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Deadly Heat Wave Reignites Climate Change Debate

August 4, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: All week, in much of the nation, it was oppressive…

AMERICAN CITIZEN: It’s like India, same weather.

JEFFREY BROWN: … sweltering, just downright hot.

AMERICAN CITIZEN: Ever see those machines where they put the peanuts in them and they roast them peanuts? That’s what it’s like. I feel like I’m a roasted peanut out here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Numerous deaths were blamed on the heat wave. The nation’s power grid was strained.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, Mayor of New York City: If we want to keep the power going, we’re all just going to have to conserve.

JEFFREY BROWN: People were doing whatever they could to stay cool. And once again, they were thinking about whether today’s weather is one more sign of global warming.

For months, in fact, the global warming conversation seems to have permeated the news headlines and popular culture, in numerous magazine articles and on television, and of course at the Cineplex, with Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

AL GORE, Former Vice President of the United States: If you look at the 10 hottest years ever measured, they’ve all occurred in the last 14 years, and the hottest of all was 2005.

JEFFREY BROWN: This week, global warming took the political stage in California, in an unusual alliance of a state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the head of a foreign government, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who came together with a group of business leaders to announce a new initiative.

Also this week, former President Clinton launched his own initiative that allows large cities to pool their resources in order to purchase cheaper, energy-saving products.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: We have to reduce about 80 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 to 15 years. It sounds like a daunting task, but I don’t believe it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-two major world cities will participate in the program, including Los Angeles, New York, London and Chicago.

The proven effect of global warming

Elizabeth Kolbert
The New Yorker
There has been a shift in recent months ... and I think it really has begun to dawn on people that this is a major problem and that we really have to confront it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now our own conversation about the national conversation on climate change with three who write on the subject.

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and author of the book, "Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change." Ronald Bailey is a columnist and science writer for Reason magazine. And Gregg Easterbrook is a writer and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has a piece on global warming in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Welcome to all of you.

Elizabeth Kolbert, starting with you, do you see a shift in how the public thinks and talks about global warming?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT, New Yorker Magazine: I do think that there has been a shift in recent months. Perhaps you could date it all the way back to last year's hurricane season which was so devastating, and I think it really has begun to dawn on people that this is a major problem and that we really have to confront it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, Gregg Easterbrook? Where do you see the public conversation?

GREGG EASTERBROOK, New Republic Magazine: Well, the key thing to me, the leader is the scientific consensus, that whereas skeptical as recently as 10, 15 years ago, in the last five years, it's firmed up. The National Academy of Sciences, which was quite skeptical even a decade ago about the proof of global warming, last year said that they considered dangerous artificial global warming to be proven.

And I can tell you, from personal experience, that all the senior staff at the White House now believes that global warming is real, so what more do you need to know than that?

JEFFREY BROWN: We mentioned, of course, this is a week when it's really hot. People want to make a connection. What's known about the connection? What can we say?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: The fact that it's hot today doesn't tell you anything. Even Mark Twain said a century ago that weather is what happens today and climate is what happens over your lifetime. If we had a very cold summer, that wouldn't tell us anything, either. What is revealing is the gradual trend, both toward gradual warming of the Earth, and toward other signs of climate change, such as shifting in ocean currents that are probably more relevant anyway.

Getting the message out

Gregg Easterbrook
Brookings Institution
Right now, global warming seems unstoppable because no one is trying to stop it. As soon as we make a serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gases, engineers will invent things, entrepreneurs will come up with ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: We're having some technical trouble with Charlottesville for Ronald Bailey, so let me go back to you, Elizabeth Kolbert. To what extent does the media -- I mentioned, you know, all the film, the TV, the magazines -- to what extent does that drive the conversation, and how real is that conversation?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, I think one of the things that we're starting to see change in that, I think, is very important is that this issue has been portrayed for a long time as a debate. And I think that, in the scientific community, you know, as Gregg said, the debate has really been over for several years now.

And I think that that is only now, unfortunately, just percolating out to the media, and we are starting to see a shift in the coverage of this as presented basically as a scientific fact, which it simply is. And so I hope that that message is finally getting out to people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what message do you think is getting out, or what message is being taken in? Is it an awareness, or is it an urgency? How do you define it?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, I think that's a really good question. I think there is an awareness. I think that people are still not aware of the scale of the problem, the scope of the problem, the fact that global warming is a problem that's always further along than you realize.

