With every passing month, it gets harder to see the United States's refusal to address the problem of global warming as anything other than craven prostitution to the fossil fuel industry, a betrayal of future generations, and a suicidal commitment to the status quo. The most recent affront came at last month's international talks on climate change in Montreal. Shortly after midnight on December 9, as delegates were hashing out ideas on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. -- joined by China, the world's other largest polluter -- threatened to pick up its toys and go home. A few changes in wording kept the American delegates on site, but the damage was done, and nothing came of the conference.
Adding insult to injury, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli offered this defense of the American position, almost surreal in its disingenuousness:
"If you want to talk about global consciousness, I'd say there's one country that is focused on action, that is focused on dialogue, that is focused on cooperation, and that is focused on helping the developing world, and that's the United States."
Ereli's comments bring to mind Emerson's acid criticism of Senator Daniel Webster, who compromised his principles by helping to draft the grand 1850 compromise on slavery. "The word 'liberty' in the mouth of Mr. Webster," Emerson said, "sounds like the word 'love' in the mouth of a courtesan." Change "liberty" to "global consciousness" and Webster to Ereli, and the criticism holds.
For the distressing facts are as follows. In the past five years, the United States has stymied every reasonable effort to curb greenhouse gases; has shortchanged R&D in alternative energies and green technologies; has loosened or refused to enforce regulations on the coal and oil industries; has refused to cooperate with other advanced nations on global warming or energy policy; has refused to put forward alternative ideas to Kyoto as promised; has refused, in fact, to put forward any ideas at all; has cancelled the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which would have provided crucial information about planetary weather; has refused to call for even the slightest increase in emissions standards; and has refused to encourage responsible living but rather dismissed environmentalism as a mere "sign of personal virtue."
The year 2001, when the forces of anti-environmentalism came to Washington, may be remembered as a turning point in global history, a moment when a window of opportunity began to close irrevocably. Despite all the political dithering, the scientific consensus is increasingly clear and increasingly disturbing: global warming is a real and growing threat, a "gathering threat" as President Bush or Donald Rumsfeld might say.
As the London Independent reported on Jan. 15: "Global warming is set to accelerate alarmingly because of a sharp jump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. . . . Preliminary figures [from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] show that levels of the gas -- the main cause of climate change -- have risen abruptly in the past four years. Scientists fear that warming is entering a new phase, and may accelerate further."
Look around: record heat, record drought, more hurricanes, more intense hurricanes, islands in the Maldives evacuated, disappearing amphibious species, strange weather everywhere. Not the earth itself, but the earth's biosphere, which sustains all life, is hurtling toward potential catastrophe. Endless debate? No thank you. Action is the imperative, and preparation for a future that looks increasingly grim. What lies ahead could make the "war on terror" seem like a tragic diversion.
Let's ask some of the hard questions. Let's really look it in the face. How far can it go? How far ahead can we imagine the consequences of runaway global warming? At what point will the system start to break down, and what will we do then? The political and economic structures that we take for granted will find it very hard to function in the face of massive meteorological disruption. By how many hundreds of millions, or even billions, will the human population contract? Whatever people may think, life makes no guarantees, human life included. What kind of latter-day Dark Ages are we headed for? What scraps of civilization will survive such an environmental apocalypse? One can imagine scenarios that resemble the most extravagant science fiction, scenarios in which the remnants of humanity retreat into vast underground complexes, as extreme storms rage overhead, ecosystems fail across the globe, and the world is given over to the few insect species that can survive the heat. What dark depths of human nature will be revealed as the competition for resources grows more intense, and as civic order begins to give way? We would do well to contemplate what Milton's Satan beholds of the lost souls in hell, which "[l]ies dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms / Of whirlwind and dire hail":
At certain revolutions all the damned
Are brought; and feel by turns the bitter change
Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce,
From beds of raging fire to starve in ice
Their soft ethereal warmth, and there to pine
Immovable, infixed, and frozen round,
Periods of time; thence hurried back to fire….
A universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Than fables yet have feigned, or fear conceived….
It is time to conceive that fear; the day grows late.
With every passing month, global warming becomes more of a moral and spiritual issue in addition to a political one, more a test of humanity's deepest consciousness and a call to our higher faculties. It needs therefore to be addressed in the most expansive possible terms, not just as a technical matter involving carbon-trading, arctic ice-packs, and so forth, but as the profoundest question of our love of life itself. Will we succumb to short-sighted materialism and our animal desires, or will we get our act together and show that humanity truly deserves its pride in itself?
All of us bear some of the responsibility, but some, let it be said, bear more than others. The much vaunted "wisdom of the American people" needs to start showing itself much more than it has so far. With great privilege comes great responsibility, and Americans - with all their education, their wealth, and indeed their cultural experience with environmentalism - have absolutely no excuse to avoid taking the lead on global warming. Who among us would prefer to stick their head in the sand, complacent, uninformed, and irresponsible, rather than look the truth in the face? Let them answer for themselves. But above all, it is the political class, leaders from all different countries who hold the levers of power, who bear the greatest responsibility. In the United States, it is our sad fate to find the conservative movement with its hands on just about every lever, and from the vantage point over here it looks like they're content to drive the car straight over the cliff. And meanwhile, too few people who really care about the issue seem willing to tell it like it is, afraid of being called "Chicken Littles." More accurate to call them Cassandras, unheeded prophets, and their detractors children of Nero, fiddling while Rome burns.
Religious conservatives might want to reread the first and last books of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, with all this in mind. Humanity has not just sampled the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we are gobbling it down greedily, juice running down our chins, despite mounting evidence and ample warning about global warming, and whether out of complacency, greed or some other failing, it could all amount to the same thing in the end: the loss of our happy green Eden. And when we must all pay the piper, whom will future generations blame in their grief and rage? Certainly not the environmentalists, but rather the greedheads, the powerful, the captains of industry, who could have made a difference but refused, who chose to look the other way, who "repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk." The "Left Behind" crowd, including some of our own political leaders, who would seem to welcome the apocalypse, have no cause for such smug assurance in their righteousness. The fires wait for them, too.
Perhaps that's too harsh. Maybe the bill won't come due as soon, or as drastically, as we think. But fewer and fewer scientists express such a sanguine attitude. Indeed, no less an authority on the issue than James Lovelock, who in the 1960s formulated the Gaia hypothesis about earth's self-regulating interconnectedness, is sounding the alarm as urgently as possible. In his forthcoming book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock argues that no longer should we simply try to stop global warming, but start preparing for the worst case scenario: "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can."