Cover Story

We're Getting Warmer

It's been 10 years since the Kyoto Accord was struck. Why has so little been accomplished?

The Kyoto Accord began the race to halt global warming. On its 10th anniversary, why are we barely past the starting gate?

I remember so well the final morning hours of the Kyoto conference. The negotiations had gone on long past their scheduled evening close, and the convention-center management was frantic ' a trade show for children's clothing was about to begin, and every corner of the vast hall still was littered with the carcasses of the sleeping diplomats who had gathered in Japan to draw up a first-ever global treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But when word finally came that an agreement had been reached, people roused themselves with real enthusiasm ' lots of backslapping and hugs.

A long decade after the first powerful warnings had sounded, it seemed that humans were finally rising to the greatest challenge we'd ever faced.

The only long face in the hall belonged to William O'Keefe, chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, otherwise known as the American coal, oil and car lobby. He'd spent the week coordinating the resistance ' working with Arab delegates and Russian industrialists to sabotage the emerging plan. And he'd failed. "It's in free fall now," he said, stricken. But then he straightened his shoulders and said, "I can't wait to get back to Washington where we can get things under control."

I thought he was whistling past the graveyard. In fact, he knew far better than the rest of us what the future would hold. He knew it would be at least another decade before anything changed.


The important physical-world reality to know about the 10 years after Kyoto is that they included the warmest years on record. All of the warmest years on record.

In that span of time, we've come to understand that not only is the globe warming, but also that we'd dramatically underestimated the speed and the size of that warming. By now, the data from the planet outstrips the scientific prediction on an almost daily basis. Earlier this fall, for instance, the melt of Arctic sea ice beat the old record. Beat it in mid-August, and then the ice kept melting for six more weeks, losing an area the size of California every week. "Scientists shaken by rapid melt of Arctic ice," the headline in The New York Times reported. And they were shaken by rapid changes in tundra-permafrost systems, not to mention rain-forest systems, temperate-soil carbon-sequestration systems, oceanic-acidity systems.

We've gone from a problem for our children to a problem for right about now, as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina, California wildfires, epic droughts in the Southeast and Southwest. And that's just the continental United States. Go to Australia sometime: It's gotten so dry there that native Aussie Rupert Murdoch recently announced that his News Corp. empire was going carbon neutral.

The important political-world reality to know about the 10 years after Kyoto is that we haven't done anything.

Oh, we've passed all kinds of interesting state and local laws, wonderful experiments that have begun to show just how much progress is possible. But in Washington, D.C., nothing. No laws at all. Until last year, when the GOP surrendered control of Congress, even the hearings were a joke, with "witnesses" like novelist Michael Crichton.

And as a result, our emissions have continued to increase. Worse, we've made not the slightest attempt to shift China and India away from using their coal. Instead of an all-out effort to provide the resources so they could go renewable, we've stood quietly by and watched from the sidelines as their energy trajectories shot out of control: The Chinese now are opening a new coal-fired plant every week.


If you're looking for good news, there is some.

For one thing, we understand the technologies and the changes in habit that can help. The last 10 years have seen the advent of hybrid cars and the widespread use of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Wind power has been the fastest-growing source of electric generation throughout the period. Japan and then Germany have pioneered with great success the subsidy scheme required to put millions of solar panels up on rooftops.

Even more important, a real movement has begun to emerge in this country. It began with Katrina, which opened eyes. Al Gore gave those eyes something to look at: His movie made millions realize just what a pickle we were in. Many of those, in turn, became political activists. Earlier this year, six college students and I launched, which has organized almost 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states. Last month, the student climate movement drew 7,000 hardworking kids from campuses all over the country for a huge conference. We've launched a new grassroots coalition,, that will push both Congress and the big Washington environmental groups.

All this work has tilted public opinion ' new polls actually show energy and climate change showing up high on the list of issues that voters care about, which in turn has made the candidates take notice. All the Democrats are saying more or less the right things, though none of them, save John Edwards, is saying them with much volume.


Now it's a numbers game. Can we turn that political energy into change fast enough to matter?

On the domestic front, the numbers look like this: We've got to commit to reductions in carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2050, and we've got to get those cuts underway fast ' 10 percent in just the next few years. Markets will help ' if we send them the information that carbon carries a cost. Only government can do that.

