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The Climate War
True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth
By Eric Pooley
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Why has it been so hard for America to come to grips with climate change? Why do so many people believe it isn’t really happening? As President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren has said, “We’re driving in a car with bad brakes in a fog and heading for a cliff. We know for sure that cliff is out there. We just don’t know exactly where it is. Prudence would suggest that we should start putting on the brakes.” But powerful interests are threatened by the carbon cap that would speed the transition to a clean energy economy, and their agents have worked successfully to deny the problem and delay the solutions.
To write this book, Pooley, the former managing editor of Fortune and chief political correspondent for Time, spent three years embedded with an extraordinary cast of characters: from the flamboyant head of one of the nation’s largest coal-burning energy companies to the driven environmental leader who made common cause with him, from leading scientists warning of impending catastrophe to professional skeptics disputing almost every aspect of climate science, from radical activists chaining themselves to bulldozers to powerful lobbyists, media gurus, and advisors in Obama’s West Wing–and, to top it off, unprecedented access to former Vice President Al Gore and his team of climate activists.
Pooley captures the quiet determination and even heroism of climate campaigners who have dedicated their lives to an uphill battle that’s still raging today. He asks whether we have what it takes to preserve our planet’s habitability, and shows how America’s climate war sends shock waves from Bali to Copenhagen. No other reporter enjoys such access to this cast of characters. No other book covers this terrain. From the trenches of a North Carolina power plant to the battlefields of Capitol Hill, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street, The Climate War is the essential read for anyone who wants to understand the players and politics behind the most important issue we face today.
For my mother, Terri Powers,
who shows me what it means to believe
When I began work on this book, in the spring of 2007, the American debate about global warming finally seemed to be shifting from science to politics, from whether climate change was real and caused by human activity to what we were going to do about it. I wanted to understand why it was so hard for our political system to respond to this threat—why Americans, virtually alone among people in the industrialized world, had not agreed to cap their greenhouse gas emissions. So I spent the next three years talking to hundreds of people from all sides of the Climate War, choosing key figures to follow in this narrative. Somewhat naïvely, perhaps, I hoped to write a story with a happy ending, a chronicle of how America finally knuckled down and started getting the hard work of climate action done.
Three years later, the Climate War is still raging, America is still debating whether and how to reduce carbon emissions, and a loud minority continues to insist that global warming isn’t real or caused by man. So what you are about to read is an epic without an ending. It is the story of a group of people who set out to save the planet—or, more precisely, to preserve the planet’s habitability—through political action, and the story of those who stood against them. Their battleground was the American political system, which gave a natural advantage to the opponents of climate action. The U.S. Congress, designed by the Founders to make it difficult “for colossal tax and regulatory burdens to foxtrot into law without scrutiny,” as the Wall Street Journal phrased it, had become so distorted by special interest dollars and partisan bile that it now seemed to block progress of any kind, no matter how urgent. The system treated climate campaigners as just another special interest group—and an underfunded one at that. And it treated their wealthy foes with far more deference.
Environmentalism was also changing in those years, as it completed its journey into the mainstream. Just about every corporation boasted about its commitment to sustainability. The fight against climate change was mostly portrayed in the media as a lifestyle choice, a matter of righteous consumerism, as if we could stop global warming simply by filling our shopping carts with the right products. Books and magazines were filled with stories of ostentatious self-denial, written by people who proudly evaporated their own sea salt or went without electric lights and toilet paper for a year. Those personal responses may have been valid and enriching, but fighting climate change in an industrial society requires political action at the local and—especially—the national level. This book is about people who understood that, and set out to be effective. It is about people who went to war, and learned what war costs.
If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.
