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

The future may also lie heavily with fossil fuels. Natural gas is the big wild card in the energy system because it is the cleanest and most flexible fossil fuel, and new technologies are making it economically viable to produce massive supplies of the resource that were previously beyond reach. If gas supplies can scale up rapidly then it, by far, would be the cheapest transition to a lower-emissions future. The numbers are staggering. Switching nearly all of the coal-fired power plants in the United States to natural gas would lift total U.S. demand for this resource by half. Beyond fossil fuels, getting serious about cutting emissions will also probably require many new, large, nuclear-power stations.


GLOBAL CLIMATE change is the result of a long chain of causes and effects, and each link carries a dose of uncertainty. Industrial societies pump warming gases into the atmosphere. As they build up-at a rate that is hard to forecast because the processes that cleanse the atmosphere are not known with much surety-some level of warming follows. With all that warming comes other changes, such as new amounts of rainfall and different storm patterns. And that, in turn, affects things like ecosystems and water supplies that humans ultimately care about. As the chain of causes and effects lengthens, the uncertainties multiply.

One of the oddest things in the public debate about warming is that the so-called skeptics have mostly leveled their attacks on the first links of the cause-and-effect chain, where the science is already about as airtight as it can get. The safest bet in climate science is that warming gases are rising and global temperatures are responding largely as expected. (Another odd thing is that "skeptic" has become a pejorative term when, in fact, science thrives on skepticism.) But the doubters are barking up the wrong tree. The uncertainties and the unknown unknowns are much bigger farther down the chain.

These days, the most dire news is coming from the world's icy regions. In Antarctica, massive ice shelves are calving into the sea, and as that ice melts, the much-larger quantities sitting atop the continent will slide more quickly into the oceans and raise sea levels. (The same process of melting and sliding now seems to be fully under way in Greenland. Together, these areas hold most of the world's frozen water.) These places matter because they are highly sensitive to temperature change, which makes them an early warning sign. They are also pivotal to feedback loops that are likely to amplify warming in nasty ways. Because ice is white, it reflects most incoming sunlight back to space; higher temperatures leave behind darker surfaces, such as oceans, that absorb solar heating more readily and beget still more warming.

The exact events that would unfold this far along the chain are hard to pin down. Uncertainties in how ice sheets will respond to changing temperatures, for example, yield a wide range of possible fluctuations in sea level. Over the next century, the seas may rise just a foot, which many coastal societies could probably tolerate, or perhaps up to six feet, which would be difficult for even the richest and most capable countries to handle. It has proven very difficult to narrow the forecast because the closer scientists probe, the more new unknowns they discover.

A troika of new books on the Arctic make the area more accessible to readers, many of whom are flocking to the region as tourists. The tiny Canadian outpost of Churchill has become the polar-bear tourism capital of the world. Visits to the North Pole, which a century earlier required sled dogs and a hubristic willingness to risk death, are now common. The Northwest Passage, open during summer months for a few ships in recent years, is now ferrying tourists, and will probably soon reliably host large numbers of cargo ships keen to shorten the travel time between Europe and Asia. People often gather to witness an endgame-much of what they are seeing in the icy Arctic may soon disappear.

The polar bear is poised to become a prime mover of climate politics, just as "charismatic megafauna" have driven so many other ecological policies. In a bold move, in 2008 the United States deemed the bear a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act-a first step that could lead to protective regulations in the future. The chief cause for this listing was a steep decline in Arctic ice. Less ice means fewer platforms for the bears to hunt their main prey-seals.