Two more numbers we're pushing for: zero, which is how many new coal-fired power plants we can afford to open in America, and 5 million, which is how many green jobs Congress needs to provide for the country's low-skilled workers. All that insulation isn't going to stuff itself inside our walls, and those solar panels won't crawl up on the roofs by themselves. You can't send the work to China, and you can't do it with a mouse: This is the last big chance to build an economy that works for most of us.

Internationally, the task is even steeper. The Kyoto Accord, which we ignored, expires in a couple of years. Negotiations begin this month in Bali to strike a new deal, and it's likely to be the last bite at the apple we'll get ' miss this chance and the climate likely spirals out of control. We have a number here, too: 450, as in parts-per-million carbon dioxide. It's the absolute upper limit on what we can pour into the atmosphere, and it will take a heroic effort to keep from exceeding it. This is a big change ' even 10 years ago, we thought the safe level might be 550. But the data is so clear: The Earth is far more finely balanced than we thought, and our peril much greater. Our foremost climate scientist, NASA's James Hansen, testified under oath in a courtroom last year that if we didn't stop short of that 450 red line, we could see the sea level rise 20 feet before the century was out. That's civilization-challenging. That's a carbon summer to match any nuclear winter that anyone ever dreamed about.

It's a test, a kind of final exam for our political, economic and spiritual systems. And it's a fair test, nothing vague or fuzzy about it. Chemistry and physics don't bargain. They don't compromise. They don't meet us halfway. We'll do it, or we won't. And 10 years from now, we'll know which path we chose.

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is an author and environmentalist who frequently writes about global warming. McKibben's essay was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.


Do you believe man made carbon emissions are a primary cause of this global warming?

I have heard reports from representatives of different renowned institutions with completely different conclusions concerning climate change. There are those which suggest that the temperature patterns of the earth have constantly changed over time and the recent changes are a symptom of those patterns, while others have noted an acceleration of temperature changes over the past dozen years.

Regardless of which opinion an individual has on the issue of climate change, there is strong ' and growing ' world sentiment that carbon emissions are contributing to the current changes in our climate. There is further broadbased sentiment that reducing carbon emissions will either slow down climate change, or reverse it.

It is clear that there is a growing segment of the public at-large which believes climate change is a serious matter that must be addressed.

Do you think the subject of global warming has been misrepresented by scientists, government or the media? If so, how?

It is really difficult to determine the reality of climate change. Based on all I have read and heard, there is little chance of turning off the world public sentiment that climate change is a real problem.

Do you think there is a pressing need to address the issue of global warming?

The world community, especially Europe, has criticized the U.S.'s slow response on this issue. The current makeup of the U.S. Congress is leaning more and more toward passing legislation to address climate change. I believe Congress will eventually pass some legislation to address this issue.

Louisiana is among the ten highest carbon dioxide emitting states in the country, according to the EPA. What, if anything, do you think should be done about Louisiana's high-level of carbon emissions?

I don't know what are the major contributors of carbon in Louisiana, as Louisiana industries and the electric utilities still tend to be very dependent on natural gas, which has low carbon emissions as compared to coal.

The information I have seen suggests that 50 percent of carbon emissions are related to transportation ' with the largest part of that 50 percent related to automobiles. If that information is correct, and we look at this from a very simple perspective, overall coal emissions would be reduced by 25 percent if all transportation vehicles were replaced with vehicles that were twice as fuel efficient. But how do we convince the public to replace their existing vehicles with the higher-gas mileage smaller vehicles?

From a different direction, some suggest electricity should be generator using renewable technologies, such as solar and wind generation. Solar power is very expensive (more expensive on a power output basis than nuclear power) and very inefficient. Wind generation is also very expensive to construct and maintain. In both cases, power is generated by these technologies only if the sun is shining and/or the wind is blowing. Electric consumers, in general, will require that their electric service remain on even during cloudy, calm days ' which means a utility must have sufficient conventional generation capacity available even if the utility makes heavy investments in solar and wind generation. That extra, duplicative cost will translate into unpopular higher rates for consumers. Plus even solar and wind generation providers admit that solar and wind power alone cannot keep up with the continued demand growth for electric power.

