History will regard even the horror in Iraq as just another predictable folly compared to this novel burst of irresponsibility.
A HINT OF A MOVEMENT
If you're looking for good news, there is some.
For one thing, we understand the technologies and the changes in habit that can help. The past 10 years have seen the advent of hybrid cars and the widespread use of compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Wind power has been the fastest-growing source of electricity generation throughout the period. Japan and Germany have pioneered, with great success, a subsidy scheme required to put millions of solar panels on rooftops.
Even more important, a real movement has begun to emerge in this country. It began with Katrina, which opened eyes. Then Al Gore gave those eyes something to look at: his movie made millions realize just what a pickle we are in. Many of those millions, in turn, became political activists.
Earlier this year six college students and I launched stepitup07.org, which has organized almost 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states. Last month the student climate movement drew 7,000 hardworking kids from campuses all over the country for a huge conference. We've launched a new grassroots coalition, 1sky.org, that will push Congress and the big Washington environmental groups.
All of this work has tilted public opinion new polls have energy and climate change showing up high on the list of issues that voters care about, which in turn has made the candidates take notice. All of the Democrats are saying more or less the right things, though none of them, save John Edwards, is saying them with much volume.
THE RACE OF ALL TIME
Now it's a numbers game. Can we turn that political energy into change fast enough to matter?
On the domestic front the numbers look like this: we've got to commit to reductions in carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2050, and we've got to get those cuts under way quickly and reduce emissions by 10 percent in the next few years. The marketplace will help if we send it the message that carbon carries a cost. But only government can do that.
Two more numbers we're pushing for: zero, which is how many new coal-fired power plants we can afford to open in the US, and five million, which is how many green jobs Congress needs to provide for the country's low-skilled workers. All that insulation isn't going to stuff itself inside our walls, and those solar panels won't crawl up to the rooftops by themselves. We can't send the work to China, and we can't do it with the click of a mouse; this is the last big chance to build an economy that works for most of us.
Internationally, the task is even steeper. The Kyoto Accord, which we ignored, expires in a couple of years. Negotiations begin this month in Bali, Indonesia, to strike a new deal, and it's likely to be the last bite at the apple we'll get if we miss this chance, the climate is likely to spiral out of control. We have a number here too: 450, as in parts per million of carbon dioxide. It's the absolute upper limit on what we can pour into the atmosphere, and it will take a heroic effort to keep from exceeding it.
This is a big change even 10 years ago, we thought the safe limit might be 550. But the data is clear: the Earth is far more finely balanced than we thought and our peril much greater. Our foremost climate scientist, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's James Hansen, testified under oath in a courtroom last year that if we don't stop short of that 450 redline, we could see the sea level rise 20 feet before the century is out. That's civilization challenging. That's a carbon summer to match any nuclear winter anyone ever dreamed about.
It's a test, a kind of final exam for our political, economic, and spiritual systems. And it's a fair test nothing vague or fuzzy about it. Chemistry and physics don't bargain. They don't compromise.