Once you start to feel the effects of global warming, which we are feeling right now, the problem has already -- we've already guaranteed further global warming in the future, because of the time lag in the system. So I'm not sure that people understand all of that, but I think that they are starting to understand that it's an issue that we have to take action on.

Now, in the clip that you showed before, President Clinton said we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over next 10 or 15 years, and really he's correct. And that is, as he pointed out, a very daunting task.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, Gregg Easterbrook, about this question of awareness versus urgency? What are people getting?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Well, people are aware of global warming now as a problem, but they're not aware of the potential solutions. And I think that's the key thing that's missing.

I'm a global warming optimist, in that I believe that global warming is a real danger and I also believe we're going to beat it much more easily than people think.

Greenhouse gases are an air pollution problem. The history of air pollution problems in the United States is that they've all been solved more rapidly than projected and more cheaply than projected. Thirty five years ago, smog, especially in Los Angeles, it seemed like there would never be any physical solution to it. We've since seen a very dramatic reduction in Los Angeles smog. Smog all across the country has gone down at a relatively low price, hasn't hurt the economy.

Twenty years ago, people said that acid rain was going to cause a new "Silent Spring" and that the Appalachian forests would be dead by now. Instead, we've controlled acid rain very cheaply, much more quickly than other people expected.

Right now, global warming seems unstoppable because no one is trying to stop it. As soon as we make a serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gases, engineers will invent things, entrepreneurs will come up with ideas. We will find that we can cut greenhouse gases much more cheaply and much more rapidly than people now expect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, come back, Elizabeth Kolbert, because that's...

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: I want to say it's a very, very rosy picture, but I hope he's right. I certainly think that the key point to be made is: We really have to try.

We have really made virtually no effort in this country, and that's kind of shocking when you think about it, perhaps you could argue verging on criminal. And we really have to get going and trying.

And it really, on some level, doesn't matter what the cost is. If someone said to you, you know, your kid's future is on the line, what would you say? "It's really not worth the money." Our kids' futures really are on the line here, and it's really time to get going.

To quote Bill Clinton again, he said last week, you know, this is a race against time, and that's really true. We should have started years ago; it's certainly time to start now.

The politics of global warming

Ronald Bailey
Reason Magazine
If we set up this situation so that scientists and entrepreneurs can come up with these new technologies, then we should be able to solve the problem. We're not nearly in as desperate a situation as I believe some people argue that we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the way it's entering the political debate, Gregg Easterbrook? I mentioned this meeting in California with Governor Schwarzenegger and Tony Blair, an unusual gathering. What do you see going on?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Mostly symbolic. What they agreed to was really baby steps. They agreed that the people who replace them in the future should make dramatic cuts in global warming, but the actual details of the Schwarzenegger-Blair agreement, if you read them, don't ask Governor Schwarzenegger or Prime Minister Blair themselves to do much during their own tenures.

But baby steps are necessary before you make the big steps. The public has to be convinced. As recently as five years ago, a reasonable person could have looked at the scientific consensus and said, "Well, there's a lot of uncertainty left. We need more research."

Now a reasonable person looks at the science and has to say: This has proven it's a real danger. We don't know what the future holds. We don't know how bad global warming will be, but we know it's likely to be bad. So now we've reached that point where the reasonable person has to say action is now required.

And I think, once this permeates out to the public at large, voters will start to demand action.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are the politicians and the business community now speaking up a lot? Are they having this conversation that you want about what should be done, the various options, I mean?

Go ahead, Ms. Kolbert.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Yes, absolutely they're having this conversation. Every day people are having this conversation. The question really is -- and I think that everything that happened, you know, this past week shows that it hasn't gotten to the level.

What everyone knows, when you get Tony Blair up there and Bill Clinton, everybody knows you need national and international action on what is an international problem. And to get, you know, Tony Blair and Arnold Schwarzenegger out on the stage is really only to point to, you know, the inadequacy of what's going on in Washington.

Now, that conversation is happening in Washington, but what we need -- once again, it's very simple -- what Gregg pointed to -- has dealt with all of the problems that he mentioned before previously, acid rain, all of those things was federal legislation, and that's clearly what we need.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you read the politics?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Well, at the moment, the parties are still in a classic dance of maneuvering to try to attach blame to each other. I think both parties, Democrat and Republican, their senior leadership are convinced global warming is real.

