If the world ever manages to win the race against climate change, we may remember December 2007 as the month when we finally got out of the blocks. Right now ministers and environmentalists from 190 countries are meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali, to begin the laborious process of establishing a global climate plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Big business is on board on Nov. 30 the leaders of 150 top firms released a petition calling on governments to establish mandatory caps on carbon emissions. Washington is finally awakening from its slumber, with Congress hammering out the first increase in auto fuel economy standards since 1984, and with the first real piece of climate-change legislation a bill sponsored by Senators John Warner and Joseph Lieberman ready for a vote in the Senate.
All are advances that would have been virtually unthinkable 18 months ago but they're still not anywhere near enough. To avert the worst consequences of global warming, we'll need to all but eliminate carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century, and that will require a wholesale change in the way Americans (and eventually everyone else) use energy, work, consume, even live. There's only one person in the world with both the political power and the moral authority to lead such a drastic transformation: the President of the United States. Unfortunately, says David Orr, the head of environmental studies at Oberlin College and one of the foremost green thinkers in the U.S.: "There has been a leadership failure on this issue. It's been a leadership vacuum."
Orr is looking to inspire candidates to fill that vacuum. He is one of the principal architects of the just released Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), an ambitious to-do list on global warming for the next Administration. PCAP calls on the next President to make climate change his or her signature issue, to spend the first 100 days in office preparing America for a post-carbon world, committing the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions 90% by 2050. It's far grander than anything Congress or any Presidential candidate has proposed, but to Orr climate change is a threat on par with World War II, and it demands the same immediate, all-or-nothing commitment starting with the White House. "There is no room for error and no room for mistakes," says Orr. "We have to get it right quick or there'll be hell to pay." (Hear Orr talk about PCAP on this week's Greencast.)
The recommendations in PCAP are radical, but not new: cut petroleum use in half by 2020, achieve average fuel economy of 50 mpg, shift the federal government to carbon neutrality. But what makes PCAP particularly impressive is the way it turns the question of climate change away from saving the planet, and toward saving the country. Global warming is too important to be left to the environmentalists it's a national security issue, an economic issue, even a moral issue. That's the kind of language that can appeal not only to traditional greens but to Republicans, and make climate change a national crusade, not a partisan one. "The barriers are breaking down on this issue," says former Sen. Gary Hart, another senior member of PCAP. "This will require real leadership by Republicans and Democrats alike."
We'll need it. You can't squeeze the sort of sweeping legislation needed on global warming through a divided Congress. But there's every reason for climate change to transcend those differences, if the right President or candidate knows how to frame the problem. If you care about America's security first, Orr argues, you want to stop sending billions in oil money to our enemies. If you care about the economy, you want to make sure the U.S. does all it can to create a clean energy sector that could create millions of new jobs. If you're religious, you know that the U.S. far and away the world's biggest contributor to climate change has a moral obligation to help the impoverished billions who will suffer first and worst in a warmer future. (And if you care first about polar bears, well, you're probably already on board.) "This is neither a conservative or a liberal issue," says Orr. "This is a national issue."
If you're worried about the price tag of all this, don't be. A recent report by McKinsey found that the U.S. could achieve vast cuts in greenhouse gas emissions at a cost to the economy of less than $50 a ton lower, if we take advantage of the reduced costs energy efficiency would bring. "The business case of the U.S. is crystal clear," says Ray Anderson, the CEO of the carpet manufacturing company Interface and another senior PCAP member.
The challenge will be finding a leader willing to stand and deliver what Orr calls "the climate equivalent of a house divided speech." You don't find a Lincoln every day, and while the current crop of Presidential candidates takes climate change more seriously than its predecessors especially on the Democratic side no one seems eager to make global warming the center of his or her campaign. But that may only happen when Americans make climate change the first of their political demands. The next Administration is already running on borrowed time and so are we.