Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.
The political discussion of climate wasn't always a log-jamed disaster: "The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate." But things changed:
The process that had led, however disagreeably, to successful environmental action in the 1970s and ’80s brought on political stasis in the ’90s. Environmental issues became ways for politicians to signal their clan identity to supporters. As symbols, the issues couldn’t be compromised. Standing up for your side telegraphed your commitment to take back America—either from tyrannical liberal elitism or right-wing greed and fecklessness. Nothing got done.
Coal is our biggest problem:
Different nations have different arrangements, but almost everywhere the basic point holds true: a relatively small number of industrial coal plants—perhaps 7,000 worldwide—put out an amazingly large amount of carbon dioxide, more than 40 percent of the global total. And that figure is rising; last year, coal’s share of energy production hit a 44-year high, because Asian nations are building coal plants at a fantastic rate (and, possibly, because demand for coal-fired electricity will soar as electric cars become popular). No matter what your views about the impact and import of climate change, you are primarily talking about coal. To my mind, at least, retrofitting 7,000 industrial facilities, however mind-boggling, is less mind-boggling than, say, transforming the United States into “a nation of careful, small-scale farmers” or enacting a global carbon tax with “full participation.” It is, at least, imaginable.
Few experts think that relying on geo-engineering would be a good idea. But no one knows how soon reality will trump ideology, and so we may finally have hit on a useful form of alarmism. One of the virtues of Keith’s succinct, scary book is to convince the reader that unless we find a way to talk about climate change, planes full of sulfuric acid will soon be on the runway.