Credit: Flickr user Mikael Miettinen
On Monday, aboard a passenger jet landing in London, the distinguished Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider passed away from an apparent heart attack. Schneider was one of the most ardent and informed advocates for combating climate change, and his untimely death at the age of 65 is a significant setback in that effort. He will be missed.
Schneider died as he lived, striving tirelessly to convince the public and policymakers that the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming compels rapid and drastic action. According to some reports, Schneider had recently been pushing himself harder than usual, working overtime to counter the false claims surrounding “Climategate,” a manufactured scandal being used by right-wing reactionaries to intimidate scientists and stifle truth. In response to a torrent of threatening e-mail he had received in Climategate’s wake, Schneider had also recently installed extra security measures to his home and had ensured his address was unlisted.
This was a man under monumental amounts of stress. We will never know for sure, but I’m tempted to consider Schneider an indirect casualty of the right’s ongoing cynical smear campaign.
Schneider’s wasn’t the only death this week: A piece of America’s future died, too. Yesterday, cowed by opposition from an intransigent Republican minority, Senate Democrats backed away from climate legislation that was meant to place a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the US away from a near-total dependence on oil. Democrats also ruled out a less ambitious proposal to only apply new renewable energy regulations and emissions caps to electric utilities.
Without such policy measures, there are essentially no incentives for US industries to reduce emissions and pursue clean, renewable energy sources. This effectively kills any hope of meaningful US progress on climate change until after the midterm elections in November. And, given that Democrats would be considered lucky to emerge from those elections still in control of both the House and the Senate, the chances for progress next year and beyond are now woefully uncertain. Most Republican politicians, after all, either dismiss the notion that global warming is real, or don’t acknowledge that it’s a problem humans are responsible for or are capable of confronting.
But the planet is undeniably warming; above-average global temperatures have become the “new normal.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that, worldwide, last month was the warmest June ever recorded, and 2010 is on track to become one of the warmest years on record. The top ten warmest years known, by the way, all occurred in the last 15 years.
Also last week, a blue-ribbon panel from the National Research Council released a report detailing the degree-by-degree global consequences of warming from multiple greenhouse-gas emission scenarios. The report doesn’t mince words, stating that “emissions reductions choices made today matter in determining impacts experienced not just over the next few decades, but in the coming centuries and millennia.” It depicts a future world rendered significantly less hospitable by each additional degree of warming. The report also assigns a certainty of greater than 90 percent to increased greenhouse gas emissions as the cause for most of the Earth’s rising temperature over the past half-century.
For much of that time period, the US was the world’s greatest energy consumer and producer of greenhouse gases, and was thus seen as indispensable for coordinated global action on climate change. Consequently, global progress has arguably been stifled time after time for want of sufficient presidential political will or a handful of US congressional votes.
Now, that balance of power appears to be shifting, and an impatient world may finally leave the US behind. In the last decade, China’s roaring economic growth has made the country outpace the US as the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide. The International Energy Agency announced this week that China has also overtaken the US as the planet’s biggest energy user, surpassing the total US energy usage in 2009 by some 0.4 percent. Chinese officials have questioned the credibility of the IEA’s estimates, but offer alternate 2009 energy-usage numbers that are only a fraction of a percent less than those for the US.
The trajectory seems clear: If China hasn’t already surpassed the US in total energy consumption, it soon will. Which would conceivably alleviate pressure on US political leaders to act decisively on climate change. Except for the fact that China is now also poised to surpass the US in clean and renewable energy development. In addition to the scores of coal-fired power plants US politicians love to mention that China is building, China is also making enormous investments in wind and nuclear power, and in producing hybrid and electric cars.
Most damningly, yesterday after the US yet again failed to deliver on climate and energy reform, news came that in 2011 China will roll out a domestic carbon cap-and-trade scheme of its own. It seems increasingly likely that rather than revitalizing its sputtering economy by embracing a clean-energy future, the US will continue with business as usual, and become increasingly marginalized.
But the news isn’t all bad, as mordantly relayed by Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column this week: “By 2012, China should pretty much own the clean-tech industry and we’ll at least be able to get some good deals on electric cars.”
Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.
Originally published July 23, 2010