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Another Year Goes By and We’re No Closer to Solving Climate Change

By Auden Schendler (The Atlantic) - January 4, 2012

One version of the myth of King Midas holds that he was not greedy. Instead, he loved his daughter so much that he longed to leave her a stable future. When given the chance, he asked for the golden touch as a way to create an endowment. But when they embraced, she turned to gold as well. In trying to protect his beloved daughter, Midas destroyed her.

Some climate change deniers have the same admirable motive as Midas. The actions required to solve climate, they fear, will preclude us from capturing the wealth that can benefit or save many children today. Even the left argues that a rising economic tide lifts all boats, despite the fact that continued growth probably dooms the planet to runaway warming. Environmentalists fear that no action on climate condemns us to an even more costly fate that threatens every child, forever.

Finding a fix, then, seems close to impossible. What we learned in 2011–a banner year for human understanding of climate change and its impact on our lives–helps explain why.

In October, climate-change skeptic Dr. Richard Muller released the results of a two-year study at the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project that was funded in part by the Koch brothers, leading climate deniers. Muller’s report, in his own words, found that “global warming is real.” In fact, Muller found warming to be “on the high end” of what others had found. The results were reported in the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

2011 also gave a taste of what climatologists have long predicted: that a warmer world will experience more severe weather events, both droughts and storms. PBS reported on “mind-boggling extreme weather” resulting from warming, what Dr. Jeff Masters, Director of Meteorology at the Weather Underground, Inc. calls “steroids for the atmosphere.” This summer, droughts in the Southwest matched those of the dust bowl and a tornado outbreak blew away the record 1974 season. USA Today reported how natural disasters were straining FEMA’s budget. In the last week of 2011, Vermont fixed the last of the roads destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Irene.

At the same time, still more peer-reviewed science came out showing that the anthropogenic warming signal is unmistakable. Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf’s paper in Environmental Research Letters stripped out the known non-human influences on climate (El Niño, volcanic aerosols and solar variability, among others) and found human-induced warming to be clear and consistent.

Meanwhile, a new paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society argued that society is at substantial risk of exceeding warming of 2°C, the threshold widely seen to be the difference between something to which we could possibly adapt and disaster.

Last, and least noted, has been the inability of climate deniers to produce peer-reviewed science showing that warming is not human caused. Their anecdotal claims are easily debunked: the sun is at a minimum, despite record global temperatures. Cosmic-ray activity hasn’t coincided with modern warming. Volcanoes emit far less CO2 than humans. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas that is exacerbated by CO2 induced warming. The earth has warmed before, of course, but always with a well understood cause, just like we have today.

One might imagine the economic damage of 2011’s storms would get deniers thinking. Can we continue to rebuild roads and bridges, sump out towns and drench fires, or, might ought we do something about it? And since cutting CO2 emissions will cool the planet, is that not a good place to start?

Well, no. In 2011, the result of the head-smacking obviousness of the science, as Naomi Klein pointed out in The Nation, is that opposition has become even more strident, in large part because deniers are no fools. Fully dealing with climate change, Klein observed, would require “that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency.” The climate message didn’t fail, Klein argued: It simply got through too clearly.

At the same time that the right became more rigid, Leslie Kaufman of the New York Times reported on the radicalization of the environmental movement in response to lack of policy action. She quoted Roger Ballentine, a climate adviser to the Clinton White House:

“The failure to address climate is catastrophic, and young people are justifiably outraged. What we have now is an antagonized grassroots calling for a radicalized approach.” Such an approach did develop, most notably in the form of 12,000 protesters who surrounded the White House and blocked the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring the most carbon-intensive fuel–tar sands oil–into the US from Canada.

In 2011, scientific certainty didn’t clear up anything at all, it just energized the left and the right, in opposite directions, confirming historian Naomi Oreskes’s notion that climate-change denial has never been about the science, it was always about ideology.

So we start 2012 with an unprecedented understanding of climate science and the consequences of warming, and at the same time seemingly irreconcilable differences on what to do, a Gordian Knot of a problem; complex and intractable, ingeniously self-tightening.

Solutions will require the boldness, innovation, and rule breaking of Alexander the Great, who famously used a sword to cut that knot. But uniquely today, we’ll need the political right and left to hold the blade without killing each other first. Some feel the only path to this future is enough of a climate signal–Manhattan under water–to make action obvious. Others see bipartisan solutions percolating even today: eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a carbon fee, for example, or eliminating subsidies for big oil and using that money for clean energy development, meet goals both left and right.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to understand its cause. Who, for example, tied the legendary Gordian Knot, a good metaphor for the puzzle we face today? It turns out it was a man known by some to be kind and fair, but whose vision of affluence led to disaster. He was a king. And his name was Midas.

Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution. Previously a sustainability researcher at Rocky Mountain Institute, Auden currently serves on the board of Protect Our Winters. He was named a global warming innovator by TIME magazine in 2006.