CHAIRMAN, INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE
NOVEMBER 17, 2007
“We Haven’t Done a Damned Thing”
It was the rainy season in Bali, but the rains had not come. December is summertime on the island, one of the 17,000 volcanic pearls that make up the vast Indonesian archipelago, and normally that means very hot and wet. But like so many places in the world, Bali was living through some weird weather in 2007. The heat had arrived on schedule, but the twelve inches of rainfall that soak the island in an average December were not to be found, so the humidity gathered and grew, a pregnant, vaporous shroud that cloaked the long line of people waiting to get through the metal detectors and into Nusantara Hall, in the luxury beach resort of Nusa Dua, on the evening of December 13.
Eleven thousand people—diplomats, civil servants, lobbyists, activists, and journalists from nearly 190 countries—had come to Nusa Dua to begin negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. The “Bali Road Map” was supposed to lead to a new treaty by December 2009, when many of those same people would reconvene in Copenhagen. But the talks had run into an American roadblock. The administration of George W. Bush was doing everything it could to obstruct progress. With just a year left in office, Bush was running out the clock.
During the first week of the conference the mood in Bali had turned giddy, like a little boy who has eaten too much candy. The sugar rush was fueled by news from America: a Senate committee had passed the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, the first serious federal attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To people who didn’t understand the gridlocked ways of Washington, it sounded as if the U.S., after a decade of denial and delay, was finally ready to take action.
In the second week, the sugar high ended with a familiar crash. The leaders of the U.S. delegation arrived in Nusa Dua, and the world remembered who was running things in Washington. President Bush had only recently conceded that climate change was real and anthropogenic, or caused by human activity.* His delegation, led by Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, was doing an enthusiastic job of making sure nothing got done in Bali. After James Connaughton, the former industry lobbyist who ran the White House Council on Environmental Quality, tried to claim the mantle of leadership—“The U.S. will lead, but leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow”—protesters staked out the convention center hallways and fell into line behind him whenever he appeared, following, following, following in a shame-on-you conga line. And on the conference’s final day, delegates from most of the 190 nations booed Dobriansky loud and long—a sustained global jeer that won American acquiescence on a small point and let everyone sign the Bali Road Map, such as it was, and go home.
As the delegates waited in line on December 13, that dramatic moment was days away and the fate of the talks was very much in doubt. Europe and many developing countries wanted the Road Map’s preamble to make a nonbinding reference to the painful scientific conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions needed to be reduced 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if the world was to avoid the worst impacts. This target was far beyond anything the U.S. and its allies—Canada, Japan, and Russia—were willing to contemplate, so they made sure that no such reference was made. At one point, the Russians proposed a sentence about “the dangerous implications of climate change,” and the Americans moved to strike the phrase. The Russians dutifully praised this American “improvement.”
In response, European officials threatened to boycott the next round of talks in a Bush climate sideshow called the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change. Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which ran the global climate process, said he feared Bali was heading for failure. Delegates debated whether it was worth blowing up the process to call attention to American obstruction. They argued that it was the only way to make the world see what the U.S. was really up to in Bali. Now, in Nusantara Hall, another American was going to try to defuse those arguments and get the talks back on track.
Al Gore stepped onto the low stage and waited for the ovation to subside. Gore had flown in from Oslo, where he had accepted the Nobel Peace Prize three days earlier; he was profoundly jet-lagged and a bit nervous, because he was about to do something that, as a patriotic American and former high officeholder, he was reluctant to do: stand on foreign soil and rip into the U.S.A.
When Gore landed in Bali the day before, leaving the airport in the bustling commercial district of Tuban for the ride to Nusa Dua on the southeastern coast, he was running on caffeine, adrenaline, and the rush of global acclaim. His acceptance of the Nobel Prize—along with Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the underfunded, voluntary group of 2,500 experts from 130 countries whose job it was to assess the risk from anthropogenic global warming—capped an extraordinary two-year period in which the U.S. finally began to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world in its comprehension of the climate threat. Though the American public remained confused and divided (Democrats and independents mostly understood that the planet was warming and humans were to blame; many Republicans still did not), what had started as an elite issue—identified as a crisis by a few hundred scientists and taken up as a cause by a few thousand activists—finally showed signs of becoming a truly popular concern.
