book, Gore, then a U. S. senator, called for a “global Marshall Plan,” to include stabilization of world population, the rapid creation and development of environmentally appropriate technologies, and “a comprehensive and ubiquitous change in the economic ‘rules of the road’ by which we measure the impact of our decisions on the environment” (Gore, 1992, 306). Eight years after Gore issued his manifesto, fossil-fuel emissions had risen in the United States. Gore had captured the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States, and global warming had slipped from campaign radar.
From this vantage point, one imagines the world lurching through the twenty-first century as global public opinion slowly galvanizes around year after year of high temperature records, and as public policy only slowly begins to catch up with the temperature curve. The temperature (and especially the dewpoint) may wake the global frog before he becomes poached meat. Whatever the outcome of the public policy debate, the odds are extremely high that the weather of the year 2100 will be notably warmer than today, as greenhouse “forcing” exerts an ever-stronger role in the grand dance of the atmosphere which produces climate.
Ross Gelbspan observes, “Global warming need not require a reduction of living standards, but it does demand a rapid shift in patterns of fuel consumption—reduced use of oil, coal, and the lighter-carboned natural gas to an economy more reliant on solar energy, fuel cells, hydrogen gas, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy sources. It is doubtful that capitalistic market forces will bring about this shift on their own, because market prices of fossil fuels do not incorporate their environmental costs. ” (Gelbspan, 2004)
George Woodwell has been quoted as saying, “[For] all practical purposes, the era of fossil fuels has passed, and it’s time to move on to the new era of renewable sources of energy. ” The other alternative, says Woodwell, is to accept the fact that “[t]he Earth is not simply moving toward a new equilibrium in temperature…. It is entering a period of continuous, progressive, open-ended warming” (Gordon and Suzuki, 2001, 219). In Jeremy Leggett’s opinion, “The uniquely frustrating thing about global warming—to the many people who see its dangers—is that the solutions are obvious.
There is no denying, however, that creating the necessary changes will require paradigm shifts in human behavior—particularly in the field of cooperation between nation-states—which have literally no precedent in human history…. There is no single issue in human affairs that is of greater importance. ” (Leggett, 2000, 457) According to a Greenpeace Report edited by Leggett, “The main routes to surviving the greenhouse threat are energy efficiency, renewable forms of energy production…less greenhouse-gas-intensive agriculture, stopping deforestation, and reforestation” (Leggett, 2000, 462).
Greenpeace also recommends redirecting spending away from armaments and toward development of a sustainable energy for the future of humankind (Leggett, 2000, 470). Of the broader picture, Michael MacCracken writes, “The underlying challenge is for industrialized society to achieve a balanced and sustainable coexistence with the environment, one that permits use of the environment as a resource, but in a way that preserves its vitality and richness for future generations….
The challenge [is] to transform our ways before the world is irrevocably changed… toward displacing militarization and the ever-increasing push for greater national consumption as the primary driving forces behind industrial activity. ” (MacCracken, 2001, 35) According to Donald Goldberg and Stephen Porter of the Center for International Global Law: “The Clinton administration has bungled repeated chances to initiate domestic measures. For example, recent legislation proposed by the White House to restructure the electric utility industry could have been crafted to require utilities to reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency lobbied hard for the authority to impose a cap-and-trade program on utilities’ CO2 emissions, similar to the trading system that has lowered sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in a cost-effective way. This was a golden opportunity, as the restructuring bill is projected to save the average consumer roughly $200 a year, which would have more than offset the cost of reducing GHG [greenhouse-gas] emissions. Unfortunately, the White House chose to forgo this opportunity. ” (Goldberg and Porter, 1998)
According to Goldberg and Porter, loopholes in the Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the insistence of the United States, permit richer countries to avoid many of its mandated emission reductions by purchasing allowances from other countries through the protocol’s “flexibility mechanisms. ” The Buenos Aires Climate Conference (1998) negotiated a mechanism allowing trade in greenhouse gas emission rights in two markets. The first market would allow “sellers,” nations which exceed greenhouse gas-reduction targets set in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, to offer their rights for sale to “buyers,” countries which have not met their targets.
