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Earth: Too big to fail?

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Posted: Friday, November 20, 2009 12:00 am

When our economy tanked last year, politicians told us that our nation’s financial institutions were “too big to fail.” Now, as world leaders prepare for a critically important climate summit in Copenhagen, we need to ask: “Is Earth too big to fail?”

You know the back story: scientific studies pile up monthly warnings of a potential collapse of our planet’s human life support systems. Most recently, researchers calculated that the Arctic icecap – one of earth’s largest geographic features – could disappear in 10 summers. That meltdown might unleash global weather changes that destabilize agriculture in a world where a billion people already go hungry, thereby threatening food riots and fanning the fires of global terror.

Meanwhile, UCLA scientists have looked back 20 million years to find atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as high as today. Global temperatures then were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher. Sea levels were 75 to 120 feet deeper. And Antarctica was nearly ice-free. Clearly, we are reshaping our “planet into something we have never seen in all of human history,” says climatologist Jonathan Foley.

Still, a Senate climate bill remains stalled, and its cap-and-trade mechanisms are seen by many as inadequate to deal with global warming. What’s needed immediately are fresh ideas that will break the logjam before Copenhagen. What is needed is a great and radical compromise that deals decisively and honestly with the climate change threat, but also allows the fossil fuel industry, and the rest of the U.S. and world economy, to thrive. Such a compromise is possible, though its provisions will likely cause environmentalists and fiscal conservatives to fall out of their chairs.

Here are four bold measures for breaking the climate deadlock.

• Put tens of billions into clean-coal. Coal largely powers our nation. That is current reality. And clean coal is still a fantasy, but not long ago so was a trip to the moon. Money is the answer. It is already technologically possible to remove 90 percent of the carbon from coal emissions. However, according to a July 2009 Harvard study, this thorough carbon-cleansing nearly doubles the cost of making electricity. So why not offer federal loans to energy producers to cover the difference? A carbon tax would pay back that loan. It can be done: Norway is already sequestering carbon beneath the North Sea, and sequestration sites are being identified across America. This is no permanent solution, but triage. It’s a stopgap measure to buy us some time: at a cost roughly equal to current U.S. corn subsidies, sequestering coal carbon emissions underground would give us a few decades to transition into a renewable-energy world, and give coal companies time to transform into 21st century energy companies.

• Repurpose petroleum. Oil isn’t renewable. Every barrel we burn for energy is wasted. It’s like burning money. Rather, let’s transition from using oil as fuel and turn it into high-quality plastics and other durable goods. Let’s fund research into next-generation plastics and other petrochemically-based materials designed for reuse in an endless loop – rather than being discarded. Already, scientists at the University of Washington are using petroleum-based plastics to make solar cells; other researchers are using them in high-quality building materials. Following the “cradle to cradle” ideas of architect William McDonough, manufacturers are inventing ways to design shoes, cars – even factories – to be dismantled and reused. Such change could take decades, but an infusion of investment will quicken it.

• Institute a global Marshall Plan. Current economic and climate realities dictate that we bail out the developing world. Unless we bring the poor out of poverty through clean energy, all of the developed world’s carbon emission reduction efforts will go for naught. Exporting sustainable-energy technologies to the developing world will help end poverty and dramatically boost our economy. When the U.S. rebuilt Europe and Japan after World War II, skeptics called it economic suicide. Today the U.S.-European-Japanese trading partnership is the strongest, freest economic engine the world has known. Likewise, investment in Africa today will create thriving free markets there tomorrow.

• Adapt now. No matter how successfully we implement the first three steps, too much greenhouse gas is already aloft. We must prepare for some climate-caused upheaval. Intensive cooperative public-private planning is needed to anticipate the extreme weather, sea rise, wildfire, insect, disease and other damage done by climate change.

These proposals will likely anger many. But sticking with the current crop of platitudes is getting us no closer to a solution. And we’ve run out of time. Hear this recent warning from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss.” We are speeding headlong into climate chaos.

A change in approach must come now – before Copenhagen. Impossible? Not in the America we know.


Glenn Scherer and David Lillard are the editors of Blue Ridge Press, a syndicated commentary service about the environment.

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