by: Elizabeth Kolbert 6 February 2007
Except in certain benighted precincts—oil-industry-funded Web sites, the Bush White House, Michael Crichton's den—no one wastes much energy these days trying to deny global warming. Credit Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," or this winter's snowless ski season in the Alps, or the fact that it was seventy-two degrees in Central Park on January 6th. Still, the release last week of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents an important, perhaps even historic, event.
Founded in 1988, the I.P.C.C. is a joint venture of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. Every four or five years, it conducts an exhaustive survey of the available data and issues a multi-volume assessment of the state of the climate. By the time the I.P.C.C. publishes an assessment, it has been vetted by thousands of scientists, as well as by the organization's hundred and ninety-odd participating governments. The process guarantees that I.P.C.C. reports are conservative—indeed, frequently out of date—since every statement has had to pass review not just in Paris and London but also in Riyadh and Washington. The first I.P.C.C. assessment, issued in 1990, was noncommittal on the source of the warming that had been observed up to that point. In each subsequent report, the organization has moved cautiously but inexorably toward assigning responsibility. Last week's assessment, the fourth, put the likelihood that human beings are the cause of global warming—now evident from "increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level"—at ninety per cent. It went on to note that temperatures will continue to climb for decades, that heat waves and floods will become more frequent, and that the last time the Arctic and the Antarctic were warmer than they are today for an extended period—before the start of the last Ice Age—global sea levels were at least thirteen feet higher.
As it happens, the release of the report coincides with an important political shift. Though President Bush remains recalcitrant—he could barely bring himself to utter the phrase "climate change" in his State of the Union address last month—the Republican defeat in November has removed from power Congress's most reliable obstructionists. In the Senate, James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, best known for having declared global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," ceded the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee to Barbara Boxer, of California. "For the last twelve years . . . all we've been talking about is, ‘Is there global warming?' " Boxer recently told USA Today. "I'm over it. We need to move forward." Boxer herself has signed on to a bill, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, that would cut America's carbon emissions by eighty per cent by 2050. Last week, when she held an unusual "open-mike" hearing to review legislative proposals on climate change, twenty-five senators showed up, including the Presidential hopefuls John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. (McCain, Obama, and Joseph Lieberman are co-sponsors of a bill that would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by two-thirds by 2050.) After Inhofe used his time to rail about all the "hysteria and political posturing'' on global warming, Boxer remarked, "I'll put you down as skeptical."
On the House side, the Democratic majority has elevated Representative John Dingell, of Michigan, to the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell assumes the post from Joe Barton, of Texas, whose tenure was marked by a series of investigations (or, if you prefer, witch hunts) targeting prominent climate scientists. Now eighty, Dingell has spent more than half a century in Congress protecting the American auto industry. Nevertheless, he has promised to hold hearings on climate change, and has invited Al Gore to testify. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gone a step further, creating a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, reportedly to be headed by Representative Ed Markey, of Massachusetts. "The science of global warming and its impact is overwhelming and unequivocal," Pelosi said, announcing the committee's formation last month. "Now is time to act."
Almost as significant as the changes taking place inside Congress are those taking place outside it. Four days after Pelosi labelled the science of global warming "unequivocal," James Rogers, the chairman of Duke Energy, one of the nation's largest electric-power companies, said much the same thing at the National Press Club. Duke Energy is part of a new coalition, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, whose members include Alcoa, DuPont, G.E., and Lehman Brothers, along with groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. At the press club, the coalition called on the federal government to enact a mandatory "cap and trade" system that would first stabilize and then begin to reduce CO2 emissions. "We know enough to act now," Rogers said. "We must act now." The coalition urged Congress to set a goal of cutting emissions by at least sixty per cent by mid-century.
Carbon dioxide is a by-product of just about every aspect of contemporary life—from driving and flying to farming and manufacturing and watching videos on YouTube. To reduce emissions by sixty per cent—or eighty per cent, as Senator Boxer advocates, or by two-thirds, as the McCain-Lieberman-Obama bill calls for—will thus require significant, and doubtless also disruptive, changes at every level of society. This may not seem an attractive prospect, but, as the latest I.P.C.C. report makes clear, change is not something that anyone at this point has a choice about. All that is at issue—and it is critically at issue—is how disastrous the change will be. Already enough CO2 has been pumped into the air to alter life on earth for thousands of years to come. To continue on our current path because the alternative seems like too much effort is not just shortsighted. It's suicidal.