David Hoppe

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:: The cost of climate change

Voting could become a luxury

By David Hoppe

A couple of weeks ago Harry Reid, leader of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, threw in the towel on trying to get a bill passed to deal with climate change. "We don't have the votes," said Reid.

Reid was especially critical of Republicans, not one of whom was willing to cast a vote in favor of trying to curb our society's appetite for coal-powered energy. But a number of Democrats with ties to coal producers and heavy industry also failed to support the bill.

So the Senate did nothing. At this point, it's not clear when Congress will revisit climate change legislation.

Bill McKibben, who was one of the first to sound the alarm about climate change in 1989, was exasperated by what he called "the disastrous Senate non-vote." In an essay called "We're Hot as Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Any More," he contrasted the Senate's dithering with several recent milestones.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Earth has just experienced the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months, and the warmest April, May and June on record.

Canadian researchers have found that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40 percent since 1950.

To date, nine nations have set their all-time temperature records in 2010, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which set the all-time Asia record in May (129).

For McKibben, the Senate's walking away from climate change legislation - legislation, by the way, that many environmentalists thought was dangerously flawed by compromises made to appease the energy industry - represents a tipping point. Time is short, McKibben says. A more full-throated activism is called for. "If we're going to slow global warming in the very short time available to us, then we don't actually need an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry.We need a stiff price on carbon, set by the scientific understanding that we can't still be burning black rocks a couple of decades hence."

McKibben calls for what amounts to a new industrial revolution, "upending the future business plans of Exxon and BP, Peabody Coal and Duke Energy, not to speak of everyone else who's made a fortune by treating the atmosphere as an open sewer."

McKibben says we need a mass movement to demand the changes necessary to save the planet. Fine. One wishes, though, that McKibben paid as much attention to addictive behavior as he does greenhouse gases. It's not just business models that have to change, it's personal lifestyles. As long as I can run my air conditioning, a record-breaking temperature is a number I can almost root for.

Behavior is the last thing people want to change. The torturous compromises that plagued the failed Senate bill on climate change were actually a fair representation of our collective feelings about the issue. Yes, we know it's a problem. And maybe it will go away - kind of like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is fatal nonsense, but it underscores how hard it is for us technologically-mediated animals to relate to any but the most intrusive happenings in the natural world.

What seems off-key about McKibben's argument is that while he calls for political will, he shies away from political implications. He prefers, it seems, to keep his focus on the survival of the planet when he could just as easily argue that, in the shorter term, it's our form of government that's at stake.

At the moment, we have the luxury of being able to take votes on things like carbon emissions. But our process of debate, compromise, and backroom dealing leading up to yea or nay is going to seem downright quaint when the summer temperature in Indianapolis is routinely over 90 degrees and people are ordered to stay indoors because the air's not fit to breathe. If conditions impinging on our air, water and fuel supplies become more dire, political debate about what to do will likely give way to dictate stating what is permitted. We'll be told how cool or warm we can keep our houses and when and where we can drive. At first, these conditions might be implemented by high prices, allowing a privileged few the illusion that everything's ok. Eventually everyone will be affected.

The most steadfast naysayers regarding climate change often invoke freedom as a reason for trying to perpetuate a style of life based on the consumption of fossil fuels. It's a cartoon concept, equating abundance with waste, like the image of the plutocrat who lights his cigars with hundred dollar bills. What these people fail to appreciate is how quickly their notion of freedom could be flipped.

Bill McKibben is right: the planet's future is at stake. But our representative democracy is also being tested. If we are unwilling or incapable of crafting an effective response to climate change then, when the crisis is undeniable, other changes will be in store - and one of them could be our form of government.