For some months now I have been visiting Joseph Romm’s blog Climate Progress regularly, valuing it for its lively and informed commentary on climate science and politics and its focus on the solutions already available to us. The cover of his book Hell and High Water is prominent on the website and I grew uncomfortably aware that I hadn’t read it, and perhaps I should. At last I have.
It was well worth the reading. Romm holds a PhD in physics from MIT and is a senior fellow at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress. During the Clinton Administration he was Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy with a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy. His service towards a sustainable energy future was recognised last year when he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The fact that the book is addressed to Americans doesn’t lessen its significance for the rest of us. What happens in the US is crucial in determining whether we succeed in successfully addressing global warming.
The book is in two parts. In the first Romm surveys the science and what the future holds if we continue on our present path. He doesn’t discuss the detailed evidence for global warming and climate science but rather selects some aspects to establish the seriousness of the future threat. Invoking Broecker’s image of climate as “an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges” he discusses the possibility of climate’s sudden response to forcings, which the paleoclimate record reveals so remarkably. Increased global hurricane intensity and frequency, a matter of great importance to the US, is investigated and affirmed in an interesting sequence. Droughts and wildfires, also on the agenda for the US, are explained. He emphasises the need for systems thinking in considering how four key carbon sinks could turn to sources under increased warming and drive vicious feedback cycles – the oceans, the soils, the tropical forests, and the arctic tundra, permafrost and frozen peat. Finally he looks at the prospects for ice movement in Greenland and Antarctica and provides scenarios for US cities enduring continually rising sea levels combined with increased hurricane activity. On our current emissions path the planet will almost certainly be 3 degrees warmer than pre-imdustrial levels by the end of the century. In that case we can expect to battle with metres of sea level rise over a relatively short space of time.
The question of the century is: “Do we humans have the political will to stop the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica from melting … to stop Hell and High Water?” The global-warming problem is no longer prmarily a scientific matter. Nor is it a technological problem because we have the technologies to avoid the disasters that await us if we keep doing nothing. It is a problem of politics and political will. This is the focus of the second part of the book.
Romm discusses how the cautious and factual language of scientists has not availed against the conservative leaders in America who have chosen to use their superior messaging and political skills to thwart serious action on global warming. It is hard to see how anything could avail against the counsel of Luntz Research Companies whose advice to politicians on how to prevent efforts to tackle global warming Romm describes. The passages Romm refers to reveal a level of manipulative cynicism and disregard for truth which is breathtaking. (You can see the Luntz memo here.) The advice has clearly been followed by many politicians and publicists. Delayers and Denyers are Romm’s preferred names for the sceptics. He describes a campaign which certainly has little to do with scientific scepticism. But it has everything to do with political partisanship. Global warming became a partisan issue, at least in the US, and the sorry consequences are detailed by Romm, including the Bush White House’s deliberate strategy of impeding the scientific message.
One of the tactics employed by the Delayers has been to speak of the need for long-term technological breakthroughs, conveniently some distance into the future. Romm regards this as mostly empty rhetoric because it has not been matched by adequate funding. Meanwhile the Gingrich congress cut funds for programmes aimed at accelerating the deployment into the American market of cost-effective technologies already available. Romm identifies three technology areas which offer dramatic emission reductions in electricity generation at low cost and are ready to hand. They are energy efficiency, cogeneration and renewables. Energy efficiency is the enabling strategy which generates the savings that pay for the zero-carbon energy sources.
Fuelling transport receives considered treatment. Fuel efficiency standards are an essential start, and after discussing various options Romm concludes that the best option for the future will be plug-in hybrids using electricity generated by wind. Cellulosic ethanol may also have an important part to play.
Why has media coverage of global warming in the US failed to adequately inform the public about the urgency of the problem and the huge effort needed to avert catastrophe? Romm points to a declining number of science reporters, but worst of all to the “misguided belief that the pusuit of ‘balance’ is superior to the pursuit of truth – even in science journalism.” This has played into the hands of the Delayers and Denyers who have exploited the flaw very successfully. Time is the one US publication which has consistently delivered timely and powerful stories on global warming, largely unfettered by faux balance. Romm recalls the April 2006 cover: ‘BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED.’
Romm’s book was published in 2007. Today there is a new Administration in the White House which has committed itself to positive action to combat global warming. That does not mean that the Denyers and Delayers have gone away. In his conclusion Romm, looking forward, feared that even after Bush had gone conservatives in Congress would hold enough strength to continue to block significant action on climate, should they so choose. The results of inaction will be dreadful and will eventually force government action on a scale that would dwarf the straightforward government-led solutions available today – and by then even drastic action may be ineffectual. Romm’s advice? “Get informed, get outraged, and then get political.