Kurt Campbell is an expert on Asia and security issues who is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. He served in the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, in charge of Asia/Pacific issues, and earlier taught at Harvard. Kurt has written widely, for popular and academic audiences, about everything from Japan to nuclear policy. His last post was entitled: “The Inheritance on Climate.”
For all the talk of Americans being an optimistic people, anxieties and fears have long animated our national passions and perspectives. There were longstanding concerns for 50 years over various aspects of Soviet power, either in the form of an alleged missile gap or unfounded worries over communist infiltration into the United States government during the height of the Cold War. Currently, there are dire concerns over a number of new global developments, ranging from reliance on unstable regions for supplies of petrol, the increasing radicalization of Islam, the implications for China’s march on the 21st Century, to the spread of nuclear weapons.
Given this tendency to occasionally stress out over — and even hype global trends — it is all the more surprising that the US government during the Bush years has been relatively lackadaisical about the prospective threats to global security that are inherent with unchecked climate change. These include the possibility of major flooding of low lying coastal areas, the prospect of massive migrations of people across the globe, new disease vectors, species extinctions, agricultural disruptions and the collapse of global fisheries.
While there is a growing consciousness about climate change and how a sharp increase in global warming might sharply shift the natural order of the planet, there has been an inadequate appreciation in our overall political discourse about the necessity to act urgently.
Most public polls on the subject underscore two contradictory findings: one, that Americans now accept that climate change is real and must be dealt with and two, that Americans as yet do not feel that they must make personal sacrifices or alter their carbon splurging lifestyles in order to address the problem.
What accounts for this general lack of urgency on a issue that the Nobel Committee, among others, considers a profound threat to the peace and stability of the planet? The reasons are many and complex and in combination provide a daunting set of obstacles to any political effort to truly address the magnitude of the challenge ahead of us.
Probably the most important reason for this absence of urgency is the profound lack of public knowledge on issues related to climate matters, that is, beyond the simple conflation of weather with climate in the public mind. The serious national media have done a miserable job in educating the public about just what the stakes involved are when it comes to climate change — its science, causes, the politics of, and remediation efforts.
The absence of visionary political leadership at the national level is also undeniable. While it is easy to scapegoat President Bush and his team for a profound lack of initiative on all matters of climate, it must be said that on this issue he merely mirrors the dominant attitudes of obliviousness and denial among many of the American people. On climate, alas, we have gotten the president we deserve.
Many also believe that it will be possible to defer taking action into the future and that late remedial steps can be both cost effective and sufficient. However, most experts counter that urgent and current steps are infinitely preferable to waiting and hoping that late action can still work to address the magnitude of the problem. In truth, waiting will probably turn out to be a very bad option.
There is, in addition, a general if unstated belief that a “cool” new technology (sorry for the pun) will soon emerge - a veritable technical silver bullet - that will magically remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the skies and allow Americans to avoid the really hard choices of conservation and changes in lifestyle.
There are also powerful forces in the political arena that continue to have serious doubts about either the existence of climate change or misgiving about the implications of taking action to address the problem (or both). For instance, the lion’s share of recent funding provided to the small but busy band of climate change skeptics have come from folks associated with the oil and coal industries.
Another related issue is the potential economic impacts of introducing new energy related technologies or conservation provisions. There is a strong and growing presumption that alternative approaches should be cost effective and not put undue burdens on the already energy - stressed industrial and commercial sectors of the American business community. This is a high bar, particularly if the implications of global climate change are as dire as many experts predict.
And lastly, there is probably an unhealthy propensity on the part of many Americans to think that the enormity of the challenge is simply insurmountable, and it’s probably better to pretend that the ice caps are not melting, that worrisome climate trends are not accelerating, or to simply deny that local weather conditions are changing in ways that the old timers cannot remember ever happening before.Taken together this is a daunting list of roadblocks, detours and demons that will provide enormous disincentives for political leadership on the matter of addressing climate change in an early and earnest way. And yet, early action is precisely what is urgently required if climate change is to be a major political preoccupation of the next president — as it must be
Source: The New York Times