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Climate Change as Number One?

How are the other big issues of the day tied to global climate change?

December 1, 2005

How are the other big issues of the day tied to global climate change?

It is hard to get people focused on climate change today, not only because it has been misrepresented as a future problem — but because there is so much competition from other problems.

We are under attack from terrorists. We are apprehensive about the aftermath of the war with Iraq. The recent period of economic stagnation has stunned us with the realization that the global economy is just as vulnerable to abrupt and unpredictable shocks as the nation's electricity grid.

The press has stubbornly refused to accord this story the attention and energy it requires. So it is worth repeating that climate change is not just another issue in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It is the issue that, unchecked, will swamp all other issues.

Conversely, the solution to the climate crisis may well contain the seeds for solutions to some of the most threatening problems facing humanity today. The solutions to climate change have the potential to begin to mend a profoundly fractured world.

Take, for example, our newfound vulnerability to terrorism. The most obvious connection is that the solution to the climate crisis — a worldwide transition to renewable energy — would dramatically reduce the significance of oil, and with it our exposure to the political volatility in the Middle East.

A second connection is that a renewable-energy economy would have far more independent sources of power — home-based fuel cells, stand-alone solar systems, regional wind farms — which would make the nation's electricity grid a far less strategic target for future guerrilla attacks.

Even absent terrorism, the vulnerability of large grid-based systems was underscored by the blackout of much of the northeastern United States in the summer of 2003.

That power outage, whose reach exceeded a similar blackout in 1977, was the fourth such failure in the last decade, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.

More relevant to our security is the fact that poor countries are much more immediately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The continuing indifference by the United States to atmospheric warming — since this country generates one-fourth of the world's emissions with 5% of its people — will almost guarantee more anti-U.S. attacks from people whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose populations are afflicted by epidemics of infectious disease and whose borders are overrun by environmental refugees.

The real truth about terrorism is that, aside from hardening specific targets like airports and nuclear plants, there is no way to protect any complex organized society from guerrilla attacks. In the long run, what is really required is a major change in our posture toward developing countries.

Just as runaway carbon concentrations are threatening to destabilize the global climate, runaway economic inequality can only continue to destabilize our global political environment.

The prevailing view of developing countries as economic competitors reflects a near-mystical, almost fundamentalist, belief in the divinity of free markets — and an equivalent hypocrisy about the unacknowledged political control that industrial nations exert over those markets.

Stepping back, it is worth repeating that the real economic issue in rewiring the globe with clean energy is not cost. The real economic issue is whether the world has a big enough labor force to accomplish the task in time to meet nature's deadline.
A properly funded global transition to clean energy would create millions of jobs in poor countries and substantially raise living standards in the developing world.

It is an article of faith among development economists that energy investments in poor countries create far more wealth and jobs than investments in any other sector.

Were the United States to spearhead a wholesale transfer of clean energy to developing countries, that would do more than anything else in the long term to address the economic desperation that underlies anti-U.S. sentiment.

Were the nations of the world to come together around the climate crisis, it could also set the tone for a new set of international relationships.

The meltdown of the planet can not be reversed by unilateral policies or exclusive alliances. The global climate does not respect national boundaries or international coalitions. The climate crisis pits us all against the gathering fury of nature.

There is a central conundrum embedded in these solutions — how to expand the overall wealth in the global economy without destroying the physical environment on which it depends.

If the United States were to lead the world in a global partnership of this scale, it could lay the foundations for a new era of history. The United States could regain its position of leadership — not through its military power — but through its nurture and support of the rest of the world.

The payback would take the form of an expansion in trade and commerce, as well as a resurrection of moral leadership and international goodwill.

Adapted from the book, “Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis – and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster” by Ross Gelbspan. Copyright © 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with BasicBooks, a member of the Perseus Books Group ( All rights reserved.