[‘Tis The Season] You're Getting Warmer

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

I remember the final morning hours of the Kyoto conference so well. The negotiations had gone on long past their scheduled evening close, and the convention-center management was frantic—a trade show was about to begin, and every corner of the vast hall was littered with the carcasses of 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 enthusiasm—lots of backslapping and hugs.

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

Ten years warmer
The important physical-world reality about the 10 years after Kyoto is that they include 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 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 and oceanic-acidity systems.

We've gone from a problem for our children to a problem for right about now, as evidenced by, oh, 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 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.

As a result, our emissions have continued to increase. Worse, we've made no 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 as their energy trajectories shot out of control: The Chinese are now opening a new coal-fired plant every week. History will regard even the horror in Iraq as one more predictable folly next to this novel burst of irresponsibility.

A hint of a movement
If you're looking for good news, there is some. For one thing, we understand that technologies and changes in habit 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 Germany have pioneered with great success the subsidy scheme required to put millions of solar panels 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 stepitup07.org, 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 launched a new grass-roots coalition, 1sky, that will push Congress and the big Washington environmental groups.

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

The race of all time
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 must commit to reductions in carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2050, and we must get those cuts underway fast—10 percent in just the next few years. Markets will help—if we send them the message 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 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 more difficult. 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 clear: The Earth is more finely balanced than we thought, and our peril 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, sea levels could 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 in Vermont, is an author and environmentalist who frequently writes about global warming. McKibben's essay was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Many AAN member papers are publishing the essay this month.

Going green In The Classroom
Building Green
What YOU can do about global warming
The View From Kyoto

Previous Comments


I think that most people haven't taken any action because they don't see global warming as an immediate threat, but something in the distant future that won't be their problem. Some folks probably wouldn't respond unless you tell them the world was going to blow up tomorrow. Also, it is easier to just do what you always do and be blissfully unaware. Personally, I would love to do more, but what's holding me back is $$$$$.


Bill McKibbin, Great information! It is so evident that globala warming is real and if we don't start an aggressive effort to initiate remedy, we will leave a world unfit to live in for generations to come. For those who thought Al Gore's movie was made for personal gain and theatrical performance, you reached the wrong conclusion. This deal is SERIOUS!


Money, or the lack of, doesn't have to hold you back, L.W. Recycling is a matter of making the effort. Organics cost more, but just cut back on meat (if you eat meat). Do creative gift wrap. Spend the extra money on long-life lightbulbs, and then not have to crawl up on the ladder for years to replace them. Walk more. Get a bike. The ideas are endless, and they're healthy as well as cheap.


The problem is, the story is factually inaccurate. For example: "The important physical-world reality about the 10 years after Kyoto is that they include the warmest years on record. All of the warmest years on record." The fact of the matter is, NASA's figures were incorrect, and have long since been updated. The warmest year on record -- indeed 4 of the top 10 warmest -- are from the 1930's. Here's the updated information, if anyone's interested: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.D.txt Second, "In that span of time, we’ve come to understand that not only is the globe warming, but also that we 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." But this is factually inaccurate as well. Just recently real world studies of temperatures have concluded that the computer models predictions for the rate of warming were incorrect. From the abstract itself, published in International Journal of Climatology, A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions We examine tropospheric temperature trends of 67 runs from 22 Climate of the 20th Century model simulations and try to reconcile them with the best available updated observations (in the tropics during the satellite era). Model results and observed temperature trends are in disagreement in most of the tropical troposphere, being separated by more than twice the uncertainty of the model mean. In layers near 5 km, the modelled trend is 100 to 300% higher than observed, and, above 8 km, modelled and observed trends have opposite signs. These conclusions contrast strongly with those of recent publications based on essentially the same data. Copyright © 2007 Royal Meteorological Society And several other articles such as this and this contain more interviews with the authors of the study. Particluarly interesting quotes: Lead author David Douglass said: “The observed pattern of warming, comparing surface and atmospheric temperature trends, does not show the characteristic fingerprint associated with greenhouse warming. The inescapable conclusion is that the human contribution is not significant and that observed increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases make only a negligible contribution to climate warming.” And: “Models are very consistent in forecasting a significant difference between climate trends at the surface and in the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere between the surface and the stratosphere,” said Dr. John Christy, director of UAH's Earth System Science Center. “The models forecast that the troposphere should be warming more than the surface and that this trend should be especially pronounced in the tropics. “When we look at actual climate data, however, we do not see accelerated warming in the tropical troposphere. Instead, the lower and middle atmosphere are warming the same or less than the surface. For those layers of the atmosphere, the warming trend we see in the tropics is typically less than half of what the models forecast.” Then there's the assertions about Katrina being caused by Global Warming...yet we've had 2 mild hurricane seasons since then. There's more, but you get the idea...Mr. McKibben is recycling incorrect information.


Rturn, I didn't edit and factcheck this story, but I know the people who did, and they're good at what they do. That said, I'm no scientist and certainly do not have all the answers for you. On the other hand, many of the people just repeating the mantra that global-warming is not caused, or exacerbated by, humans aren't scientists, either. And there are scientists paid to say all sorts of things. So here we are. One thing off the bat, though: The editors tell me that the statement you make about NASA figures is "wildly innacurate" and "mixes up U.S. temperature numbers with global ones." It seems that is a common error that often pops up in arguments that try to deny that humans affect global warming. My personal take on it is that from what I have seen, it is damn obvious that we humans and our use (abuse) of resources are affecting the environment and the climate and, thus, safety for the future. And I have always believed that, regardless of the scale of human harm we're doing, we can and should each take responsibility to do as little harm as possible. I mean, just in case. Besides, the vast majority of the science is showing that humans are worsening global warming, even though there are lonely voices trying to discredit them. So everyone can find a scientist to quote, even if the vast majority disagree with them. And David Douglass is not the most convincing voice in this debate. He has positioned himself as a global-warming skeptic; I'm more interested in scientists who clearly want to get at the truth no matter what it is. And note that the only references on his Wikpedia page are to the ultra-conservative NewsMax and FoxNews. Let's find some more independent sources to add credibility to your argument. Meantime, please don't be offended if I keep recycling and resisting the Hummers on sale down at the local dealership.



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