The change had been triggered in late August 2005 by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. (The great storm that slammed into the Gulf Coast wasn’t “caused” by global warming, but it was the kind of hugely destructive weather event that a warmer world made more likely.) And the attitude shift accelerated after the May 2006 release of Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, which seemed to wake America, or at least the part of America that watches progressive documentaries, from a decade-long climate trance. The climate issue–attention cycle peaked in early 2007, when a New York Times poll found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed—90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, 60 percent of Republicans—favored “immediate action” to confront the crisis, though Gore noticed that they weren’t sure what form it should take and didn’t want to pay more for gasoline as a consequence. Yet even then, he knew, climate action wasn’t a top agenda item; when other pollsters asked people what issues they wanted their leaders to tackle, global warming came in at or near the bottom of the list.
Some leaders had the clarity to act anyway. In September 2006 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that put his environmentally conscious state on course to become the first to require cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Hundreds of cities and towns across the nation enacted climate plans of their own, and half of the states joined regional initiatives to cap carbon emissions from power plants. State utility commissions swatted down scores of applications for new coal-fired power plants. And millions of Americans began worrying about their own carbon footprints, though actually shrinking them proved difficult, what with their new flat-screen TVs and all the other power-sucking accoutrements of American life.
Changes in individual behavior could help, but this was an industrial-scale problem—which was why Gore kept saying we had to change laws, not just lightbulbs. Eventually, Gore knew, Americans would have to transform the way they powered their cars, generated their electricity, manufactured their goods, and grew their food, and these changes needed to be driven by economic incentives imposed at the national level: a mandatory, declining cap on U.S. carbon emissions was the essential first step. So he was heartened when influential groups from outside the green movement—evangelical Christians concerned about caring for God’s creation, retired generals worried about the national security implications of climate refugees—came forward to push for federal legislation. Perhaps most important, American business’s monolithic opposition to climate action also began to crumble. In January 2007, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a coalition of ten Fortune 500 corporations and four environmental groups, came out in favor of a cap, challenging business’s longstanding veto on climate legislation. A few months after that, in April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that the Environmental Protection Agency had the power to regulate CO2 as a pollutant—clearing the way for federal controls whether or not Congress mustered the will to pass a bill.
All of which explains why Gore’s two-day journey by commercial carrier had been gratifying as well as arduous: Norway to Sweden to Germany to Hong Kong to Bali, with travelers stopping to congratulate him all along the way. Of course he was honored to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, almost seven years to the day after newspapers published his political obituary when the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount in 2000 and handed the White House to Bush. Gore was amazed to learn that Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, created the prize in 1895, exactly seven years after he picked up a paper and read his own obit, published by mistake and calling him “the Merchant of Death.” Each man had survived a kind of near-death experience, then made a bid for redemption by devoting himself to a larger cause.
Gore knew the prize was a political statement—a spotlight on the climate crisis and a slap at Bush for doing nothing about it—and he approved. As he said in his acceptance speech in Oslo, “today we dumped another seventy million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer.” Doing something about that—transforming our industrial economy from one that ran on fossil fuels to one that ran on renewable energy—meant capturing the public imagination in order to defeat the oil and coal lobbies and change the laws. The technological breakthroughs would come if we summoned the political will to require emissions cuts, Gore was sure of that, but so many powerful interests had a stake in keeping things the way they were that only a moral crusade—a galvanic, once-in-a-generation movement—could lead to that political breakthrough. There were too many people offering seductive arguments for inaction, from skeptics who claimed global warming wouldn’t get that bad to high-tech prophets who promised that a suite of silver-bullet technologies known as “geo-engineering” would magically make it go away.
In his darker moments Gore felt the Nobel Committee had rewarded him for failure. “I have tried to do everything I know how to do, and so have plenty of others, yet so little has changed,” he said during a quiet conversation behind the scenes in Bali. “Global emissions are still going up by two percent each year. By any measure that matters, we haven’t done a damned thing.”
