Kyoto Accord began the race to halt global warming. On it’s
10th anniversay, why are we barely past the starting gate?
I remember so well the final morning hours of the Kyoto conference.
The negotiations had gone on long past their scheduled evening
close, and the convention-center management was frantic—a
trade show for children’s clothing was about to begin, and
every corner of the vast hall still was littered with the
carcasses of the sleeping diplomats who had gathered in Japan
to draw up a first-ever global treaty to curb greenhouse-gas
emissions. But when word finally came that an agreement had
been reached, people roused themselves with real enthusiasm:
lots of backslapping and hugs.
A long decade after the first powerful warnings had sounded,
it seemed that humans were finally rising to the greatest
challenge we’d ever faced.
The only long face in the hall belonged to William O’Keefe,
chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, otherwise known
as the American coal, oil and car lobby. He’d spent the week
coordinating the resistance—working with Arab delegates and
Russian industrialists to sabotage the emerging plan. And
he’d failed. “It’s in free fall now,” he said, stricken. But
then he straightened his shoulders and said, “I can’t wait
to get back to Washington where we can get things under control.”
I thought he was whistling past the graveyard. In fact, he
knew far better than the rest of us what the future would
hold. He knew it would be at least another decade before anything
important physical-world reality to know about the 10 years
after Kyoto is that they included the warmest years on record.
All of the warmest years on record.
In that span of time, we’ve come to understand that not only
is the globe warming, but also that we’d dramatically underestimated
the speed and the size of that warming. By now, the data from
the planet outstrips the scientific prediction on an almost
daily basis. Earlier this fall, for instance, the melt of
Arctic sea ice beat the old record. Beat it in mid-August,
and then the ice kept melting for six more weeks, losing an
area the size of California every week. “Arctic Melt Unnerves
the Experts,” the headline in The New York Times reported.
And they were shaken by rapid changes in tundra-permafrost
systems, not to mention rain-forest systems, temperate-soil
carbon-sequestration systems, oceanic-acidity systems.
We’ve gone from a problem for our children to a problem for
right about now, as evidenced by, oh, Hurricane Katrina, California
wildfires, epic droughts in the Southeast and Southwest. And
that’s just the continental United States. Go to Australia
sometime: It’s gotten so dry there that native Aussie Rupert
Murdoch recently announced that his News Corp. empire was
The important political-world reality to know about the 10
years after Kyoto is that we haven’t done anything.
Oh, we’ve passed all kinds of interesting state and local
laws, wonderful experiments that have begun to show just how
much progress is possible. But in Washington, D.C., nothing.
No laws at all. Until last year, when the GOP surrendered
control of Congress, even the hearings were a joke, with “witnesses”
like novelist Michael Crichton.
And as a result, our emissions have continued to increase.
Worse, we’ve made not the slightest attempt to shift China
and India away from using their coal. Instead of an all-out
effort to provide the resources so they could go renewable,
we’ve stood quietly by and watched from the sidelines as their
energy trajectories shot out of control: The Chinese now are
opening a new coal-fired plant every week. History will regard
even the horror in Iraq as one more predictable folly next
to this novel burst of irresponsibility.
hint of a movement
you’re looking for good news, there is some.
For one thing, we understand the technologies and the changes
in habit that can help. The last 10 years have seen the advent
of hybrid cars and the widespread use of compact fluorescent
light bulbs. Wind power has been the fastest-growing source
of electric generation throughout the period. Japan and then
Germany have pioneered with great success the subsidy scheme
required to put millions of solar panels up on rooftops.
Even more important, a real movement has begun to emerge in
this country. It began with Katrina, which opened eyes. Al
Gore gave those eyes something to look at: His movie made
millions realize just what a pickle we were in. Many of those,
in turn, became political activists. Earlier this year, six
college students and I launched step itup07.org, which has
organized almost 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states. Last
month, the student climate movement drew 7,000 hardworking
kids from campuses all over the country for a huge conference.
We’ve launched a new grassroots coalition, 1sky.org, that
will push both Congress and the big Washington environmental
All this work has tilted public opinion: New polls actually
show energy and climate change showing up high on the list
of issues that voters care about, which in turn has made the
candidates take notice. All the Democrats are saying more
or less the right things, though none of them, save John Edwards,
is saying them with much volume.
race of all time
it’s a numbers game. Can we turn that political energy into
change fast enough to matter?
On the domestic front, the numbers look like this: We’ve got
to commit to reductions in carbon emissions of 80 percent
by 2050, and we’ve got to get those cuts underway fast—10
percent in just the next few years. Markets will help—if we
send them the information that carbon carries a cost. Only
government can do that.
Two more numbers we’re pushing for: zero, which is how many
new coal-fired power plants we can afford to open in America,
and 5 million, which is how many green jobs Congress needs
to provide for the country’s low-skilled workers. All that
insulation isn’t going to stuff itself inside our walls, and
those solar panels won’t crawl up on the roofs by themselves.
You can’t send the work to China, and you can’t do it with
a mouse: This is the last big chance to build an economy that
works for most of us.
Internationally, the task is even steeper. The Kyoto Accord,
which we ignored, expires in a couple of years. Negotiations
begin this month in Bali to strike a new deal, and it’s likely
to be the last bite at the apple we’ll get—miss this chance
and the climate likely spirals out of control. We have a number
here, too: 450, as in parts-per-million carbon dioxide. It’s
the absolute upper limit on what we can pour into the atmosphere,
and it will take a heroic effort to keep from exceeding it.
