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The Looming Disaster, Take Two

A review of the new Afterword included in the paperback edition of Red Sky at Morning, by James Gustave Speth

Thomas Malone

In an important new "Afterword" ( prepared in December 2004 for the paperback edition of his book Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (which I reviewed in the September-October 2004 issue, James Gustave Speth addresses the issue of what we should do now in America about climate change, presenting a 10-point plan. His insightful remarks reflect significant developments since the cloth edition of the book went to press, notably the publication in the New York Times three days before the 2004 elections of the results of a four-year study of the impact in the Arctic of global warming caused by the release of greenhouse gases. These Arctic results, now replicated in the Antarctic, constitute the "smoking gun" confirming Speth's new conclusion that "climate change is both the number one challenge and the number one area where new U.S. attitudes and policies are needed."

The evidence set forth by Speth to support his conclusion is impressive: The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 deaths annually result from climate change; it is predicted that "perhaps a fourth of all species over large regions of the globe" will be extinct by 2050; there are credible estimates that under a business-as-usual scenario, sea levels will rise as much as two to three feet above levels; there is a real threat of abrupt cooling from diminution of the Gulf Stream that would be devastating to human societies; and there are indications that time for action is running out—a 70 to 90 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions may be required by 2050 to preclude a "dangerous" rise in global temperature.

Speth takes friendly issue with the goal of the European Union ("which is providing genuine international leadership") of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2°C above the preindustrial level. He suggests reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level 70 to 90 percent below what they would have been without climate constraints (60 per cent below current emission levels). An August 2004 paper by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow in Science is cited as evidence that the technology exists "to break sharply with this business-as-usual, carbon-intensive future." The United Kingdom's Energy White Paper, Our Energy Future—Creating a Low Carbon Economy, which relies on the European Union's carbon emissions cap-and-trade scheme, a carbon tax and the like, is also cited as an example of a viable public policy response.

Speth then turns his attention to a U.S. response "that does not depend on the Bush administration cooperation and one that makes it increasingly difficult for the administration to persist in its opposition." He elaborates an imaginative 10-point plan of action that is built on state and local action and corporate initiativesand also includes these steps: greening the financial sector, coming up with a sensible national energy strategy, enacting the McCain-Lieberman bill (which modestly seeks to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010), encouraging international pressure on the United States, engaging in climate-friendly cooperation with developing countries, encouraging consumers and institutions to adopt climate-friendly policies, putting limits on coal use, and promoting public awareness and citizen involvement.

All in all, this is a powerful and clarion call for a response to the statement of the United Kingdom's Chief Scientist, David A. King, that "Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism."—Thomas F. Malone, University Distinguished Scholar Emeritus at North Carolina State University

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