The Green in the Machine

March 4, 2010 Topics: EnvironmentGlobal CommonsGlobal Governance Regions: Americas Tags: Undefined

The Green in the Machine

Mini Teaser: As the debate over global warming gets vicious yet again, climate expert David Victor explains the real unknowns and real solutions.

by Author(s): David G. Victor

Alun Anderson, After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in the New Arctic (New York: Smithsonian, 2009), 304 pp., $26.99.

Richard Ellis, On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 416 pp., $28.95.

Charles Emmerson, The Future History of the Arctic (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010), 448 pp., $28.95.

Matthew Glass, Ultimatum (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009), 400 pp., $24.00.

Al Gore, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 2009), 416 pp., $26.99.

Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010), 272 pp., $24.00.

Steven Solomon, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 608 pp., $27.99.


POLITICALLY, PRETTY much everything about global climate change conspires .to let governments sit on their hands. The scariest dangers mostly live in the distant future where they are easier to ignore, but the costs of policies that would eventually lessen warming are immediate. International coordination is essential but hard to orchestrate. The countries that are most vulnerable to climate change and most inspired to stop global warming are also generally the poorest and the least responsible for the problem in the first place. They can't, on their own, make much of a difference anyway. Those with rapidly increasing emissions, like China, are largely preoccupied with priorities like economic growth rather than diffuse global problems. The United States, the largest single polluter in history, is stuck in congressional gridlock. And a few countries-Russia, notably-even think climate change could lead to a host of positives such as longer growing seasons for crops, a richer cut of timber and lower heating bills. With nations coming at the problem from differing positions, crafting serious international cooperation has been nearly impossible.

Getting a good handle on the impacts of climate change has been hard because there are no crisp answers. Global warming is a game of roulette. Spin the wheel once, and the outcome could be rosy. Spin again, and it may be ugly. Wait a decade or two while even more warming gases accumulate in the atmosphere and the results become all the harder to predict. Even as the science races ahead, experts are discovering further ways the climate will change that they don't yet understand. New facts keep appearing to suggest that the environment gamble is full of outcomes even worse than originally thought. Polar ice is melting quickly and ecosystems are shifting in scary ways. Beyond warming, all of the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere is also acidifying the oceans, which will make it harder for normal aquatic life to thrive. The case for action is getting clearer even as much of what lurks in a warmer world is still unknown.

A long shelf of new books has been coming into print with the goal of helping general audiences make sense of what's happening. Nearly every one of these offerings sees global climate change as a dark cloud on the horizon that will stress societies and ecosystems and cause general mayhem. Compared with a decade ago, a surprisingly large number see climate change as a challenge so great that it will force humans to rethink their relationship with nature and to redesign industrial society so it leaves a much-smaller footprint on the planet. Such books-like most policy advocacy aligned with being "green"-espouse small, rural, locally oriented, "progressive" solutions. But better answers to the world's gravest environmental troubles actually lead to big projects-often under central coordination by strong and capable states. Global warming has focused attention on this odd juxtaposition, which is one that both the true believers and the skeptics will have to get used to.


[amazon 0805090568 full] FOR JOURNALIST Bill McKibben in his superbly written book Eaarth, danger is everywhere. The oddly misspelled title reflects McKibben's claim that a new name is needed for a planet that humans have so thoroughly transformed. McKibben is at his best when offering an elegant tour of what is already going wrong and likely to get even worse. Dry areas around the world will probably get even drier; wet areas, even wetter. Storms will strengthen. And nature may be the hardest hit because, unlike humans, it can't anticipate and adjust easily to the new temperatures, rainfall, cloudiness and other elements that come along with global warming. Most of McKibben's survey of dangerous changing climates is set in his native Vermont, where rising temperatures mean more troubles with river flooding, ending up in break-the-bank investments to move roads and build new infrastructure.

Compared with the preindustrial era, the average temperature of the planet has already risen by nearly 1 degree centigrade. Another few tenths of a degree will appear as the climate system catches up with all the heat that has already built up from the accumulation of warming gases. In Copenhagen last December, as in many other global forums, the world's biggest countries signed a pledge to limit temperature increases to just 2 degrees. Adding up the actual policies that those same governments claim they are implementing puts the planet on a path for perhaps a 4 degree increase by 2100, with even higher temperatures later. Already, aspirations and actions are headed in opposite directions, but just how much warming can the world take?

McKibben is a ringleader in the movement to stop warming at 1.5 degrees. With that goal in mind, which would require deep and immediate cuts in emissions, Eaarth is a manifesto for radical measures. New technologies alone won't be enough. People must learn to do with less, and they must become more self-sufficient so they tread more lightly, carefully and gracefully on the planet. Local, organic foods should be prized over industrial agriculture. Decentralized power should be favored, McKibben says, because central power stations are what got us into this mess in the first place. (He is particularly angry about coal, and thinks that none of the alternatives-such as large clean-coal plants or new nuclear plants that cause no emissions-are economic.) Vermont, which is in the throes of a back-to-nature movement, is a model for what can be done.

The standard critique of such advice is that it is politically naive to expect people to change quickly, especially when less-is-more strategies mean lower standards of living for most of us. Indeed, all the trends in industrial growth point in the opposite direction. McKibben never offers a vision for how real political systems might deliver the policies he wants, and tiny Vermont is rarely the nation's guiding star. But there should be room for big, naive ideas when the planet faces a crisis that may require totally new thinking.

The real trouble with McKibben's advice is that he never carefully checks to see whether his model lifestyle will stop temperatures from rising. Some of what he proposes, such as eating less meat, does make sense in a warming world. Getting calories from beef is about one-third as efficient as getting them from plants directly. A diet based on lots of cows means more land use and more processing-and that leads to more emissions. Worse, both ends of the bovine beast vent lots of methane, which is a strong warming gas. But buying local and organic foods-a good idea for taste reasons and possibly also health-has little impact on global warming in reality. Some studies suggest that buying locally grown, organic foods actually increases emissions by causing more car trips to the market. McKibben likes the rural life, though most evidence suggests that dense urban living is a lot more efficient. A clean, green future may look more like Shanghai than Middlebury.

Conspiracy theorists see McKibben's sort of advice as evidence that the Far Left wants to use global warming as a strategy to advance a broader social agenda, and it is hard to calm this thinking. Going green is more than just a strategy for protecting vegetation; it is a way of life. If becoming environmentally friendly is the goal, then individual lifestyle choices that are hard to regulate and often costly to alter won't be the overarching solution to climate change. "The Man," as it were, must be summoned.


ONE OF the most worrisome effects for humans of rising temperatures certainly will be their impact on water. Already most countries do a terrible job of managing their scarce water resources. A thoughtful new book by Steven Solomon argues that over the course of history, the management of four "water challenges" has determined the success and failure of civilizations. He offers a way to think about how societies will fare in dealing with new hydraulic stresses, many of which will accompany a changing climate.

First, Solomon contends that the earliest civilizations thrived because they found ways to squeeze extra benefits from the successful management of water supplies for agriculture. That meant taming and channeling rivers as in ancient Egypt or the modern American West. Those extra benefits took the form of economic growth and larger, more capable governments. Managed well, benefits begat benefits and the state grew. Second is naval power, which successful civilizations used to turn a barrier against travel (the ocean) into a means of efficient transport and force projection. Third is water power, which was the first prime mover for the industrial revolution until steam engines appeared on the scene. And fourth is sanitation and drinking water, which have been particularly large challenges for modern cities, where dense living is a liability unless fresh water can be piped in and sewage disposed of.

Essay Types: Book Review