The second market, the Clean Development Mechanism, will allow industrialized countries to meet part of their greenhouse-gas-reduction quotas by transferring clean technology to poorer countries so that antipollution projects can be carried out there. “If it buys all (or most) of its reductions,” Goldberg and Porter write, “the United States will not get its own house in order. In the long run, efficiency and productivity in the U. S. economy will suffer because domestic industry will be shielded from any incentive to adapt” (Goldberg and Porter, 1998).
Under these provisions, the United States could “purchase” emission reduction credits from nations, such as Russia and Ukraine, which reduced their greenhouse-gas emissions during the 1990s because their economic infrastructure collapsed. The continuing political wrangling over the Kyoto Protocol illustrates why the world is responding so slowly to the impending crisis of global warming. Climate diplomacy remains an arena dominated by competition of special (mainly national) interests. Meanwhile, a few countries, most of them in Europe, are taking steps to mitigate greenhouse forcing on their own.
While British emissions of greenhouse gases by the year 2000 had fallen between five and six percent compared to the Kyoto Protocol 1990 targets, emissions in the United States rose 11 percent between 1990 and 1998. Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose 13 percent during the 1990s, while several European countries (including Britain) made substantial progress toward meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol by reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions as much as 10 percent compared to 1990 levels.
Denmark (which produces less than one percent of humankind’s greenhouse gases) underwent something of a mobilization against global warming during the 1990s. Denmark was planning “farms” of skyscraper-sized windmills in the North and Baltic seas that, if plans materialize, will supply half the nation’s electric power within 30 years. The Danish wind-energy manufacturers’ association believes that electricity produced through wind power on a large scale will be financially competitive with power from plants burning fossil fuels, which will be phased out if wind power proves itself.
Svend Auken, Denmark’s environmental and energy minister, said that with half of his country’s power coming from Norwegian hydroelectric plants and the other half from wind power, the country is planning to meet its electricity needs within three decades while reducing carbon dioxide production to nearly zero. The wind farms must prove their endurance in winter storms and stand up to the corrosion of seawater, but if they can, Denmark’s windmills will prevent the production of 14 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
While the fossil-fuel economy remained firmly entrenched in most of the world at the turn of the millennium, gains were being achieved in some basic areas of energy conservation. In 1994, for example, the average person in the United States was recycling 380 pounds a year, up from 62 pounds in 1960, a 613 percent increase (Casten, 1998, 101–102). Following the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1972, the United States also made a concerted effort to limit the production of nitrous oxides by gas turbine engines. Before regulation, the typical gas turbine engine emitted 200 parts per million (p. p. m. ).
Since then, several technological innovations have reduced emissions to below 10 p. p. m.. Technology was being developed in the late 1990s which could reduce the rate to two to three p. p. m. (Casten, 1998, 117–118). The problem is at once very simple, and also astoundingly complex. Increasing human populations, rising affluence, and continued dependence on energy derived from fossil fuels are at the crux of the issue. The complexity of the problem is illustrated by the degree to which the daily lives of machine-age peoples depend on fossil fuels. This dependence gives rise to an array of local, regional, and national economic interests.
These interests cause tensions between nations attending negotiations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The cacophony of debate also illustrates the strength and diversity of established interests which are being assiduously protected. Add to the human elements of the problem the sheer randomness of climate (as well as the amount of time which passes before a given level of greenhouse gases is actually factored into climate), and the problem becomes complex and intractable enough to (thus far) seriously impede any serious, unified effort by humankind to fashion solutions.
Casten, Thomas R. (1998). Turning Off the Heat: Why America Must Double Energy Efficiency to Save Money and Reduce Global Warming. Amherst, N. Y. : Prometheus Books. Gelbspan, Ross. (2004). A Global Warming. American Prospect, 31 (March/April). Goldberg, Donald, and Stephen Porter. (1998). In Focus: Global Climate Change. Center for International Environmental Law, May. Gordon, Anita, and David Suzuki. (2001). It’s a Matter of Survival. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Gore, Albert. (1992).
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Leggett, Jeremy, ed. (2000). Global Warming: The Greenpeace Report. New York: Oxford University Press. MacCracken, Michael. (1991). Greenhouse Gases: Changing the Global Climate. In Joseph P. Knox and Ann Foley Scheuring, eds. , Global Climate Change and California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 26–39. Weiner, Jonathan. (1990). The Next One Hundred Years: Shaping the Fate of Our Living Earth. New York: Bantam Books
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