Forget the Middle East…

Had the interesting experience last week of being interviewed by a good journalist (and friend) named Nomi Morris, formerly a bureau chief in Jerusalem for Knight-Ridder, and in Berlin for Time. Somehow she was able to get accurate and telling quotes out of me with just a few scrawls on a notebook. I’m envious, Nomi!

She writes a column for the Santa-Barbara News-Press. I’d link to it, but they’ve put up a firewall for all but subscribers, so it wouldn’t do you much good. It’s posted below the fold: Please read!

Here’s a taste:

A new survey in the National Journal showed that only 23 percent of Republicans in Congress believe humans are causing global warming. But Time’s poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe the mainstream science and want controls enacted. This means that by 2008, whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, environmental policy will change. 

That’s in part a reference to this study, brought up by Roger Pielke, Jr at Prometheus.

Also in the piece is a glancing reference to an important story in The Washington Monthly called "The  Emerging Environmental Majority." The piece says that the reason a bill designed to sell off public lands brought forward in the present-giving season last year by Richard Pombo and his slimy cohorts failed was that duck hunters and other "hook and bullet" users of the wilderness no longer disliked environmentalists as much as they feared far-right anti-environmental zealots. True, I think, and I hope Christina Larson is right when she argues that global warming will provide a new working consensus for the movement…although to write a brief history of the environmental movement and not mention John Muir and his inspiring presence? Mystifying.

Hinted at but not discussed in Nomi’s piece is the aspect of climate change that is most alarming and least understood: The possibility of big climactic swings. Here’s a good discussion from earlier this month in Scientific American. As the piece mentions at one point, "a conservative interpretation of the data [from the Cretaceous period] is worrisome enough," and adds:

In short, CO2 seems to pack a bigger punch than expected, perhaps because the warming becomes self-reinforcing.

Forget the Middle East.

The most urgent international issue facing Americans, as we celebrate Earth Day this weekend, is global warming. Finally — and justifiably — it is gaining traction as a top-tier news story and political concern. Time magazine dedicated a special issue to the topic, headlined: "Be worried. Be very worried." Vanity Fair’s current cover posed an elfin Julia Roberts and a worried George Clooney together with Robert Kennedy Jr. and Al Gore, all of them air-brushed green. "A threat graver than terrorism" blared its headline. In Santa Barbara last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned 450 business leaders that "the clock is ticking on global warming."

Although we’ve been hearing about the greenhouse effect for 25 years, the focus on climate change has sharpened recently. This is in part because ordinarily cautious scientists have ratcheted up the alarm meter since last summer, stating that the ill effects are already happening — and at a quicker pace than they previously believed. At the same time, shocking images from Hurricane Katrina and our lack of preparedness hit home for many of us.

Add to that the impending release of "An Inconvenient Truth," a well-reviewed documentary on Al Gore’s quiet campaign for action, along with three weighty books on the subject: Australian author Tim Flannery’s "The Weather Makers," Elizabeth Kolbert’s "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" and former Time science writer Eugene Linden’s "The Winds of Change." Suddenly the global warming crisis — and potential remedies — are being described in terms we can grasp.

The term "global warming" refers to carbon dioxide and other gases raising the Earth’s temperature to the point where it melts polar ice and upsets our planet’s natural balance. The greenhouse effect has grown alarmingly since industrialization stepped up the burning of fossil fuels more than 150 years ago. In that brief span, mankind has returned to the atmosphere the amount of carbon dioxide that it took the Earth’s flora 500,000 years to extract. Almost daily, there is a new report alerting us to odd weather patterns and the extinction of animal and insect species that can be linked to this trend.

Walrus pups are found dead in the Arctic because their mothers can’t make it to the next ice patch to give them food. Polar bears are drowning and could be wiped out by the year 2060. There will be no glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park by 2030. If Greenland’s ice sheet continues to melt at an accelerated rate, most of Florida, Boston and Manhattan could be underwater within our grandchildren’s lifetimes. In this decade, Jet Stream changes could cause what leading climatologist James Hansen calls a "Super El Niño" that would make the biblical rains that Southern California experienced in 2005 seem like a spring shower.

