Lead, Follow, or Get In the Way

Why the House Climate Bill won’t change our fate, but might change how we get there

On the final Friday of June, polar bears cheered, honeybees buzzed, and Emperor penguins locked in the dead of Antarctic winter snuggled happily up to their eggs. At last, the United States was going to lead the world in the fight against climate change.

All right, maybe all of Nature didn’t really breathe a collective sigh of relief when they House of Representatives passed the “American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act of 2009.” But for a government that has chronically shirked the responsibility of fighting climate change, the bill’s passage (by a slim margin of 219 votes to 212) is an enormous first step. In more than 2,000 pages of legalese, the ACES act calls for cap and trade measures, throws $190 billion over the next 15 years at alternative energy development, and aims to reduce our nation’s carbon emissions to 83 percent of 1995 levels by 2020, and to 20 percent of 1995 levels by 2050.

Backed by strong words from President Obama, the bill should give the necessary kick-start to the Senate, whose members have dawdled, anticipating a long battle over similar legislation. The tight victory in the House (which came only after the inclusion of multiple addenda that weakened emissions requirements for powerful interest groups like agriculture) demonstrates how quickly political will is fading. The “audacity of hope” will only dwindle faster as more and more politicians think ahead to 2010 elections. In fact, 44 House Democrats voted against last month’s bill, many of them weighing interests back home against the threat of global catastrophe.

Avoiding such global catastrophe requires global accords, and for two weeks in December of this year, 8,000 people representing 170 countries will convene in Copenhagen. This will be the last intergovernmental meeting before the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012, must be revised and renewed. Since scientists continue to darken their forecasts as more ominous evidence rolls in, the meeting can’t come soon enough.

It is absolutely critical that the United States finalizes legislation before its politicians regress to personal interests, and before the Copenhagen climate conference convenes. We must provide a unified front with other First World nations, instead of continuing the finger-pointing hypocrisy that has been the hallmark of negotiations with China and other industrializing countries. Yes, tougher emissions standards might push some jobs and businesses overseas, but in a time of global crisis, it is time for Americans to lead by example once again.

Unfortunately, our example — even if we follows the House bill to the letter — isn’t all that great.

We’ve all heard the key facts about global warming: Even if emissions stop now, the Earth will continue to warm for the next 100 years. Global temperatures will increase by at least one degree Fahrenheit, causing catastrophic cascades throughout all of Earth’s ecosystems. Rising sea levels will displace millions of people. Tragic storms like Hurricane Katrina will become more frequent, and precipitation patterns will shift, drowning cities while making Dust Bowls of agricultural fields. And that’s the best case scenario.

But what will the future look like if the US holds to the ACES Act’s mandate?

Yes, there are personal consequences: A household of four will pay $100 to $175 more per year for energy by 2020 (households currently shell out $2,000 per annum). We will all have to tighten our fossil fuel belts — from more than 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person today to 3.8 per person by 2050 (by the way, that’s about what China’s annual per capita emissions are right now). These drastic measures are impossible to imagine in our world of steaks and stereos, computers and cars. We must nevertheless take these steps because even if we can’t save the planet, we will have to save our economy when fossil fuels run out.

Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Imagine that all humanity has reached a lofty aspiration — the United States lifestyle — by 2050. The world’s population is predicted to grow to 10 billion by that time. At 3.8 tons of carbon dioxide apiece, the world would be emitting 38.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s 22.5 percent more than current emissions (although, spread over 40 years, it represents only a half-percent increase in emissions per year, a fraction of the current 2 to 4 percent growth rate).

At those emission rates, all the world’s proven oil and natural gas reserves would be consumed in less than twenty years. Even if we froze emissions at today’s rates, we could only squeeze out five additional years (strip-mining coal could prolong the slow death of fossil fuels by another thirty or so years). In reality, it’s possible we’ll tap new reserves, but more likely that exponential increases in extraction costs will halt our use of fossil fuels before we’ve drained them dry. After all, the global rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions was halved last year when fuel prices skyrocketed.

I don’t mean to say the House’s efforts were entirely useless. In fact, if global emissions continue to grow at modest rates, say 2 percent per year, we’d use up our global supply of gas and oil by 2025, before we even reached that 2050 standard. If the world can bite the emissions bullet in advance, it can gain time to replace its energy sources and develop alternative technologies.

That’s the crux of the issue. Forget about the birds and the bees, the penguins and the polar bears. The ACES Act doesn’t matter ecologically, since the economics of fossil fuel supply will impose nearly identical controls anyway. These controls won’t stop us from expelling enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to pass every scientific global tipping point.

However, the legislation is absolutely critical to our economic preparedness. It marks the difference between doing things the hard way — when fossil fuels just plain run out on us — and the (slightly) easier way — forcing some technological change in advance. Think of it as the difference between fast and slow: The heart attack that freezes our economy in its tracks versus the cancer that we fight with painful chemotherapy to buy ourselves time to say goodbye.

While our politicians battle over which of these two hard roads will get them reelected, you and I need to prepare for the inevitable. So batten down the hatches, build up the seawalls (maybe you can use some copies of that 2,000 page magnum opus to fill sandbags), and learn a marketable skill that doesn’t rely on a cheap oil economy. Oh, and you might as well slap some solar panels on your house before the delivery trucks run out of gas.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes feedback at hollyvm@mit.edu.