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The Threat to the Planet

CFC appeared to be a marvelous inert chemical, one so useful as an aerosol propellant, fire suppressor, and refrigerant fluid that CFC production increased 10 percent per year for decades. If this business-as-usual growth of CFCs had continued just one more decade, the stratospheric ozone layer would have been severely depleted over the entire planet and CFCs themselves would have caused a larger greenhouse effect than CO2.

Instead, the press and television reported Rowland and Molina’s warning widely. The public, responding to the warnings of environmental groups, boycotted frivolous use of CFCs as propellants for hair spray and deodorant, and chose non-CFC products instead. The annual growth of CFC usage plummeted immediately from 10 percent to zero. Thus no new facilities to produce CFCs were built. The principal CFC manufacturer, after first questioning the scientific evidence, developed alternative chemicals. When the use of CFCs for refrigeration began to increase and a voluntary phaseout of CFCs for that purpose proved ineffective, the US and European governments took the lead in negotiating the Montreal Protocol to control the production of CFCs. Developing countries were allowed to increase the use of CFCs for a decade and they were given financial assistance to construct alternative chemical plants. The result is that the use of CFCs is now decreasing, the ozone layer was damaged but not destroyed, and it will soon be recovering.

Why are the same scientists and political forces that succeeded in controlling the threat to the ozone layer now failing miserably to deal with the global warming crisis? Though we depend on fossil fuels far more than we ever did on CFCs, there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet. The press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning global warming, give equal time to fringe “contrarians” supported by the fossil fuel industry. Special interest groups mount effective disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about the reality of global warming. The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership. The public is understandably confused or uninterested.

I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program “must” also include a “contrarian” who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers. Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require “balance” as a price for their continued financial support. Gore’s book reveals that while more than half of the recent newspaper articles on climate change have given equal weight to such contrarian views, virtually none of the scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals have questioned the consensus that emissions from human activities cause global warming. As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.

The executive and legislative branches of the US government seek excuses to justify their inaction. The President, despite conclusive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, welcomes contrary advice from Michael Crichton, a science fiction writer. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, describes global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and has used aggressive tactics, including a lawsuit to suppress a federally funded report on climate change, to threaten and intimidate scientists.

Policies favoring the short-term profits of energy companies and other special interests are cast by many politicians as being in the best economic interests of the country. They take no account of the mounting costs of environmental damage and of the future costs of maintaining the supply of fossil fuels. Leaders with a long-term vision would place greater value on developing more efficient energy technology and sources of clean energy. Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels, the government should provide incentives for fossil-fuel companies to develop other kinds of energy.

Who will pay for the tragic effects of a warming climate? Not the political leaders and business executives I have mentioned. If we pass the crucial point and tragedies caused by climate change begin to unfold, history will judge harshly the scientists, reporters, special interests, and politicians who failed to protect the planet. But our children will pay the consequences.

The US has heavy legal and moral responsibilities for what is now happening. Of all the CO2 emissions produced from fossil fuels so far, we are responsible for almost 30 percent, an amount much larger than that of the next-closest countries, China and Russia, each less than 8 percent. Yet our responsibility and liability may run higher than those numbers suggest. The US cannot validly claim to be ignorant of the consequences. When nations must abandon large parts of their land because of rising seas, what will our liability be? And will our children, as adults in the world, carry a burden of guilt, as Germans carried after World War II, however unfair inherited blame may be?

The responsibility of the US goes beyond its disproportionate share of the world’s emissions. By refusing to participate in the Kyoto Protocol, we delayed its implementation and weakened its effectiveness, thus undermining the attempt of the international community to slow down the emissions of developed countries in a way consistent with the alternative scenario. If the US had accepted the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been possible to reduce the growing emissions of China and India through the Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, by which the developed countries could offset their own continuing emissions by investing in projects to reduce emissions in the developing countries. This would have eased the way to later full participation by China and India, as occurred with the Montreal Protocol. The US was right to object to quotas in the Kyoto Protocol that were unfair to the US; but an appropriate response would have been to negotiate revised quotas, since US political and technology leadership are essential for dealing with climate change.

It is not too late. The US hesitated to enter other conflicts in which the future was at stake. But enter we did, earning gratitude in the end, not condemnation. Such an outcome is still feasible in the case of global warming, but just barely.

As explained above, we have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions. Our previous decade of inaction has made the task more difficult, since emissions in the developing world are accelerating. To achieve the alternative scenario will require prompt gains in energy efficiencies so that the supply of conventional fossil fuels can be sustained until advanced technologies can be developed. If instead we follow an energy-intensive path of squeezing liquid fuels from tar sands, shale oil, and heavy oil, and do so without capturing and sequestering CO2 emissions, climate disasters will become unavoidable.


