Climate change won't wait

Obama appears unwilling or unable to take the tough steps to deal with global warming. In Washington over Presidents Day weekend, the largest environmental demonstration in years will try to prod him.

Societal change usually happens slowly, even once it's clear there's a problem. That's because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in leisurely currents. Change often requires going up against powerful, established interests, and it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses. Think civil rights, gay marriage, equal rights for women.

Even facing undeniably real problems — say, discrimination against gay people — one can make the case that gradual change is the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe.

With climate change, however, there simply isn't time to waste. It's not a fight, like gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It's a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices or damages the coal industry in swing states. It couldn't care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China or made agribusiness less profitable.

Physics is implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which causes ice to melt and oceans to rise and storms to gather. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets.

We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible — all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to physics' timetable, it will be too late.

It's not at all clear that President Obama understands this.

That's why his administration is sometimes peeved when they don't get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will slowly go into effect over the next decade.

That's precisely the kind of gradual transformation that people — and politicians — like. But physics isn't impressed. If we're to slow the pace of climate change we need to cut emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year.

 

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