In an essay defending the “vulgar” custom of talking about the weather, G. K. Chesterton argued that there was both an element of worship in the practice (“the sky must be invoked”) and a welcome recognition of human equality. “In the mere observation ‘a fine day,’’’ he wrote, “there is the whole great human idea of comradeship.”
If only that were true of the current American political debate about the increasingly obvious and dire consequences of climate change. Earlier this month, the White House released the most recent National Climate Assessment, a report compiled by scientists as well as experts from private industry and the government. According to the report, the pace of global warming has accelerated, and its deleterious effects are already being felt in weather patterns and rising sea levels. Low-lying areas of this country such as South Florida are battling the encroaching sea. Drought across the Southwest and California will intensify, endangering basic water supplies. Severe storms and rising sea levels, caused in large part by the melting of the polar ice caps, threaten much of coastal New England and the Middle Atlantic states. Sea levels are estimated to rise from three to six feet in this century. Average temperatures in Alaska have increased dramatically over the past decade, ensuring vast ecological damage. The report makes clear that the emission of carbon gases, mostly from automobiles and coal-burning power plants, is causing climate change—this is not a hypothesis, but a scientific fact. Unless we take steps now to reduce emissions, the problem will only get worse.
Republicans in Congress resolutely deny that global warming is man-made, and this head-in-the-sand stance has become an article of faith in some GOP primaries. Facing congressional stalemate on the issue, President Barack Obama has shifted his focus to regulatory measures, such as requiring greater energy efficiency in federal buildings. In June the administration will announce tougher E.P.A. standards on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Obama has also taken to the bully pulpit to engage the public on an issue that remains near the bottom of the average citizen’s list of pressing concerns. To some extent, public apathy about climate change is understandable. It is easy to confuse “climate” and “weather” by focusing on immediate conditions rather than obvious trends. The threat seems far off and the most apparent effects erratic and contradictory. At the same time, even those who believe the claims made by scientists and environmentalists are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. What can an individual, a community, or even one country do that could conceivably alter what seems to be inevitable at this point? If the international community cannot come together to end the slaughter of innocents, what is the chance it will agree to enforce higher gas-mileage standards or a switch to low-carbon energy sources? Finally, concerted efforts by industry and conservative groups to question the scientific consensus and dismiss the danger of global warming have often turned the debate into a ritualistic denunciation of so-called elite opinion.
Yet as the National Climate Assessment took pains to point out, there is still much that can be done to ameliorate, if not forestall, the effects of climate change. Although the assessment made no specific legislative suggestions, the way forward is as obvious as it is politically difficult. Per capita carbon emissions in the United States remain among the highest in the world, so reductions here can have a disproportionate effect on global warming. Yes, China and India must also rein in their automobile and coal-plant emissions, but they have already started doing this because of the health effects of their notoriously polluted air. There is no reason—other than scientific obscurantism and political cynicism on the part of Republicans—for the United States not to take the lead in this environmental and health crisis. Imposing a carbon tax on all goods and services seems the fastest and most effective way to bring emissions under control. Once the cost of climate change becomes evident in every consumer purchase, the demand for alternative energy sources will propel both behavioral and technological change. Revenue from the tax might be used to reduce the deficit and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. Americans, the objection goes, are allergic to taxes. Yet we also know that Americans are not indifferent to the suffering and cost of floods, drought, and severe storms. If the chance of enacting a carbon tax is slim, so is the chance that these calamities can be avoided unless the industrialized world stops pumping carbon into the atmosphere.
In his essay Chesterton reminds us that we are “all under the same cosmic conditions. We are all in the same boat.” That boat is listing badly, and as Chesterton suggests, we will all sink or swim together. It is time to take up the vulgar business of talking about the climate as well as the weather—and doing something about it.