When I recently met Larry King, he said, “Nobody cares about fifty years from now.” Maybe so. But climate change is already evident. And if we stay on the business-as-usual course, disastrous effects are no further from us than we are from the Elvis era. Is it possible for a single book on global warming to convince the public, as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did for the dangers of DDT? Bill McKibben’s excellent book The End of Nature is usually acknowledged as having been the most effective so far, but perhaps what is needed is a range of books dealing with different aspects of the global warming story.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes, based on a series of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, is illuminating and sobering, a good book to start with. The reader is introduced to some of the world’s leading climate researchers who explain the dangers in reasonably nontechnical language but without sacrificing scientific accuracy. The book includes fascinating accounts of how climate changes affected the planet in the past, and how such changes are occurring in different parts of the world right now. If Field Notes leaves the reader yearning for more experience in the field, I suggest Thin Ice by Mark Bowen, which captures the heroic work of Lonnie Thompson in extracting unique information on climate change from some of the most forbidding and spectacular places on the planet.1

Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers puts needed emphasis on the effects of human-made climate change on other life on the planet. Flannery is a remarkable scientist, having discovered and described dozens of mammals in New Guinea, yet he writes for a general audience with passion and clarity. He considers changes in climate that correspond to what I have defined as the business-as-usual and alternative scenarios. Flannery estimates that when we take account of other stresses on species imposed by human beings, the alternative scenario will lead to the eventual extinction of 20 percent of today’s species, while continuing with business-as-usual will cause 60 percent to become extinct. Some colleagues will object that he extrapolates from meager data, but estimates are needed and Flannery is as qualified as anyone to make them. Fossil records of mass extinctions support Flannery’s shocking estimate of the potential for climate change to extinguish life.

Flannery concludes, as I have, that we have only a short time to address global warming before it runs out of control. However, his call for people to reduce their CO2 emissions, while appropriate, oversimplifies and diverts attention from the essential requirement: government leadership. Without such leadership and comprehensive economic policies, conservation of energy by individuals merely reduces demands for fuel, thus lowering prices and ultimately promoting the wasteful use of energy. I was glad to see that in a recent article in these pages, he wrote that an effective fossil energy policy should include a tax on carbon emissions.2

A good energy policy, economists agree, is not difficult to define. Fuel taxes should encourage conservation, but with rebates to taxpayers so that the government revenue from the tax does not increase. The taxpayer can use his rebate to fill his gas-guzzler if he likes, but most people will eventually reduce their use of fuel in order to save money, and will spend the rebate on something else. With slow and continual increases of fuel cost, energy consumption will decline. The economy will not be harmed. Indeed, it will be improved since the trade deficit will be reduced; so will the need to protect US access to energy abroad by means of diplomatic and military action. US manufacturers would be forced to emphasize energy efficiency in order to make their products competitive internationally. Our automakers need not go bankrupt.

Would this approach result in fewer ultraheavy SUVs on the road? Probably. Would it slow the trend toward bigger houses with higher ceilings? Possibly. But experts say that because technology has sufficient potential to become more efficient, our quality of life need not decline. In order for this to happen, the price of energy should reflect its true cost to society.

Do we have politicians with the courage to explain to the public what is needed? Or may it be that such people are not electable, in view of the obstacles presented by television, campaign financing, and the opposition of energy companies and other special interests? That brings me to Al Gore’s book and movie of the same name: An Inconvenient Truth. Both are unconventional, based on a “slide show” that Gore has given more than one thousand times. They are filled with pictures—stunning illustrations, maps, graphs, brief explanations, and stories about people who have important parts in the global warming story or in Al Gore’s life. The movie seems to me powerful and the book complements it, adding useful explanations. It is hard to predict how this unusual presentation will be received by the public; but Gore has put together a coherent account of a complex topic that Americans desperately need to understand. The story is scientifically accurate and yet should be understandable to the public, a public that is less and less drawn to science.

The reader might assume that I have long been close to Gore, since I testified before his Senate committee in 1989 and participated in scientific “roundtable” discussions in his Senate office. In fact, Gore was displeased when I declined to provide him with images of increasing drought generated by a computer model of climate change. (I didn’t trust the model’s estimates of precipitation.) After Clinton and Gore were elected, I declined a suggestion from the White House to write a rebuttal to a New York Times Op-Ed article that played down global warming and criticized the Vice President. I did not hear from Gore for more than a decade, until January of this year, when he asked me to critically assess his slide show. When we met, he said that he “wanted to apologize,” but, without letting him explain what he was apologizing for, I said, “Your insight was better than mine.”

Indeed, Gore was prescient. For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes. By telling the story of climate change with striking clarity in both his book and movie, Al Gore may have done for global warming what Silent Spring did for pesticides. He will be attacked, but the public will have the information needed to distinguish our long-term well-being from short-term special interests.

An Inconvenient Truth is about Gore himself as well as global warming. It shows the man that I met in the 1980s at scientific roundtable discussions, passionate and knowledgeable, true to the message he has delivered for years. It makes one wonder whether the American public has not been deceived by the distorted images of him that have been presented by the press and television. Perhaps the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it.


The Threat to the Planet’: An Exchange September 21, 2006

  1. 1

    Henry Holt, 2005. See the review by Bill McKibben, “The Coming Meltdown,” The New York Review, January 12, 2006.

  2. 2

    See “The Ominous New Pact,” The New York Review, February 23, 2006.

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