A flooded New York City subway system; cars submerged to their windshields on the East Side of Manhattan. Before Hurricane Sandy last fall, we needed dystopian fiction writers to conjure these images. Now, global warming is taking over.
Too many factors influence any individual weather event to attribute it directly to man-made climate change. Nevertheless, the trends are mounting. Repeat years of record-breaking temperatures, a spike in severe storms, and droughts in the American Southwest and Great Plains that grow ever closer to conditions that produced massive dust clouds in the 1930s—all this tells us that a climate crisis has arrived in the natural world.
The question is: When will this translate into a crisis in the political world?
The United States remains a superpower emitter of greenhouse gases. While China took over in 2006 as the greatest national producer of carbon dioxide, emissions per person in the U.S. are still more than twice as high. As with nuclear weapons, American failure to join a global push for serious controls on greenhouse gasses cripples the entire effort.
Through its first four years, the Obama administration’s policy was not to talk about global warming at all. It preferred to emphasize the potential of “green jobs” and “clean energy.”
“Big Green” environmental groups in Washington, DC played along as they pushed for a cap-and-trade bill in Congress. These groups made the mistake of embracing the same flawed strategy that has moved the Democrats well into the center-right: they pre-compromised with vested corporate interests, compromised some more with conservatives, then expressed shock when their milquetoast moderation was nevertheless painted as pinko extremism.
Expansion of offshore drilling, support for nuclear power, and gutting current controls on coal plant emissions were all accepted as concessions by big green groups. Even then, senators from oil-rich states balked, and the legislation failed in 2010.
“They made a deal with the devil, and the devil walked away from the table,” said environmentalist and oil industry analyst Antonia Juhasz.
Alienated by insider deal-making, the grassroots of the U.S. environmental movement chose instead to focus on stopping new coal plants (over 100 have been successfully blocked) and on standing up to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline. A project loaded with symbolism, the pipeline will aid exploitation of the Canadian tar sands by transporting dirty crude to the Gulf of Mexico. Obama alone has the power to approve the construction.
In 2011, the president delayed his decision by sending the project back to the State Department. Author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben wrote, “There’s no way, with an honest review, that a pipeline that helps speed the tapping of the world’s second-largest pool of carbon can pass environmental muster.”
Unfortunately, an honest review is not what the administration had in mind. With the pressure of election season passed, the State Department released a report in March downplaying the environmental costs of the pipeline. Investigative journalists quickly discovered that the consulting firm which authored the bulk of the report had ties to TransCanada (the company seeking to build the pipeline) as well as ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell.
The White House is currently suggesting that Keystone XL expansion is no big deal. “There have been thousands of miles of pipelines that have been built while President Obama has been in office,” an administration official said recently.
But if this is true, why should oil industry desires yet again determine policy? Why not show some deference to Native American leaders who argue that the Keystone expansion’s environmental impact violates their treaty rights? Why not listen to the climate scientists who say that, this time, we need to send a signal that dirty energy will not forever rule?
Addressing climate change through euphemisms has failed. Any government that does not understand this needs to have a political crisis brought to its door.