“Men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
— Abba Eban, Israeli diplomat
According to recent public opinion polls, a majority of Americans believe climate change is underway, a perspective that has yet to penetrate the capital Beltway.
Coal and oil lobbyists and their allies in Congress have blocked efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, confirming President Eisenhower’s warning about the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” in the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”
President Trump opposes reducing the use of carbon-based fuels and is aggressively pushing to reverse important federal conservation programs enacted by previous administrations — cleaner production of electricity and higher gas mileage standards.
But interference by special interests, and even a uniquely recalcitrant president, can’t explain America’s lack of action against the decades-old climate threat. Underlying this paralysis is the anxiety that there may be no path to victory in what could be an unwinnable war. This is a dangerous misunderstanding.
While the magnitude of the climate threat is indisputably enormous, an overheated planet is not inevitable. Society is capable of reducing carbon emissions to a level necessary to stabilize global temperatures. If we fail, it will not be because the challenge is too great. It will be because we lack conviction and leadership.
Eighty years ago, in the face of another global crisis, America sat on the sidelines as Germany invaded one European country after another. The public’s attitude about whether the U.S. should enter the war was similar to ours today about climate change.
A large majority of citizens opposed intervening in Europe. Even after Nazi forces invaded France, there was vigorous political resistance to American mobilization against an enemy that was threatening the survival of a free Europe.
Isolationists warned that there was not enough industrial capacity to meet the country’s internal needs and also supply arms and soldiers to defend our allies in Europe.
It is easier today to understand why our involvement in Europe in 1940 was critical, but evidence of the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis began to emerge years before Germany’s overt violations of national sovereignty.
Had the U.S. entered the war earlier, much slaughter probably could have been prevented.
So it is today with climate change. Rising seas have already cost coastal cities like New York, Miami and Charleston billions of dollars in property losses, and will cost many more billions as damage and protection needs escalate.
Once America reached consensus about intervening in Europe, there was virtual unanimity about winning the war. Fighting climate disruption is a new experience, and the country is still undecided about a central point: Is it possible to counter rising temperatures and ecological destruction?
Based on more than three decades of analysis and research, the unequivocal answer is yes — even without any new technologies or scientific breakthroughs.
There are three fronts on which we must fight for carbon reductions: making factories, homes, cars, planes and other machines more efficient so they can do the same amount of work with less energy; using power sources that emit less carbon, or no carbon, including wind, solar and nuclear energy; and expanding the acreage of forests and well-managed soils that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Carbon reduction on a national scale is not just a theoretical possibility. Germany, Japan, France, England and China already produce a quarter to a half as much carbon per capita as the U.S. does.
These countries have made significant changes in energy production and consumption through major wind and solar power initiatives and expanded nuclear power. America, too, has demonstrated its ability to move toward an economy that is less carbon intensive in the transportation field. Automobile fuel economy has doubled since 1975 without compromising auto safety or comfort.
The challenge is to scale up these initiatives quickly and comprehensively. While market forces have already produced significant advances in climate-saving technologies, the pace of change is inadequate to prevent catastrophic warming.
Like WWII, victory will require aggressive federal policies and programs to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. With America’s courageous contribution to saving Europe as inspiration, and an eye on presidential and congressional elections next year, let’s get down to the business of stabilizing the climate without further delay.
Dana Beach is a conservationist and Charleston resident.