Sci-Fi Time for Obama

There’s more alarming news about the Arctic ice cap in Climate Progress and the Huffington Post.  As if the ongoing shrinking, thinning, and proliferating methane plumes aren’t enough, it seems that standing meltwater is accelerating its disappearance.

Deep Impact

Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact

One summer soon, the Arctic ice cap (what’s left of it at that time) could well disappear in two weeks. If you’ve ever seen the ice go out on a lake in springtime, you know it doesn’t take long. The entire thinning surface fractures into pieces which quickly melt.

Surely the Pentagon and the CIA must have this figured out. It amazes and saddens me that Obama doesn’t gather the top military brass and key scientists around him in the Oval Office and use the bully pulpit to level with us, just like in some science-fiction movie.

But if Obama’s top intelligence providers really thought the breakup of the ice cap were imminent, it seems that news would leak to the public. I can’t imagine how they could sit on something so big. Conspiracies at that level and on that scale aren’t sustainable. There are too many competing interests and motivations, too many people around the edges. On the other hand, who’s better at keeping secrets than the Pentagon, the NSA, and the CIA?

The silence is just weird in light of information that’s coming out of the government itself, like the draft National Climate Assessment and the stuff out of NASA and NOAA.

You’d think Obama would get out in front of these things and put them in context. Should we be worried? Is the government working on anything? I would think he’d either tell us we have a real problem and here’s what we’re going to do, or that we don’t have a problem (at least an imminent one).

I suppose there’s no upside for him to bring it up. It’ll undermine his efforts on the things he can actually influence, some of which are provocative enough in their own right. This issue, though, dwarfs any other. It’s just not obvious yet.

Obama may also judge–correctly–that the public isn’t ready for the message. There could be panic. And the risk of reaction, given the black-helicopter-blue-helmet-fearing-2nd-Amendment-solutions crowd, is high. (“See, I told ya that SOB Obama was a socialist plottin’ a UN take over!”) But putting it off makes that inevitable moment even more loaded and dangerous.

I wonder if Obama is playing chicken with nature–waiting for a sufficiently catastrophic climate event like a total crop failure to tell us Climate D-Day has arrived, and here are the emergency decrees we have to implement. Sandy wasn’t bad enough or widespread enough to get us there. But if he waits for something that big, it’ll probably be too late.

The challenge with any decree to reduce carbon–a tax, rationing, massive retrofitting, massive renewables deployment, or all-of-the-above–is popular legitimacy. That’s Step One: persuading the public (enough of it, anyway) that very bad things are all but certain to happen if we don’t take dramatic measures.

Reducing carbon emissions substantially and immediately—taking 5% of the carbon out of the economy every year for 20 years—would also substantially and immediately reduce everyone’s standard of living except the very rich. This is true even if we carpet the landscape with solar and wind sources, ramp up dozens of Manhattan Project R&D programs, and retrofit every building with LED lights, triple-pane windows, and massive insulation so that we drive unemployment to zero.

Think of the Midwest. Some states there depend on coal for 80% of their electricity. Shutting down all those plants within 20 years means other ones have to be built (assuming a deployable non-GHG-producing technology at that scale), or a massive investment in efficiency and conservation, or less reliable service, or all of the above. In any case, what happens to utility rates and personal expenses? They go up. A huge whack of income gets diverted to the conversion.

So how to get people to tolerate (or embrace) doing with less? They have to be persuaded that the alternative is imminent and much worse.

That’s where I picture Obama on TV from the Oval Office, side by side with Senator James Inhofe, surrounded by Pentagon brass and labcoated scientists, laying it out. Sen. Inhofe, as you probably know, is the Republican Senator from Oklahoma who’s the former chair of the Environment Committee and the leading climate-change denier in Congress. He even wrote a book calling climate change a “hoax.”

I proposed this idea to Dr. Katherine Hayhoe: why don’t you, as a fundamentalist Christian climate scientist, meet with Sen. Inhofe to lay out the facts and the potential consequences of inaction? Appeal to his Christian sense of duty and compassion?

Her response was, she would do it if she thought there was a shred of hope it would work, but you can’t convince people who are not open to reason. She’s concerned it would backfire and further entrench him, because his position is fundamentally irrational, and laying it out would just rub it in. She has a point.

But the big deniers are where the leverage is. I think a series of private conversations, presentations, shouting matches, whatever, between the key deniers and the most knowledgeable and persuasive people available–like a team of scientists, religious leaders, and Pentagon brass, just like in a sci-fi flick–is the best way to get the issue off dead center, before the ice cap disappears overnight and we have a world-wide crop failure that will induce nor only the very panic Obama is trying to avoid, but despair as well.

Think of the psychological impact of losing the ice cap. Nature, the very face of God, will have been altered forever. What is not obvious now will be obvious then: once the ice cap goes, it’s never coming back. The open Arctic will last a bit longer every summer, making agriculture more risky and more prone to sudden failure. With the Arctic black instead of white, even the most diehard climate change denier will instinctively understand that it’s all over except the waiting.

That’s why I keep coming back to Obama and Inhofe. Without the cooperation of at least part of the denier crowd, popular legitimacy for the revolutionary changes we need to make very quickly will be riddled with large pockets of possibly violent resistance.

If you think Obama and Inhofe in the same room pleading for public cooperation on climate change is a fantasy, then we are lost. It’s a microcosm of just how difficult this problem is. If Inhofe can’t be persuaded by the facts, then why should his supporters ever change their minds?

In Other News
The paper version of A Change in the Weather is finally published. You can find it at Amazon.

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Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Democracy, Denialism, Economics, Ice Cap, Politics

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