In his ceaseless effort to maintain his record as the worst President on the environment since the creation of the EPA in 1970, President George W. Bush has somehow managed to outdo himself with his latest Rose Garden pronouncement on climate change. He has decided that we should continue to increase emissions of greenhouse gasses, but at a slower rate of growth than today and in 2025 we should finally stop the growth of these dangerous emissions.
You can tell the President’s team must have lost some of its spin doctors, because this latest effort in environmental public relations had no snappy title. Earlier in his administration we saw the “Healthy Forest” initiative that was a thinly disguised attack on the nation’s wilderness; and the “Clear Skies” program that was a clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful effort to dismantle the nation’s air pollution controls. Now, I propose we call this latest endeavor the “Floating Cities Initiative” because that is what we are going to need to survive this pathetic excuse for a policy on an issue as significant as global climate change.
Over the past seven years this administration has conducted a relentless attack on our capacity to protect the environment. They have dismantled existing programs, blocked the states from taking more aggressive action, and done nothing to deal with newly understood problems like climate change and the maintenance of biodiversity. Where once, America was a pioneer in protecting our environment and natural resources, today we lag behind Western Europe and are losing our edge in policy and technology.
Thanks to a number of the top researchers in the world working at U.S. universities, we’ve long known that climate change is not something we can wait until 2025 to address. My colleagues at Columbia, Wallace Broecker and Mark Cane, are among those who have been warning us about the dangers of greenhouse gasses for more than a quarter century. Someone needs to tell the President that we have already emitted enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise the temperature of the planet. The longer we wait to reduce emissions the more difficult it will be to solve the climate crisis that has already begun.
The precise impact of global warming on agriculture, human disease and water supply is difficult to predict, but ice melt and sea level rise is virtually assured. In fact, according to Klaus Lackner, the Director of Columbia’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy: “Climate change concerns may soon force drastic reductions in CO2 emissions. In response to this challenge, it may prove necessary to render fossil fuels environmentally acceptable by capturing and sequestering CO2 until other inexpensive, clean, and plentiful technologies are available.” Professor Lackner is now working on ways we can actually capture the carbon dioxide that we have already emitted by extracting it out of the air and storing it away from the atmosphere. Given the damage already being done, we probably have no choice.
Many in the private sector are already ahead of our federal government in betting on technological solutions, even though at the heart of the climate problem itself is the impact of science and technology on our lives. Over the last two centuries, technology has allowed us to feed more people, live longer, move around the planet at greater speeds and distances and reproduce in greater numbers. We have built a culture and a way of life that stresses individual freedom, mobility and material consumption. Yet the infrastructure that allows us to live this way requires that we consume a great deal of fossil fuel. Such consumption, in turn, generates greenhouse gases that threaten the stability of the planet’s climate. Science is the enabler of this technology and lifestyle, and we are now looking to science for help in designing a technology to mitigate the negative impacts of our way of life. Already we’re recognizing that some proposed fixes— like a vast increase in farming activity to support ethanol production—actually cause more climate problems than they solve.
As our understanding of our planet grows, we find ourselves dealing with more complex and truly global environmental problems. Climate change therefore challenges our political institutions—institutions that are largely designed to deal with local issues and not particularly good at solving problems that cross national borders. The fundamental, irreducible purpose of government is to keep us safe. Yet this President has relentlessly pursued a go-it-alone approach by the U.S. that has not only failed to address what it views as the primary threat of global terrorism, but also our ability to work in collaboration to solve the clear and present existential dangers that cross national boarders like climate change, degraded and depleted fresh water and insufficient food supplies.
New Yorkers get it. A recent survey of 1,000 adults in the five boroughs found that more than three-quarters of respondents are convinced that global warming is happening now, that human activity is a cause, and that more should be done by key leaders to help New York City deal with climate change. The survey is the first-ever study of New Yorkers’ opinions about global warming and was designed and funded by Columbia and Yale Universities, and led by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia.
We are long past the need for symbolic gestures or empty Rose Garden rhetoric. If we need to set a goal for the decades ahead, how about a serious goal more like the one Mayor Bloomberg has set for New York itself: reducing emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030?
Because only by taking that kind of strong action to set meaningful goals, expand public investment in new research and create effective incentives for our private sector will America become a leader instead of remaining a laggard in dealing with climate change.