They both fear that it can't be stopped without harming the economy. That's the one fear that I don't have, but I realize I can't prove it to you.

We've got to have -- that the history of air pollution issues is that, once there's a regulatory initiative that creates a way to make money by cutting pollution, and the key thing is that nobody can make money by cutting greenhouse gases today. Once you give people a profit incentive, entrepreneurs and engineers will very rapidly come up with clever ideas to make your problems seem nowhere near as bad as you initially thought.

So once the parties can get their heads around that and not worry about harming the economy -- acid rain regulations were predicted to cause a recession. And instead we had 15 years of the greatest boom economy in American history. Once we can convert people to global warming optimism, then optimism is something political parties like, and maybe they'll embrace it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Bailey, I apologize that we're getting you in here so late. I don't know if you were able to hear this conversation. Go ahead.

RONALD BAILEY, Reason Magazine: I'm delighted that the television goblins let me get to you finally.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. We were just talking about the political conversation, where it stands now. We had mentioned earlier that there was this meeting in California between Governor Schwarzenegger and Tony Blair, a conversation in the public, in the media, a conversation in the business world. Where do you see things? Where do you see things shifting and how?

RONALD BAILEY: Well, basically I think that we're all global warmers now, that it's essentially going to be that we've all agreed that there is a trend toward a warmer planet and that humanity is, in fact, contributing to that trend.

The extent of that contribution is, I'm not quite nearly as sure of it as Ms. Kolbert is, but I think that where we stand is we all now agree that the temperature is increasing and that we probably need to do something about it.

Some of the proposals that are coming out, the symbolic stuff, the political theater that Tony Blair and Schwarzenegger engaged in, are not simply -- they're just political theater. They're not at all solutions to the problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you call it political theater, and why do you think they're motivated to do it?

RONALD BAILEY: Well, Schwarzenegger's clearly motivated to do it because he's trying to differentiate himself from President Bush. He's up for re-election, and he's got a real problem in a state that is predominantly Democratic, so he's basically selecting global warming and stem-cell research and that kind of thing as a way of differentiating himself from an unpopular president.

But one of the things that -- I did happen to overhear some of the conversation, and I have to agree with Gregg Easterbrook that very likely is the fact, if we set up this situation so that scientists and entrepreneurs can come up with these new technologies, then we should be able to solve the problem. We're not nearly in as desperate a situation as I believe some people argue that we are.

Leaving a lasting legacy

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Elizabeth Kolbert, when you have this question of a problem that people agree on to some extent, to a large extent, but then you have the question of how urgent, what should be done, what is the right message that you would like to send to the public at this point?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, I think that the message that we need to send to the public is simply: We have to make this effort. We can't just sit back on our hands and let our kids inherit it, because it's simply too big. I can't emphasize that enough.

I'm not speaking here, I'm sort of channeling all the scientific community in the world that will tell you this is a growing problem. It's a cumulative problem. And the more we just sort of follow what's called the path of business as usual, the bigger legacy we're leaving to our children, the bigger likelihood that we're leaving an insolvable problem to our children. So we really owe it to our children to get going on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Bailey, what message would you like to send?

RONALD BAILEY: I think that one of the things -- we don't need to jump off the cliff immediately. One of the ways of looking at a 100-year problem, which is what this really is, is how big will the economy be in the year 2100?

And some of the best projections are done by the Employment Policy Institute. They suggest the world economy would be $150 trillion in size. It's currently about $30 trillion. That gives a lot more resources for handling the problems that will arise a century from now. And in a certain sense, the legacy we need to leave to the children, the subsequent generations, is a legacy of better technologies and better science.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last final question, Mr. Easterbrook, when you have something that is over a long term, it isn't tied to specific events, do you expect the public conversation or debate to shift over time or do you see a straight line now?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: We're better at dealing -- all human beings are better with dealing with what's right in front of their face, and global warming is a long-term problem that, as Ron says, will require long-term solutions.

But everybody's concerned about the world that their children will inherent. If you ask average voters, everybody worries about a safe environment for their children. Everybody worries about leaving the world in better condition than they found it.

I think that the typical American voter, once you show that there are reasonable and affordable solutions, that this isn't some insurmountable problem, I think the typical American voter will be very anxious to support reasonable greenhouse reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gregg Easterbrook, Ronald Bailey, and Elizabeth Kolbert, thank you all three very much.