The final report of the UN's IPCC sums it all up. Global warming is going to be a more serious problem sooner than most scientists believed, in part because our emissions of carbon dioxide are growing faster than economists predicted. We have only a very few years to change course to avoid the worst consequences. There is no longer any meaningful or reasonable scientific uncertainty over urgency. And we need to get with the job.
In response, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "[T]he world's scientists have spoken, clearly and in one voice." Moon has effectively made climate change the centerpiece of his Secretary-Generalship, saying that the forthcoming Climate Change Conference in Bali requires "more constructive leadership" from the U.S. and China: "The breakthrough needed in Bali is for a comprehensive climate change deal that all nations can embrace."
I'll be going to Bali, but I'm skeptical of the breakthrough. The U.S. government is still in deep denial. China cannot figure out what to do, even though, from what we hear from our Chinese environmental colleagues, China's government is NOT in denial -- it just doesn't have its hands on the levers it needs to change course -- and it's not getting what it needs from the rest of the world. There will be offers of leadership starting in 2009 from the Congressional delegation that will constitute a virtual parallel U.S. presence at the Bali conference -- but that probably won't be enough to cut the Gordian knot.
But there is a series of steps that can be taken short of a final, comprehensive deal that can buy us the time we need -- because certain key pieces of the global warming threat lend themselves to quick action, and they amount to a big chunk of the solution. Here's my list, which may well be missing some important additional opportunities. These problems, with one exception, are all possible to solve even in the absence of a comprehensive breakthrough in Bali:
1) U.S. coal. Stopping the 150 coal-fired plants that were proposed a few years ago would make a huge difference in America's short- and long-term ability to decarbonize its economy. We're doing well -- only a few of these plants have been approved, and a couple of dozen have been blocked.
2) U.S. cars. We need to cut the emissions from our own fleet. We need to do this to reduce our overall carbon footprint -- cars make up about a third of our total -- but also because we are still the car-designer and image creator of the world, even with Detroit on the skids. Congress is on the verge of finally making the industry modernize, and the states are breathing down its back.
3) Old buildings. Make them energy-efficient, everywhere. Energy efficiency retrofits are the lowest hanging fruit in almost every country. Bill Clinton points out that there is lots of technology, but very little capital and no organizational focus. The world could retrofit its buildings in a huge global Marshall plan and do an enormous amount to reduce carbon in only a few years.
4) Deforestation. Nearly a fifth of the world's CO2 emissions come from burning down forests, and half of the deforestation is for the illegal logging trade. Roughly 80 percent of wood cut is wasted. If we were running out of wood to fight a war, we would find ways to reduce our waste -- so we need to think of this as a war.
5) The other greenhouse gasses. Start reducing refrigerants, methane, nitrous oxide -- for the most part the other greenhouse gasses have easy technical fixes, at very attractive price points, but no global focus. (Yes, the methane from livestock is tougher, but the leaky urban landfills -- come on, how hard is it to put membranes over them?)
6) Black carbon. This may be a far larger part of the problem than we know, because it seems to be implicated in driving rapid Arctic and Antarctic warming, which in turn create the worst of the runaway feedback loops. And what is black carbon? Well, it's plain old vanilla air pollution (soot), and if we simply cleaned up the world's shipping fleets and other uncontrolled industrial sources, we could dramatically slash this problem.
7) China's coal. (And India's to a lesser degree). This is the one for which there isn't an easy, cheap solution -- but we could at least muster, with a tiny fraction of what we are spending in Iraq, the will to ensure that China has financial incentives to make its new coal efficient, clean up the black carbon it emits, and start developing wind and solar as fast as possible. China's is a tough case, because most of its energy growth is not for consumer consumption -- where efficiency could help -- but for industrial production, especially steel and cement, where the technical answers aren't as easy.
So let's do everything we can for a breakthrough in Bali, but let's not despair if, as I suspect, the final product doesn't meet the Secretary General's hopes or answer all of our prayers.