Friday, December 09, 2005

changing a climate of apathy

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a series of insightful and moving articles on climate change last summer, to be published early next year as Field Notes from a Catastrophe. As world leaders meet in Montreal for another round of negotiations, she underscores the gravity of the situation in "Global Warning," a short comment published in this week's New Yorker.

Here is how Kolbert summarizes the current policy:
When the Bush Administration’s policy on climate change was first articulated by the President, in early 2002, critics described it as a “total charade,” a characterization that, if anything, has come to seem too generous. Stripped down to its essentials, the Administration’s position is that global warming is a problem that either will solve itself or won’t. The White House has consistently opposed taxes or regulations or mandatory caps to reduce, or even just stabilize, greenhouse-gas emissions, advocating instead a purely voluntary approach, under which companies and individuals can choose to cut their CO2 production—that is, if they feel like it.
Now, I can very easily tell myself that I'm going to wake up at 5:30 tomorrow morning. Unless I set my alarm and get to bed early tonight, though, it's very unlikely to happen. In the same way, reducing CO2 emissions is an achievable goal, but we won't achieve it unless we take action now.

The President's call for voluntary action, while displaying a heartwarming faith in the altruism of the American people, is not the action that is needed. Americans are as good and nature-loving as any people, but few of us will change our behaviors until the demands of our consciences dovetail with our economic self-interests. This is why governmental regulations, in conjunction with international agreements, are so necessary in solving this problem - in the words of the Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say this: There is such a thing as a global conscience. And now is the time to listen to it."

Unfortunately, though, our government is not listening - and by walking out of the talks today, they have continued in the apathetic hubris that, as Kolbert says, amounts to a rush towards catastrophe. Long after names like Harriet Miers, Valerie Plame, Michael Brown, and Abu Ghraib have faded into history's trivia, this administration's policy of inaction may be remembered as its great failing.

After reading Kolbert's comment, I found myself wishing that, rather than Montreal, the conference could be held on one of the tiny Pacific islands she describes, preferably one in imminent danger of flooding and destruction. That way the negotiators would be forced to come to an agreement before the water rushed in and drowned them. Of course, that might imperil the lives of a lot of innocent officials - still, walking out is a lot harder when you're waist-deep in water!

By the way, if anyone knows why this article was accompanied by a drawing of George W. playing the violin while wearing a toga, please let me know. I confess that The New Yorker's sense of humor is sometimes beyond me.


Anonymous said...

hey matt. Adam here. Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned.

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Very well put. I just read an article on AOL news that described 2005 as being the hottest, driest, and stormiest year in the last century. Either a) the climate is warming naturally or b) we are causing the change. Sadly, the current people in charge are short-sightedly banking on the first option. But how could all our activities, industrial and technological, not have an impact? If anything, we need to hope for the best situation, but prepare for the worst.

Matt Heller said...

Thanks, Adam and Lydia - I think I've heard that expression before, but I would have never put II and II together!

Kolbert also notes that "2005 is on track to be the hottest year since record-keeping began," and we know all too well about the storms. It seems to me that preparing for the worst is the function of good policy; waiting and hoping for the best is not a policy, but a prayer.