In the case of coal plants, carbon sequestration is suggested as a means to avoid putting more coal emissions into the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration means the emissions from a coal plant would be pumped into stable underground geological formations, such as salt domes. Beyond the expected resistance by some members of the public, the cost to pump that volume of the coal plant emissions is tremendous. It is estimated that for every two coal plants whose emissions are to be sequestered, it will take a third coal plant to generate the electrical energy necessary to pump those emissions underground. Translated into consumer cost, that would mean the cost of electricity from a coal plant would increase by 50 percent due to this factor alone.

The bottom line is that addressing climate change will be very expensive for all consumers. Some consumers will not be able to afford the increased electrical costs ' which some studies suggest will be over three times what consumers pay for electricity today. However, environmental supporters will quickly suggest that, regardless of costs, the future of the earth must be protected and that higher electrical costs will encourage consumers to conserve, thus reducing their electrical usage - which translates into less coal emissions.


Do you believe man made carbon emissions are a primary cause of this global warming?

I think that while carbon emissions may be a good part of the recent trends, industrialization may be catching up with us to a certain degree. It's also likely much more complex to fix, including reduced carbon sequestration as our planet becomes less green, absorbing less CO2, and the Earth's Albedo (reflectivity) has changed in many areas. Other gases that will likely govern our future include methane and water vapor. There has been strong correlation to warming and CO2 increases in the past but there is still plenty of debate on how much the anthropogenic (man-made) contribution is pushing us into a warmer clime. There is no doubt that we have added to the natural CO2 and other pollutants in our atmosphere but a "debate" does remain on the intensity of its effects. Aerosols and global dimming (masking climate trends) will also grab more headlines in the future. There are also natural background variations in our climate but it is very hard to separate the baby from the bath. CO2 is very important and the hot topic right now, but methane and water vapor will probably, in my view, play big roles in climate influences of the future.

Do you think the subject of global warming has been misrepresented by scientists, government or the media? If so, how?

As an applied meteorologist and someone who works in the media, I have seen the subject indeed taken a life of its own. Many meteorologists that forecast short term (1-8 days out) and rely on complex computer models for a living, have issues with the some of the simplified global climate models that project 100 years into the future. While global climate modeling continues to improve by leaps and bounds the forecasts will not likely be a done deal. (How many times has a five-day forecast busted, or more recently a hurricane season forecast missed?) It appears that many of the uncertainties that scientists are dealing with are not translated well into and through the media. I think scientists as a whole have been plugging many of the same concepts for decades but the gravity of the information has often got lost in the media and politics. We're not heading for the "Day After Tomorrow" scenario but the tenor of some of the headlines and megadisaster specials on the education-oriented cable channels seem to dictate otherwise. Because of these mixed signals from the media (not just news outlets) and the science community (especially outside of the IPCC) it has gotten politicized depending on what one wants to believe, or is economically fortuitous.

Another driving influence in today's headlines are the scientists and the private interest groups that take the observational data we have now and extrapolate it into the future or make an inference from the past without really knowing how properly treat all the data. These stories have been coming from both conservative and liberal points of view on the subject and it appears that the more spectacular the findings, the more air-play and print these "limited" studies get. An example of this occurring recently were the number of outfits that got into the hurricane forecasting business since 2004. How many press releases did we see on the wire from dozens if not hundreds of people trying to get into Dr. Gray's and NOAA's realm of seasonal predictions? There are many that have really forwarded the science...but it has boiled down to a "perception is reality" scenario. But like this last year the forecast accuracy for most was about 70-80 percent. The recent public outcry over "missed" forecasts, and this for the better for the U.S., just highlights that it's a forecast ' it's science and there is more we need to know and do. I therefore would not expect many of the current future extrapolations of what our climate will do to be much better accuracy-wise. We're probably in the right direction, but putting finality to the subject is misleading.

Obviously warming and subsequent sea level rise should be a big concern in our area, but when climate experts forecasts range from 1 foot to 20 feet over a 50- to 150-year period it's confusing to all of us on what we should think. There are even some in the climate forecasting community that indicate that we are past the "tipping" point, and there is very little we can do. I do believe that the more we learn, the more we find out what we don't know and there are many questions that may not be answered for quite awhile. While coastal Greenland and Antarctica have been experiencing melting rates not seen in hundreds if not thousands of years, there has been insufficient explanation why interior portions of both land masses have seen a net increase in ice, and in the case of interior Antarctica, a net cooling over the last 10-20 years.

