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?

Essay Types: Book Review