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How We Break 25 Years of Stalemate on Climate Change

We have the tools. We have the talent. Here's how we get the politicians to listen up and do something.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A hundred thousand or more are expected to gather in New York on Sunday for what should certainly be the largest climate-change demonstration in the planet’s history. Two days later, the United Nations will launch yet another, likely fruitless, climate summit. These come about a quarter-century into the global-warming era and so offer a good moment to reflect on the most significant changes to the planet that human civilization has yet witnessed, what has been done to stop this catastrophe, and what we might hope for next. 

For me that time frame is personal: I published The End of Nature, generally regarded as the first book for a lay audience on climate change, 25 years ago this month. It came a year after NASA scientist James Hansen’s groundbreaking Congressional testimony outlining our peril, and a year before the Rio Earth Summit, the first big global conference where climate change was a central topic.

Climate change moves just slowly enough that we don’t perceive it on a daily basis, but over two-and-a-half decades this global drama shows up in sharp relief. We know now, for instance, that even small increases in temperature can cause huge shifts. A quarter century ago we understood the basics: burn coal, oil and gas and you release carbon dioxide, which traps heat. But we wouldn’t have guessed that raising the temperature one degree would be enough to melt most of the Arctic’s summer sea ice, or, as we learned this spring, kick off the "irrevocable" melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

We know now, as we didn’t then, that these changes can cause remarkable shifts in weather patterns. It’s not just scientists warning us; the world’s biggest insurance companies have sounded the alarm about extreme events, too. Here in the northeast United States, gully-washing rains have increased 71 percent; in the West, the current California drought has evaporated 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, enough weight that the Sierras are literally lifting skyward.

And we know now that there are nasty surprises waiting for us wherever we look. A quarter-century ago, for example, no one had even thought to measure the pH of seawater on an ongoing basis, because the oceans seemed too large to be affected. We now understand that saltwater absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, steadily acidifying the seas. On an ocean planet, that should terrify us.

We guessed, back then, that climate change would eventually be destabilizing to human societies, but no one could have predicted how quickly. As a series of academic papers have made clear, ceaseless droughts helped undergird the civil wars in Syria and Sudan. By now it’s not surprising to see, say, the head of U.S. forces in the Pacific insisting that climate change poses the greatest security risk we face.

These are not the only hard lessons of the last 25 years, though. We also know now that our political systems are neither as rational or responsive as we’d have hoped. Held in the thrall of fossil-fuel money, they’ve failed to take meaningful action.

The collapse of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 was a signal event in diplomatic history, calling into question the ability of our societies to act cooperatively in the face of clear scientific warnings. There is no prospect of anything much happening next week at the climate summit, either. As Mark Bittman memorably put it in the New York Times: "The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions."

But we’ve learned a few good things too. In the handful of countries that have taken the threat seriously, technical progress has been unimaginably swift. For example, there were days this year when Germany generated three quarters of its power from renewable sources. This wasn’t done without cost or without strain, but it shows that political will, not engineering prowess, is the limiting factor to our progress. 

And as we learned this week from an international panel of economists chaired by Felipe Calderon of Mexico, the whole world could emulate Germany with no cost. It’s not technology holding us back, it’s political will. 

The good news is that political will is something we can create. But only if we march.

In fact, all these lessons have combined to teach us that if we have any hope of holding off catastrophe, it will require building a global movement big enough to push our leaders to move much, much faster. That movement has finally begun to gather: more than 1,300 groups will sponsor the march in New York on Sunday, demonstrating the broad diversity of this effort, with leadership from the communities hardest hit by climate change, from faith communities, from trade unions, from young people.

It’s a race. The scientists have told us that the one degree we’ve already raised the temperature will, on the current trajectory, become four or five degrees before the century is out, threatening our very civilizations. So we desperately need to change that trajectory.

God knows if that’s still possible. We’ve waited very long to get started. But without knowing if we can win, we’ve got to fight. The past quarter-century should have taught us that at least. The march this weekend marks the start of the next quarter-century. It’s going to be a hot one in every way.

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