From a tropical standpoint, there is very little evidence that argues for more tropical storms and more intense hurricanes in a warmer climate, yet there have been countless press releases that are ripped and read and printed from private weather firms to statisticians that insist otherwise. Anyone that says that Katrina or Rita were due to recent warming trends has dubious "science" to back it up, yet it tugs at our emotions. Once again this is an arena where there may or may not be an influencing factor or feedback mechanism with global climate changes, but there are no breakout theories yet.

Along with reports of more hurricanes, the IPCC has indicated that in a warmer climate the world will likely see more droughts, heat waves, floods, and severe weather ' but how much more? A 1 percent-3 percent increase, is that detectable? Is it that significant? In the U.S. alone there are years where we see 300-500 documented tornadoes and other years it's well over 1000; that is natural variability. But as soon as we have a busier year, the inferences will be made directly to climate change. During a mild December across the mid-west in 2006 a Weather Channel Climate Expert told the audience that the unusually warm weather they felt was because of global warming. You cannot feel global warming of 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over 100 years by stepping out the door! On the other hand, even if there is say a 1 percent-2 percent chance of increased drought in some spots, it will make a difference if you already live in a desert. So the areas that may most likely suffer in a warmer world are regions that already have well documented risks of drought, flood and famine; deserts will get drier and coastal areas that have very little protection from the ocean and storms will likely become more vulnerable. That's why it has been correctly stated that many who may suffer the most from a changing climate will be the people who live in these areas such as Africa and other deserts areas like Bangladesh, who are prone to massive fatalities with just a 5-10 foot storm surge. We as Louisianians need to keep current especially on the topic of sea level rise as our coast has become increasingly more vulnerable over just the last few years ' not due to global warming, but due to well-placed hurricanes normal to the area and the man-made altering of coastal marshes, canals, waterways and ship channels.

Do you think there is a pressing need to address the issue is global warming?

Absolutely. But we also need to better understand climate change and what makes us warm and what makes us cool. At least because of the headlines people are beginning to think and hopefully act more responsibly with our environment. It just makes sense to leave our planet a better, cleaner place for future generations. Drastically cutting our carbon emissions in half or more may not be feasible right now, but we need to think out of the box to make it economically viable in the future, and so goes with everything we pollute in our environment.

I think what's also important are the shorter term threats to the U.S. ' we are in a period of higher frequency hurricane activity (due to 20-30 year oceanic cycles) and the threat to tens of millions of people who have moved to coastal communities in the last 40 years has increased. Very little money is spent on hurricane research, and protecting people from the daily vulnerabilities of severe weather like tornadoes, flooding etc. But recent storms like Katrina and an insufficient levee system have taught us to either pay now, or pay a lot more later. In addition, there has been little emphasis on discussing our global population explosion and what other environmental stresses lie ahead including agriculture and clean sustainable water sources. We may even beat ourselves before mother nature gets her shot. All our resources are finite and until we get away from a disposable, drive-through, convenience-oriented society, plenty of trouble will be ahead ' but I can't tell you if it's 10 years, 100 years or 500 years down the road.

Louisiana is among the ten highest carbon dioxide emitting states in the country, according to the EPA. What, if anything, do you think should be done about Louisiana's high-level of carbon emissions?

I am assuming that you are referring to the petro-chemical industry. Until we stop fueling cars with gas and have plastic in every facet of our lives, the alternatives would be cleaner emittance and sequestration, and making them economically viable. We have to look at how we generate our electricity and how each of us in our own homes can make life more efficient and energy conscious. We are a traditional "energy state" but I would like to see us do more in taking the lead on harnessing the sun's power, and tapping into wind, wave and water current energy from the Gulf of Mexico. It's all right on our doorstep.

Building levees to protect us from hurricane surges (and maybe future sea level rise) I do think that we as a state, a country, and a species will have to learn how to adapt better to our current future weather patterns. Long-term climate does change with or without CO2 as a forcing mechanism, and we have found that it has changed rapidly in the past and will likely to continue in the future.