Escape From Ambush

[PJlainly, nobody will be afraid who believes nothing can happen to him. . . . [Fjear is felt by those who believe something is likely to happen to them. . . . People do not believe this when they are, or think they are, in the midst of great prosperity, and are in consequence insolent, contemptuous and reckless. . . . [But if] they are to feel the anguish of uncertainty, there must be some faint expectation of escape.

ARISTOTLE (384-3228.0.),

Rhetoric, 1382b29

What must we do? Because the carbon dioxide that we put up into the atmosphere today will stay there for decades, even major efforts at technological self-control will do no good until a generation into the future—although the contributions by some other gases to global warming can be reduced more quickly. We need to distinguish between short-term mitigation and long-term solutions, although both are needed. We must, it

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seems, phase in as quickly as possible a new world energy economy that doesn't generate nearly so much greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But "as quickly as possible" will take decades at least to complete, and we must in the meantime lessen the damage, taking great care that the transition does as little damage as possible to the world's social and economic fabric,/«nd that standards of living do not decline in consequence. The only question is whether we manage the crisis or it manages us. Almost two out of three Americans call themselves environmentalists—according to a 1995 Gallup poll—and would give protecting the environment priority over economic growth. Most would acquiesce to increased taxes if earmarked for environmental protection. Still, it might turn out that all this is impossible—that the vested industrial interests are so powerful and consumer resistance so weak that no significant change from business-as-usual will occur until it's too late, or that the transition to a non-fossil-fuel civilization will so stress an already fragile world economy as to cause economic chaos. Plainly, we must pick our way warily. There's a natural tendency to temporize: This is unknown territory. Shouldn't we go slowly? But then we take a look at the maps of projected climate change and we recognize that we cannot temporize, that it's foolhardy to go too slowly.

The biggest CO2 emitter on the planet is the United States. The next biggest CO2 emitter is Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union. The third biggest, if we combine them, is all the developing countries together. That's a very important fact: This isn't just a problem for the highly technological nations—through slash-and-burn agriculture, burning firewood, and so on, developing countries are also making a major contribution to global warming. And the developing countries have the world's largest population growth rate. Even 142 • Billions and Billions if they don't succeed in achieving something like the standard of living of Japan, the Pacific Crescent, and the West, these nations will constitute a steadily increasing part of the problem. Next in order of complicity is Western Europe, then China, and only then Japan, one of the most fuel-efficient nations on Earth. Again, just as the cause of global warming is worldwide, any solution must also be worldwide.

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The scale of change necessary to address this problem at its core is nearly daunting—especially for those policymakers who are mainly interested to do things that will benefit them during their terms of office. If the required action to make things better could be subsumed in 2-, 4-, or 6-year programs, politicians would be more supportive, because then the political benefits might accrue when it's time for reelection. But 20-, 40-, or 60-year programs, where the benefits accrue not only when the politicians are out of office, but when they're dead, are politically less attractive.

Certainly we must be careful not to rush off half-cocked like Croesus and discover that at huge expense we've done something unnecessary or stupid or dangerous. But even more irresponsible is to ignore an impending catastrophe and naively hope it will go away. Can't we find some middle ground of policy response, which is appropriate to the seriousness of the problem, but which does not ruin us in case somehow—a negative feedback deus ex machina, for example—we have overestimated the severity of the matter?

Say you're designing a bridge or skyscraper. It's customary to build in, to demand, a tolerance to catastrophic failure far beyond what the likely stresses will be. Why? Because the consequences of the collapse of the bridge or skyscraper are so serious, you must be sure. You need very reliable guarantees. The same approach, I think, must be adopted for local, regional, and global environmental problems. And here, as I've said, there is great resistance, in part because large amounts of money are required from government and industry. For this reason, we will increasingly see attempts to discredit global warming. But money is also needed to truss up bridges and to reinforce skyscrapers. This is considered a normal part of the cost of building big. Designers and builders who cut corners and take no such

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