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Facing the Challenge of Climate Change

What are the risks of inaction when it comes to climate change?

September 27, 2010

What are the risks of inaction when it comes to climate change?

If nine out of ten doctors said that we were running a fever and that we were passing it on to our kids, we surely would ask at least two questions: Can we treat it? How long do we have? The basic answer: We have about a decade to act before global warming reaches an irreversible and truly dangerous stage.

There is a precedent, of sorts, for this ethical imperative. My dad’s generation was the first to be able to destroy the entire planet. Not doing so has simply required us to not push the nuclear button. Still, that has not been a cost-free enterprise. The Cold War demanded dangerous diplomacy and vibrant domestic debate about how to structure our economy and even our political life.

From the interstate system to international trade to the Internet, we take for granted Cold War-era investments and innovations. There was also a political cost: The nation's social fabric was occasionally stretched and torn by McCarthyism and overseas proxy wars.

We persevered, ultimately, because the U.S. population united around some core ideas, including that global destruction was too grave to bear.

Previous conservatives have built ethical systems around these values. Edmund Burke saw society and civilization as a "partnership of generations, between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born." He saw members of any one generation as "temporary possessors and life-renters in" society and in the earth.

He feared that citizens might become "unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity," and therefore run the risk of "leav[ing] to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation."

Thomas Jefferson — a favorite of both Tea Partiers and progressives — made much the same point. Though he famously argued that "the earth belongs in usufruct [in effect, in trust] to the living," he went on to argue that "no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence."

Conservation is fundamentally a conservative value. I’m particularly cheered by the growing dialogue across religious faith traditions — from Orthodox and Catholic leaders, to Episcopalians and Evangelicals, to Jews and Muslims and Buddhists — that all embrace “creation care” as a common rallying cry and about turning the world back to our children.

Former House Speaker Richard Gephardt once described the effort of changing how the planet generates and consumes energy as "the single most difficult political transaction in the history of mankind."

Here is why. Energy accounts for one-sixth of the U.S. economy, roughly the same as health care. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said, "If we can pass health care, we can pass anything." But U.S. action alone is not enough.

Taking the politics of health care, one has to multiply those politics by the world's 192 nations. Do that all at the same time. That is what did not happen at the world climate talks in Copenhagen. The meeting turned from Hopenhagen to Nopenhagen.

U.S. leadership is not sufficient, but it is necessary. The United States alone is responsible for one-fifth of annual emissions — about six billion tons a year, just behind China. We must eventually cut our emissions by well more than half.

The United States has been by far the world's largest historic contributor of CO2. Developing countries such as China and India are far behind us in how much they have emitted historically, and only have a fraction of what we emit per capita. They won't act unless and until we do.

By mid-century, the United States probably needs to cut our emissions to about one billion tons a year if the planet has any chance of getting global emissions down to 15 billion.

In that context, how are we doing?

Many states and cities have made clean energy central to their strategic planning. Forty U.S. states have adopted climate change action plans. Cities from Seattle to Boston to Las Vegas are seeking to lower their carbon footprints by promoting energy efficiency, light rail and "smart metering."

Internationally, progress is being made as well. As I noted above, at Copenhagen the G-192 proved that the UN is not an effective place to negotiate. A small group of countries refused to block the unanimous consent required in the UN to embrace a new global deal.

But Copenhagen still marked real progress. For the first time, the heads of state of the most important nations of the world sat down and hammered out an agreement.

China, India and Brazil — one third of humanity — listed a set of emissions cuts that they were prepared to take, right alongside the United States, EU and Japan. And that general political agreement now has 100 national pledges. While it is short of a legally binding treaty, it is the outline of how the world is going to tackle this problem.

So the ethical challenge is unique. The political challenge is daunting. One thing that both have in common is that no outcomes are certain. That applies to science, as well as to economics and politics.

Editor's Note: This is Part I of a two-part excerpt from Bill Antholis' speech at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Clean Energy Forum on September 8, 2010. Part II will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.


By mid-century, the United States needs to cut emissions from six billion tons per year to about one billion tons a year.

Developing countries such as China and India are far behind in how much they have emitted historically. They won't act unless and until the United States does.

The effort of changing how the planet generates and consumes energy is "the single most difficult political transaction in the history of mankind."