It's summer, and a searing drought is shriveling corn fields in the Midwest. Meanwhile torrential rains (the worst in 60 years) have killed several dozen people in Beijing. Sea ice continues to shrink in the arctic -- the decline in June was the largest in the satellite record -- creating new sea areas for the Coast Guard to patrol. Welcome to climate change 2012.
But how serious is the problem? How worried should you be? I don't know, because I'm neither an atmospheric physicist, environmental economist, nor specialist in global institutions designed to address collective goods (or negative externalities). Nonetheless, I do try to stay informed on this issue, and I occasionally use the case of climate change to illustrate certain features of international politics to my students. And what makes it frustrating for a layperson like me is the range of opinion one can find even among well-informed journalists.
Case in point: two prominent articles on this topic appeared this past week, reaching sharply contrasting conclusions. The first article, by science writer/environmental journalist Bill McKibben, presents a deeply worrisome picture of the planet's future. According to McKibben, it's all in the math. There is now a strong scientific consensus that human beings can only put another 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere without causing average atmospheric temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius. (Two degrees was the agreed-upon target figure at the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen, though many climate scientists think even that level of increase would be very harmful.)
Unfortunately, a recent inventory of current oil and gas reserves showed that they contain enough carbon to release roughly 2,795 gigatons of CO2, if it is all brought to the surface and burned. That's about five times the upper limit identified above. The problem, of course, is that the companies that own these reserves will want to pump the oil and gas out and sell it -- that's the business they're in -- even though spewing that much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would be disastrous. In the absence of effective government action to discourage consumption (i.e., by taxing carbon to raise the price and diminish consumption) we're in deep trouble.
The second article, from yesterday's New York Times, offers a cheerier view. In the words of business reporter David Leonhardt, "behind the scenes. . .a somewhat different story is starting to emerge -- one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet." He describes how investments in clean energy are reducing the price of solar and wind power and how shifts from coal to natural gas (which is less carbon-intensive) for electricity generation have accelerated. And he dangles that hope that government-sponsored R and D will eventually create "disruptive technologies" that "can power the economy without heating the planet."
To be sure, these two articles aren't totally at odds. Leonhardt acknowledges that we have a long way to go, and that many experts believe that you need a combination of regulation to raise the price of carbon along with further reductions in the cost of alternative energy sources. Similarly, McKibben's account accepts that there is probably still time for effective political action to address this situation (Indeed, his whole article is clearly intended as a clarion call for greater activism).
As is so often the case, the issue boils down to politics. And that's why I'm pessimistic, because I can't think of any issue where the barriers to effective political action are so great. First of all, you have an array of special interests with little or no interest in allowing the government to interfere with their ability to make money in the short-term (see under: Koch Brothers). Second, you have a political system in the United States (the world's second largest greenhouse gas producer) that is unusually open to lobbying and other forms of political interference. Third, climate change is a classic example of an intergenerational equity problem: it's hard to get people to make sacrifices today (i.e., in the form of higher energy prices, less comfortable houses and offices, more expensive travel, etc.) for the sake of people who haven't even been conceived yet. That same principle applies to politicians too: Why should they jeopardize their re-election prospects for the sake of voters who won't be around until they are long gone? Fourth, there's also a thorny equity issue between advanced industrial countries like the United States (whose economies were developed before anyone knew about climate change) and emerging economies like China or India that don't want to slow their economic growth by reducing greenhouse gas emissions today. Even if there is a rapidly growing consensus on the need to do something soon, everybody wants somebody else pay most of the price or bear most of the burdens.
For all these reasons, the well-publicized effort to devise an effective global solution to the problem of human-induced climate change has largely failed thus far. It's possible that some new disruptive technology will swoop in and solve the problem for us, or maybe some of the intriguing proposals for "geo-engineering" the planet may prove workable and effective.
Maybe, but such hopes remind me of this old cartoon. If we're going to need a miracle (whether political or technological) we're going to have to be more explicit about what happens in step two.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.