On July 20th, James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist who brought climate change to the public's attention in the summer of 1988, issued a bombshell: He and a team of climate scientists had identified a newly important feedback mechanism off the coast of Antarctica that suggests mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted: 10 feet by 2065. The authors included this chilling warning: If emissions aren't cut, "We conclude that multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization" . . . .
James Hansen, the dean of climate scientists, retired from NASA in 2013 to become a climate activist. But for all the gloom of the report he just put his name to, Hansen is actually somewhat hopeful. That's because he knows that climate change has a straightforward solution: End fossil-fuel use as quickly as possible. If tomorrow, the leaders of the United States and China would agree to a sufficiently strong, coordinated carbon tax that's also applied to imports, the rest of the world would have no choice but to sign up. This idea has already been pitched to Congress several times, with tepid bipartisan support. Even though a carbon tax is probably a long shot, for Hansen, even the slim possibility that bold action like this might happen is enough for him to devote the rest of his life to working to achieve it. On a conference call with reporters in July, Hansen said a potential joint U.S.-China carbon tax is more important than whatever happens at the United Nations climate talks in Paris.
One group Hansen is helping is Our Children's Trust, a legal advocacy organization that's filed a number of novel challenges on behalf of minors under the idea that climate change is a violation of intergenerational equity — children, the group argues, are lawfully entitled to inherit a healthy planet.
A separate challenge to U.S. law is being brought by a former EPA scientist arguing that carbon dioxide isn't just a pollutant (which, under the Clean Air Act, can dissipate on its own), it's also a toxic substance. In general, these substances have exceptionally long life spans in the environment, cause an unreasonable risk, and therefore require remediation. In this case, remediation may involve planting vast numbers of trees or restoring wetlands to bury excess carbon underground.
The green revolution has won a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.
Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the "Population Monster". In the beginning there were but two, Adam and Eve. When they appeared on this earth is still questionable. By the time of Christ, world population had probably reached 250 million. But between then and now, population has grown to 3.5 billion. Growth has been especially fast since the advent of modern medicine. If it continues to increase at the estimated present rate of two percent a year, the world population will reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2 additional people are added to the world population. The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3, and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and 2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The ticktock of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?
Malthus signaled the danger a century and a half ago. But he emphasized principally the danger that population would increase faster than food supplies. In his time he could not foresee the tremendous increase in man's food production potential. Nor could he have foreseen the disturbing and destructive physical and mental consequences of the grotesque concentration of human beings into the poisoned and clangorous environment of pathologically hypertrophied megalopoles. Can human beings endure the strain? Abnormal stresses and strains tend to accentuate man's animal instincts and provoke irrational and socially disruptive behavior among the less stable individuals in the maddening crowd.
We must recognize the fact that adequate food is only the first requisite for life. For a decent and humane life we must also provide an opportunity for good education, remunerative employment, comfortable housing, good clothing, and effective and compassionate medical care. Unless we can do this, man may degenerate sooner from environmental diseases than from hunger.
And yet, I am optimistic for the future of mankind, for in all biological populations there are innate devices to adjust population growth to the carrying capacity of the environment. Undoubtedly, some such device exists in man, presumably Homo sapiens, but so far it has not asserted itself to bring into balance population growth and the carrying capacity of the environment on a worldwide scale. It would be disastrous for the species to continue to increase our human numbers madly until such innate devices take over. It is a test of the validity of sapiens as a species epithet.
Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth and will adjust the growth rate to levels which will permit a decent standard of living for all mankind. If man is wise enough to make this decision and if all nations abandon their idolatry of Ares, Mars, and Thor, then Mankind itself should be the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize which is "to be awarded to the person who has done most to promote brotherhood among the nations".
-- Norman Borlaug, "The Green Revolution, Peace, and Humanity," Nobel Peace Prize lecture, 1970.
As politics gets slower, global warming speeds up. The problem isn't feckless officials. Obama has a dream team of climate specialists: Clinton administration EPA veteran Carol Browner as energy czar, Harvard physicist John Holdren as top science advisor, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as Energy secretary and Oakland activist Van Jones as White House green jobs coordinator.
And the problem isn't that environmental groups aren't working hard enough. I've never seen them work more tirelessly, with lobbying efforts in capitals around the world.
In fact, the problem is pretty simple: The environmental movement isn't big enough. It's one of the most selfless of advocacy efforts. But the movement has been sized to save whales and build national parks and force carmakers to stick catalytic converters on exhaust systems. It's nowhere near big enough to take on the fossil fuel industry, the biggest player in our global economy. It's like sending the Food and Drug Administration to fight the war in Afghanistan.
Exxon Mobil Corp. made more money last year than any U.S. company in the history of money. . . .
The news coming out of world capitals makes it clear that we need more than lobbying by environmentalists to get the changes the science demands. We need a movement, a groundswell, to give those lobbyists the clout they need. But we can make it happen only if we join together fast.
-- Bill McKibben, "Can 350.org Save the World?," Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2009.