This is a big change: Even 10 years ago, we thought the safe
level might be 550. But the data are so clear: The Earth is
far more finely balanced than we thought, and our peril much
greater. Our foremost climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen,
testified under oath in a courtroom last year that if we didn’t
stop short of that 450 red line, we could see the sea level
rise 20 feet before the century was out. That’s civilization-challenging.
That’s a carbon summer to match any nuclear winter that anyone
ever dreamed about.
It’s a test, a kind of final exam for our political, economic
and spiritual systems. And it’s a fair test, nothing vague
or fuzzy about it. Chemistry and physics don’t bargain. They
don’t compromise. They don’t meet us halfway. We’ll do it
or we won’t. And 10 years from now, we’ll know which path
McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in
Vermont, is an author and environmentalist who frequently
writes about global warming. McKibben’s essay was commissioned
by the Association of Alternative News- weeklies. More than
40 AAN member papers will be publishing the essay this week.
Schwarzenegger’s green state and the mathematics of carbon
you wiped California off the face of the planet, just made
it disappear—left behind no car or SUV, politician, person
or cow—you’d eliminate only about 1.6 percent of the greenhouse
gases that are warming the planet. Keep California and lose
Texas, and you’d more or less double the benefit to the planet,
but you’d still be a long way short of solving the problem
of global warming.
So it’s hard at first to see how California’s highly touted
experiment in planet saving, the Global Warming Solutions
Act of 2006 (AB 32 for short), is going to make much of a
But on a human scale, on the scale of what government can
do, the act is an enormous undertaking. “We’ve got only five
years to develop regulations for every sector of society,”
explains Stanley Young of the California Air Resources Board.
The plan was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
in 2006, and its goal is to reduce California’s greenhouse-gas
emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. In that way, AB
32 is meant to mirror the Kyoto Protocol.
In 2007, California is expected to put about 496 million metric
tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Most of it is
carbon dioxide, but mixed in there are nitrogen oxide, methane
and a whole cocktail of less common but more harmful gases
produced by transportation and industry.
So, what do 496 MMT of greenhouse gases look like? CARB figures
that just 1 MMT of CO2 would fill 200,000 hot-air balloons.
So, all of California’s greenhouse gases for a year would
fit into about 99 million hot-air balloons.
Right now, the best estimate we have for greenhouse-gas emissions
for California in 1990 is somewhere around 436 MMT. Getting
from 496 to 436 doesn’t sound all that impressive—just as
87 million hot-air balloons doesn’t sound any more manageable
than 99 million. But take the longer view: If we do nothing
to slow the steady growth of CO2 and other global-warming
pollutants, we’ll reach something close to 680 MMT of the
stuff by the year 2020.
Suddenly, just getting back to the pollution levels of 1990
looks pretty good.
CARB has until December 2008 to figure out how to get California
there. According to the law, all of the regulations to meet
the 2020 goal have to be in place, and in force, by 2012.
One of the most promising tools California has in its climate-change
toolbox is called the Pavley bill, after its author, former
Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. The Pavley bill requires that,
by 2020, all cars and trucks sold in California emit 30 percent
fewer greenhouse-gas emissions from their tailpipes. That’s
about 30 MMT—a whopping 17 percent of the overall goal of
The problem is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
won’t let California enforce the Pavley bill. Two years ago,
the state asked for a waiver from the federal government to
enforce the rule, because automakers argued that only the
federal government, not California, could make regulations
that would affect fuel efficiency. Two years later, the Bush
administration still isn’t saying whether it will grant the
waiver or not. In fact, California had to sue the federal
government last month just to try and get an answer. If the
answer turns out to be “no,” then California likely will sue
Setting aside the uncertain future of the Pavley bill, the
next big category of greenhouse-gas reductions come in the
form of CARB’s “early-action items,” some of which are supposed
to go into effect by 2010, many more by 2012.
Each of these chip away at California’s total inventory of
greenhouse gases. In combination, the early-action rules are
supposed to move California another 24 percent closer to the
overall goal of the legislation.
For example, requiring ships at California ports to get electricity
from shore, rather than from their own diesel engines, could
shave off about 500,000 metric tons from California’s greenhouse-gas
inventory. Similar benefits are predicted for rules requiring
people to keep their tires properly inflated, and for tougher
regulations on the manufacture of semiconductors.
Requiring trucking companies to make their rigs more aerodynamic
will net a little over 1 MMT. And capturing more methane from
landfills could knock out 2 to 4 MMT of greenhouse gases.
Altogether, CARB is proposing 44 different regulations just
to cobble together that 24 percent. And any one of these regulations
could be a potential political fight. Each regulation affects
a particular industry or a particular part of the California
Let’s see: 17 percent plus 24 percent . . . that leaves 59
percent of the CO2 pie still to be accounted for. CARB only
has until the end of 2008 to figure out where those remaining
reductions will come from.
Some of the rules are on the drawing board already. The state’s
“Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” called for in an executive order
from Schwarzenegger earlier this year, could reduce California’s
total emissions by 10 to 20 MMT a year. California’s laws
requiring the state to use more renewable energy should also
contribute to the reductions.
After all that, you still end up putting just as much CO2
into the air in 2020 as you did a generation earlier. But
you would also be the first generation to force the line on
the graph measuring global-warming pollution to go down, instead
of up. And that’s a good thing.
Garvin is a senior staff writer at Sacramento (Calif.)
News & Review.