[amazon 0307270599 full] These new books focus a lot on the bears. Richard Ellis, a perennial visitor to the region, offers On Thin Ice-a chatty and thoughtful but disjointed diary of bears throughout history. Alun Anderson's After the Ice looks at the broader impact of warming on the region's geopolitics and environment, though the book takes on so many themes it never really gains traction. Charles Emmerson's The Future History of the Arctic has the strongest narrative of the three because his is most firmly grounded in a knowledge of the region's past. Anderson and Emmerson both struggle with the question of whether a warming world will also open the Artic's vast reserves of oil and especially natural gas. In Emmerson's view, a model for exploiting the region is Norway, which already taps similar resources while setting the world standard for ecological stewardship. Norway's success rests on a strong, well-run government directing a highly competent, state-owned oil company to tread lightly while producing ever-more hydrocarbons at lower cost.

[amazon 0061579076 full] In the Arctic, the odds of very nasty outcomes are high. This should compel even-swifter regulation by governments, not a universal head-in-the-sand stance. And all the uncertainties compel even-stricter action as a precaution against horrible outcomes. This will require coordination by governments. Pollution comes from a world economy; effects of regulation are not concentrated within any single nation. Only by working in concert will countries begin to dampen their concern that onerous regulations at home will push industry and jobs to other dirtier locales.


[amazon 1586486365 full] A FULL-BLOWN system for international cooperation will take many decades to build. Today, the key question is how to get started. The answer hinges on two countries: America and China. As the Copenhagen conference made clear, the Chinese have been wary about costly international obligations that could derail their economic miracle, and they fear the external inspection and enforcement that would accompany any serious plan. The United States, which has the highest per capita emissions of any major economy, still has no serious federal policy, even though warming has been on the agenda for at least twenty-two years (since the summer of 1988, when high-profile congressional hearings originally concentrated national attention). A modest first step, the Waxman-Markey bill which passed in the House last June, included a strict warning that nothing much would be done in America unless other countries, notably China, implemented similar policies. Just to make sure that point was clear, the bill also included a form of trade sanctions that could bludgeon other nations into compliance. And President Obama's left-leaning coalition includes trade unions whose members fear job losses from changes in climate policy and support limits on emissions only if the economic playing field is leveled with the Chinese.

[amazon 0802118887 full] The most insightful look at how this relationship might unfold isn't in the nonfiction section of the bookstore. It is a novel-Matthew Glass's Ultimatum, which appears in paperback this spring. The curtain rises on this fast-paced climate thriller with the election of the forty-eighth president of the United States after a campaign based on straight talk about the need for a massive relocation plan. Sea levels are rising and millions of Americans need help moving to higher ground. But shortly before taking office, the green president gets a secret briefing from a government agency that has early, accurate evidence that the seas are rising even faster than expected. More relocation will be needed; efforts to cut emissions must be redoubled. (The Kyoto talks, which by then have reached round four, are bogged down, as in Copenhagen, by squabbling and a string of unfulfilled promises.) With that briefing, his whole presidency is rewired to focus on a bigger relocation effort and on forcing China to do its part in emission control.

Glass has quick prose and clever insights into the making of a presidency. He adds smart color through his attention to speechmaking and White House intrigue. This book isn't Primary Colors, perhaps the best novel on American politics in the last couple of decades, but it is a terrific and fast-moving story that never loses focus or pace.

Glass is at his best when grappling with global warming's two central geopolitical challenges. First, what's the best strategy for getting cooperation? The new president campaigned on support for the Kyoto process, but he knows the UN-sponsored talk shop doesn't deliver results. All the top EU leaders are unified behind Kyoto, but they too know it is a dead end. The UN secretary-general is a pathetic figure who must be placated and also demands that Kyoto keep its monopoly on global-warming diplomacy. Universal multilateralism becomes a death march, and the new president struggles to craft a secret deal with China while pretending to favor Kyoto, because the political costs of anything anti-Kyoto are too painful. For Glass, the only route to broader multilateral solutions wisely starts small-initially with just the top two polluters. Yet the new president's failure to engage other key players-notably in Europe, Japan and Russia-makes it hard to convince the Chinese that serious cooperation is essential. Neither hypermultilateralism nor pure bilateralism can save the day.

Essay Types: Book Review