People ridiculed Gore for his passion on the issue. They didn’t understand that when you saw what was coming, it took all of your self-control just to keep from hollering. A year before, Penn State climatologist Richard Alley had noted that the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets appeared to be shrinking “a hundred years ahead of schedule,” and things got even worse in the summer of 2007. Inland glaciers on every continent—part of the snowpack that provides irrigation and drinking water to billions—were wasting away. The vast ice sheet in Greenland was riddled with holes, called moulins; as meltwater poured into the moulins, it lubricated the underside of the glacier where it meets the land, accelerating its slow, grinding slide to the ocean. The loss of even half of the Greenland ice sheet would cause a catastrophic rise in sea level; no one could say how long it might take for this to happen—hundreds of years, a thousand, or as soon as the end of this century?—but it appeared to be coming if we didn’t change our ways. And the north polar ice cap, which always melted partially in summer and refroze in winter, was melting more, refreezing less. By August 2007, the Arctic had lost an additional area of sea ice the size of Alaska and Texas combined, stunning experts at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, who called the September ice minimum the lowest on record. The warming even opened the fabled Northwest Passage for the first time in human memory.
Our descendants will look back at us, Gore believed, and wonder how we managed to “sit around debating while the north polar ice cap—which had been there for three million years, give or take, equal in size the lower forty-eight U.S. states, give or take”—melted to half its usual summertime size. Would we keep doing nothing while the rest of it disappeared? How could we continue debating whether the cause was sunspots or water vapor or “natural variability” when the scientists were as clear as meltwater: we were causing it. We had to slash industrial emissions.
Everywhere Gore looked was another reminder of how hard that was going to be. To reach the Nusa Dua resort, he traveled along a stifling hot road called Jalan Raya Uluwatu, choked with taxis, trucks, minivans, and motorbikes four or five abreast, all of them sending forth oily clouds that hung in the air above the furniture stores, brickworks, police checkpoints, and open-air snack shops that lined the route. Here and there along the road places of commerce gave way to an ancient Hindu temple or a stretch of mangrove preserve. And everywhere were roadside banners saying PLANT TREES—SAVE OUR PLANET, messages to the delegates of the Thirteenth Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (or COP 13 for short). By COP 15, in Copenhagen two years hence, the diplomats were supposed to have a new global deal. It was going to take a heroic effort to get it done, and the breakthrough had to come first in the U.S., because America—alone in the industrialized world—had refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the first global climate treaty. That refusal had consigned Kyoto to failure and allowed China and India “to hide behind our skirts of inaction,” as Republican Senator John Warner liked to say. The world simply wasn’t going to try again until the U.S. shook off its confusion and joined the effort. Gore had come to Bali to buy some time so America could make that happen.
Gore believed it was still possible for the U.S. and the world to act in time. But it wasn’t looking likely. Almost 150 years had passed since the British scientist John Tyndall demonstrated that carbon dioxide traps heat, and the basics of climate science were well understood. In 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee warned President Lyndon Baines Johnson that “we are returning to the air a significant part of the carbon that was slowly extracted by plants and buried in the sediments during half a billion years,” and that this “may have a significant effect on climate.” The report foresaw melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and warmer, more acidic oceans. “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment,” it said, which “will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature.”
