Who Can Head Off Climate Change Before the Tipping Point?

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 30, 2009, issue of October 09, 2009.
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Join me, if you will, in a brief thought experiment. Let’s imagine that John McCain had been elected president last fall. Imagine, too, that Republicans had held their own in the Senate and confidently dominated Washington the way they did two or three years ago. What would be different?

Let’s start our search in Jerusalem. Most Israelis mistrust Obama’s intentions and pine for President Bush, who never let you doubt which side he was on. If you share that mistrust, the alternative probably sounds appealing. A McCain White House would likely have maintained the confrontational Bush approach toward the Muslim world. Israel wouldn’t be under pressure to freeze settlements. Of course, if you’re against settlements, you’d dread four more years of Washington enabling Israeli stubbornness. On the other hand, it’s also possible that a McCain victory in November might have given Israelis the confidence to elect Tzipi Livni’s dovish Kadima party in February. Either way, it’s pretty much a given among Israel’s most passionate backers that Obama was the wrong choice and that Israel is suffering for it.

Moving on to Washington, the picture is more clear-cut. Congress and the nation wouldn’t be up in arms about health care right now, because President McCain wouldn’t be pushing radical changes. He campaigned on small reforms, and he might have gotten them. Some families would be helped. But serious change would have to wait another decade or two.

The economy? It wouldn’t look much different at all. There’s no quick fix to this mess. It will be a slow climb with much pain all around, and nobody is certain where we’re headed.

Now consider Copenhagen. Why Copenhagen? Because leaders of 190 nations will gather there in December to conclude a new international accord on climate change. The current global climate accord, drawn up in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, expires in 2010. A new one is needed that can succeed where Kyoto failed.

The Copenhagen powwow convenes in an atmosphere of urgent crisis. Several new scientific studies, including one in September from Oxford University and another last June from our own federal government, report that the planet’s average temperature is rising faster than anyone predicted a decade ago. They say the pace of temperature increase is accelerating because the effects of warming reinforce each other in unexpected ways. They say there’s no longer any credible scientific debate that human activity — mainly burning carbon-based fuel — is the main cause of warming.

The federal government report looks mainly at the impact of climate change on human society. Already visible are increasingly violent hurricane seasons, permanent drought in some areas, pest infestations and insect-borne diseases, plus water shortages as reduced snowcaps yield drier rivers. Down the road, expect rising sea levels and vast coastal flooding, drowning towns and roads, disrupting agriculture and transport. Look for violent unrest in poor countries least able to adapt and mass population movement from the worst-hit areas, mainly near the equator, to more developed countries.

Most alarming, scientists now say we’re nearing a tipping point. If drastic action isn’t taken very soon to slow carbon emissions, we will reach a point by mid-century after which the process can no longer be stopped. The carbon in the atmosphere will keep the planet’s temperature at a level that no longer sustains the polar ice caps. Melting the ice will eliminate the earth’s most effective coolant, raise sea levels by a catastrophic dozen feet or more and defrost the frozen northern tundra, releasing tons of methane now trapped under the permafrost. There’s no bringing back the ice. The only solution is to stop the warming now, before it reaches the tipping point.

Unlike health care, or Israel, this isn’t a question of waiting another generation. It’s about civilization surviving.

To avoid disaster, scientists say, temperatures must not be allowed to rise more than 2 degrees centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above current levels. We need to reach equilibrium by about 2050. That requires cutting carbon dioxide emissions by a whopping 80% by mid-century. It’s a tall order. It won’t be free, whatever Obama says.

Kyoto failed, it’s said, because America didn’t ratify it, and without the world’s biggest economy other countries slacked off. The Clinton administration objected that Kyoto unfairly gave developing nations a free pass and stuck us with the tab. Developing nations said they shouldn’t be kept in preindustrial poverty, forbidden to develop. They said those who got rich befouling the planet should pay to clean up their mess.

American business insisted it would cost too much and derail the economy. Think of the guy who’s held up by a robber shouting, “Your money or your life,” and replies: “Take my life — I’m saving my money for my old age.”

In the end, Clinton never even submitted Kyoto for ratification. Frustrated Democrats said the real problem was that Clinton knew it would never pass the Republican-led Senate.

Twelve years later, the climate crisis has only gotten more desperate. But Senate Republicans are crankier than ever, more suspicious than ever of scientists and of world opinion. John McCain is a singular exception; he has bucked his party to sponsor strong climate legislation. It’s not clear, though, whether a President McCain could have gotten his bills past his party in the Senate. Perhaps he would have put his vice president in charge of the issue.

Leaders around the world are reportedly frantic that Obama won’t even be able to get a serious climate bill through his own Democratic Senate, and the moment will be lost. Their consolation is that with the Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, there’s at least a fighting chance.

Back, then, to our original question: How would Israelis have fared under McCain? Well, they might have kept the Hebron hills, but coastal Tel Aviv would swim with the fishes.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and read his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg

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