The current farce underway in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices are considering whether or not the federal Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and the mandate to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, is a case in point. The claim being made by the Bush administration, and seemingly backed by at least four conservative members of the court, is that it does not, because the plaintiffs in the case--12 states that are concerned about global warming's effects--cannot show specific damages traceable to controllable emissions such as those from cars and power plants.
Aside from the absurdity of this claim, which is akin to the Bush administration's even more specious argument that global warming cannot be definitively attributed to man-made causes, it does illustrate why nothing is being done to stop the looming disaster of global warming.
Simply put, the problem of the globe heating, the polar icecaps melting, the seas rising and of the desertification of most of the inhabited globe, remains so remote (these things are decades, or perhaps even a century away), and the required remedies called for are so radical, disruptive and urgent (ending reliance on internal combustion engines, shifting away from established suburban living patterns, halting the rape of rainforests and other virgin woodlands), that no court, no legislature, and no national leader has the courage to demand action. Even Al Gore, in his film "An Inconvenient Truth," refuses to call for any drastic measures that would really have an impact, claiming improbably instead that trivial measures like buying hybrid cars or turning down thermostats will do the trick.
The American government clearly can function in a crisis. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the Pacific fleet crippled, the nation was quickly shifted to a war footing, and within two years was pushing the Nazi and Imperial war machines back. Even world governments in general, democratic and authoritarian, have demonstrated that they can respond, not just to military threats, but to an environmental crisis. Consider the discovery that the Freon used in aerosol cans and cooling systems, were destroying the earth's protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. Once the link was made clear, nations around the world banned the used of the material and substitutes were found, so that that particular crisis has already become to wane.
Yet global warming is something different. Not only is the phenomenon much more complex and slower in developing than the ozone holes that were found to be growing at the poles, not only is the relationship between specific human activities and global warming harder to define than was the relationship between Freon use and ozone depletion. More importantly, while shifting away from Freon use was not a major financial burden for anyone, the remedy for global warming represents a threat to the entire world economic system, and to the economic systems of most nations of the world.
It might seem strange that in a democracy, ordinary people would prefer to go about their lives in a way that threatens the very survival of their children or certainly of their grandchildren, rather than seriously inconvenience themselves in an effort to protect their progeny, but that is what we see happening.
Moreover, political systems, including our own, are structured so as to dissuade anyone in politics from advocating the needed revolutionary changes.
Any presidential candidate who called for elimination of the gasoline engine, or who called for eliminating the federal subsidy for road construction and repair (a move that would kill off the suburbs), would be doomed in the early party primaries. It's hard to imagine any representative or senator proposing such legislation, either, and for the same reason. Our capitalist system, which is based upon the premise of endless economic expansion, will not abide any measures that would crimp corporate profits or reduce consumption, and the corporations that fund our political campaigns and that own the major media that cover them would act promptly to squelch any such talk.
Nor are autocrats, like the leaders of China and Russia, in any better position to save humanity from itself. Their very survival in power depends upon delivering ever better standards of living to their people, even as they destroy their own countries, and the globe, in the process.
Clearly this is not a crisis that will be solved by politicians and leaders. If humans are to survive, it will be because we, the ordinary people, grasped the magnitude of the threat, and forced the necessary changes to happen ourselves.
Can we do that?
We did it with the Vietnam War, where the public finally forced an unwilling political system to walk away and admit defeat. But the enemy then was the military industrial complex, and the cost to ourselves was nothing.
With global warming, we would be calling not just for a derailing of the corporate profit engine, but for our own sacrifice and discomfort. If we mandated the end of the automotive era, we'd be undermining not just the shareholders of the oil and automotive industries, but the value of our own suburban homes, which would no longer be in commuting distance to our jobs. If we shut down coal-fired power plants, we'd be forced by enormously higher electric rates to get rid of most of our lights, to turn down our thermostats dramatically, and to live with pantries instead of oversized refrigerators. We would, of course, also be putting many of the companies where we work out of business. To make matters worse, we'd be doing all this before any of us is really feeling the effects of global warming itself in any serious, recognizable way.
So this is the challenge: Can we, as a people, can we as a species, see beyond our own immediate short-term self-interest, and make the wrenching political, economic and social changes that would be required to prevent the destruction of our planet?
I am pessimistic.
As things stand, we have a ignorant president who openly scoffs at the whole idea of global warming, and who is actively working to block even small efforts to combat it (Bush, a creature of the energy industry, is the one who is having the EPA challenge the effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions of cars), and we aren't even calling him to account.
As individuals, we know not to pull rafters off the roof to make a fire, because the house will fall in. We know we have to cut down dead trees in the yard before they fall on the house--even if we have to spend some of the kids' college fund to do it. We know we have to get our kids vaccinated so they won't get polio. So far, however, as citizens, we are content to put the rafters in the fireplace, we're killing all the trees in the yard, and we're letting the whole planet run a fever without doing anything about it.