Almost three decades later, in 1992, the U.S. finally committed itself to voluntary climate action when the first President Bush signed and the Senate ratified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dedicating the world to stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” But in the fifteen years that followed—including the eight when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in office—the U.S. had done little because the opposition was just too strong. And now, the scientists of the IPCC said, it was almost too late.* It would take so long to slow, stop, and reverse the rate of emissions that we had to start now. This was the defining moment. If the world didn’t change the way it created and used energy, by 2050 it would double the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere from the preindustrial level of 275 parts per million (ppm) to 550 ppm and beyond—which could lead to an average global temperature increase of as much as 6°Celsius by the end of the century, according to the IPCC’s worst-case scenario. Six degrees may not sound like much, but just a three-degree rise could mean that over the next century or more, one-third of all species on the planet would face extinction, sea levels would rise, coastal cities would be swamped, and millions of climate refugees would be driven from their homes. So by the time the nations of the world met in Bali, they had set a new goal: to keep the average temperature increase below 2.5°C by stabilizing greenhouse gases below 450. Yet the politicians were still debating policies that aimed for 450 to 550.
Now scientists were telling Gore that the new 450 target wasn’t good enough, either. The planet was more sensitive to the greenhouse effect than climate models had predicted, and scientists were concerned about “positive feedbacks,” vicious cycles that would kick in as the earth warmed—when permafrost melts, for example, it releases greenhouse gas—and accelerate the pace of climate change. At some point it wouldn’t matter if humans cut emissions or not. The earth would take over.
Gore had been hearing about these feedbacks* from James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Gore’s informal science adviser. Hansen was widely regarded as the preeminent climate scientist in the world, and he was among the most outspoken. Because of that he had become a target for opponents of climate action, just as Gore had. “Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences,” Hansen told the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December 2005. “‘Business-as-usual’ scenarios…yield additional warming of 2° or 3°C this century and imply changes that constitute practically a different planet.”
By the summer of 2007, Hansen was telling Gore and others that the 450 target was simply too high. Atmospheric concentrations reached 383 that year—40 percent above preindustrial levels—and the impacts were already severe. The temperature had risen by 0.74°C due to industrial emissions, with at least another 0.6°C of warming in the pipeline, because some of the CO2 your great-grandfather’s Model T Ford sent into the sky was still up there warming the world. The safe target, Hansen now said, was not 450 but 350—a goal that struck most climate policy experts as unreachable in this century. Hansen wanted to kick himself for not recognizing the target earlier, though he was ahead of everyone else. His latest calculations suggested there could be as much as 2°C already in the pipeline. That would be devastating. If melting polar ice was the result of 383 before that extra warming kicked in, what would the world look like after a century at 450 or 550 or more, with the additional warming they implied? Eventually, it would be an ice-free planet.
Some climate scientists disagreed with Hansen and speculated that the climate’s sensitivity was not as high as he forecast, but Gore knew better than to doubt him on the science. A mild-mannered, endearingly awkward Iowan—Hansen was trying to rouse humankind to action but could barely look a stranger in the eye—he had been right on all the big points and was often out in front of his peers; it could take years for the consensus to catch up with him. Yet Gore had reservations about focusing on 350. The gulf between what the science said was necessary and what the politics said was possible had never been so deep or wide. Staring into that abyss could make people freeze up when the main thing was to get started.
Gore knew scientists who were coming to the conclusion that it was already too late, that we were on an unstoppable train to disaster. He understood why they thought that way, but he couldn’t allow himself to believe the game was over. It was sheer defeatism to say that the diplomats in Bali had already missed their chance. Gore wasn’t about to give in to that. He knew one thing: it was our moral obligation to try. “When people finally understand that this is urgent and solvable,” he said, “they will demand action. Until then, our politics won’t be equal to the challenge.”
The obstacles weren’t only political. They were psychological. Human beings didn’t respond well to big, slow-moving, seemingly abstract future threats, even if signs of impending doom were visible. We weren’t good at paying now to stave off catastrophe later. We didn’t want to think about it and hid behind the hope that it just wasn’t true or that, if it was, some high-tech solution would come along to save the day. But the reality was stark: though the impacts were still mostly in the future, the solutions needed to be put in place now, long before the worst consequences kicked in. The warming effect of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere persisted for a century, and that lag time meant we couldn’t wait for a catastrophe to silence the skeptics. By then it would be too late.
- On Sale
- Jun 8, 2010
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Hachette Books