In China, glaciers feeding the Yellow River, which has been called the "cradle of civilization," have shrunk 17 percent over 30 years. Europe is cooling and a further weakening of the Gulf Stream could put it into a deep freeze. Last month, Cyclone Larry hit Australia at speeds of 180 mph, raising fears that it, too, was a link in the chain.

It all sounds very scary — because it is. The crux of the current "debate" is that the debate itself is over. There is scientific consensus on global warming and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We know the climate is changing. What we don’t know is how catastrophic it will be," said Kit Stolz of Ojai, who collects some of the most salient writings on the topic on his eclectic Web site, A Change in the Wind (www.achangeinthewind.com).

Skeptics — including many in the Bush administration — have set back management of the threat by perhaps 15 years. Mr. Gore compares federal dithering to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler prior to World War II. Others draw parallels to the tobacco industry’s stubborn efforts to dispute scientific evidence. Unfortunately, many who consider themselves economic conservatives reflexively resist information they associate with liberal environmentalists.

But this is no partisan issue. It is an existential threat that many businesses, churches, hunters, branches of the Republican Party — and even Fox TV — have begun to heed. A new survey in the National Journal showed that only 23 percent of Republicans in Congress believe humans are causing global warming. But Time’s poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe the mainstream science and want controls enacted. This means that by 2008, whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, environmental policy will change.

It has to. The United States is responsible for nearly 25 percent of global emissions. It has so far rejected the 163-country Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to lower emissions to below 1990 levels. But Kyoto or no Kyoto, concerned citizens are no longer waiting for federal leadership. The mayors of Chicago and Miami, as well as Santa Barbara’s Marty Blum, are among 224 mayors representing 40 million Americans who are enacting plans to lower output of offending gases. It isn’t just about preserving the fuzzy polar bear.

On the geopolitical level, climatic events will stoke regional tensions that already worry us — including the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. Weather conditions affect food and water supplies. Coastal flooding affects population movements. How that all affects conflict between ethnic groups and nations will determine issues of war and peace from the second half of this century onward.

A key point will be whether Western countries help China and India adopt "carbon-catching" technologies to harness their exploding demand for coal and other fossil fuels in a way that will make their quickly developing economies part of the solution rather than the problem.

On the local level, we can applaud ourselves just a little — and not just because there are 140 booths at today’s South Coast Earth Day Festival. California produced Patagonia and many other pioneers in the field of green business practices. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is among the more progressive politicians on the issue. And what happens in California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is extremely influential.

"If California wants a certain kind of car, Detroit will make it," says Mr. Stolz, who recently purchased a hybrid. He says that those who wish to take individual action should look at their household consumption of power: your car, your electricity and your heat. Ethanol-powered engines and other new technologies are on the way. But curtailing energy use or switching to "green" power is something most of us can do now.

For those who doubt we can alter the nation’s business model, Mr. Stolz points to three inspiring examples that show it can be done. In the 1980s, caps on sulphur dioxide emissions sharply reduced acid rain, allowing East Coast lakes to recover their health. When scientists warned about the hole in the ozone layer, we phased out much of our Styrofoam and aerosol use. And in 2000, Californians managed quickly to cut electricity use by 11 percent when utility deregulation threw the state into crisis.

Research shows that cost-conscious consumers and corporations are adaptable. DuPont Chemicals, for one, is way ahead of the White House, pledging to reduce its emissions to 65 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010.

A writer and outdoorsman, Mr. Stolz refers to the world we know as "our wonderful climate." Global conditions over the last 11,000 years, he told me, have nurtured life and beauty more than any time in the past 250 million years. Until recently, I was noddingly aware of global warming, but was content to let other good people deal with it.

Those days are over.

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