Once upon at time, the inhabitants of Easter Island cut every last tree down before disappearing without a trace. The anthropologist Jared Diamond, who studies ecological collapses, often wonders what the islander of that Polynesian paradise, was thinking when he (or she) cut down the last tree.
One day in the future our descendants may wonder what the Bush Administration was thinking when they abdicated responsibility regarding climate change. If the scientific community is mostly correct, then havoc from global warming is likely to dwarf the carnage the administration’s invasion of Iraq has unleashed.
Tragically, those who contribute the least global warming are most likely to be its greatest victims. The continent of Africa, for instance, produces just three percent of the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet, yet experts believe Africa’s equatorial climate will suffer more severe global warming induced droughts and floods than the developed world.
The United States, of course, accounts for more than twenty-five percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, this despite representing just five percent of the world’s population. Thus, it is in a position to take the lead in addressing global climate change, an issue that cannot be solved without the United States’ cooperation. Yet the Bush Administration has long insisted that even addressing global warming would be unfair to Americans (on the false assumption that it would hamper economic growth).
Global warming is not just an economic and an ecological issue; it is a great moral challenge. Do the most advanced nations have responsibility to change their energy consumption and economic habits if the consequences of their greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to catastrophic climate changes in less developed countries? Is it a cop out to insist – as the Bush Administration does – that even if global warming is real it’s probably too late to prevent it, therefore we ought to learn to live with it? And is it simply a rationalization to maintain that because meteorologists can’t accurately predict the weather two weeks from now, that therefore we should take the scientists’ worst-case scenarios with a grain of salt?
The Bush Administration stubborn refusal to face the challenges associated with global climate change ignores sound science, the lessons of history, and even our long-term economic interests. The Bush Administration, of course, has a habit of ignoring expert advice (the generals who argued that Iraq was the “wrong war at the wrong time,” or who argued we’d need a lot more troops going in, for instance). So it’s hardly surprising that they’d brush off their scientific critics.
Nor is it surprising that an administration that displayed an almost complete obliviousness for Iraq’s culture, and its history of resisting foreign occupiers, would neglect the lessons of history, which illustrate how great civilizations all too frequently sow the seeds of their own destruction through unsound ecological practices.
What is most glaring, however, is that the Bush Administration shows a complete lack of imagination when it comes to crafting an energy policy that would tap American ingenuity and encourage the new economic opportunities associated with energy efficiency technologies and the alternative fuels of the future.
Great powers rise and fall in association with specific energy sources. Rome’s greatness was predicated on slave power, Holland’s preeminence depended on wind and waterpower; Britain’s global rule was fueled by coal; and America’s hegemony depends upon petroleum. History shows, however, that sooner or later new energy sources emerge and great powers must adapt to them or they will be hobbled by their reliance on the older, more costly, and less efficient forms of energy they are accustomed to.
Given the rise of China and India in the 21st century the demand for fossil fuels like petroleum are all but certain to raise the cost of this resource. But there are hidden costs behind every barrel of oil; the cost of maintaining a robust military presence to safeguard Western access to oil in the developing world; the costs associated with environmental catastrophes brought on by global warming; and the blowback from terrorists who resent the fact that American power is fueled to a large extent by Arab oil.
It simply behooves the United States to do everything it can to increase its energy efficiency, reduce its carbon emissions, diversify its energy sources, and put American ingenuity to work finding the alternative fuels of the future. To put it bluntly, the Bush Administration has not pursued this course because it is permeated by former oil executives beholden to the past.
Global warming is not a phantom menace (like Saddam’s WMD). Nor will the solutions to global warming derail the American economy. The idea that global warming is a hoax, or that we can’t do anything about it without undermining America’s economy, is sophistry spouted by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
Global warming is a more fundamental challenge than terrorism. In 2003, for example, Europe was hit with an extraordinary heat wave that killed 35,000 people. The rise in frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other forms of inclement weather threatens to reorder the planet in almost unimaginable ways. And because less developed countries will be hardest hit and less prepared to handle ecological catastrophes mass migrations, political upheavals, and terrorism fueled by resentment of more privileged nations are phenomenon likely to increase. This is why a panel of distinguished retired U.S. generals has called global warming a national security threat.
Confronting global warming is a moral imperative, but is also in America’s self-interest. The long-term economic gains of becoming the world leader in Green Power (renewable energy sources such as biomass, solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal) are enormous. Concomitantly, using less petroleum will not only diminish the threats associated with global warming, but also encourage reform in the Middle East to the extent that lower oil prices will force autocratic Arab regimes to diversify their economies. Thus, going green can create a virtuous cycle: a brighter economic future, a cleaner environment, and less reliance on Middle Eastern oil (which will go a long way to reducing our vulnerability to jihadists who resent America’s presence in the Persian Gulf).
The Bush Administration, in contrast, has the United States trapped in a vicious cycle: higher oil prices, a dirtier and more threatening environment, and a self-defeating campaign in Iraq and the wider Middle East to secure America’s oil lifeline by force. Like a Gordian knot, the harder we try determine events in that part of the globe the more tied down we seem to get.
The Bush Administration’s War on Terror has become a contradiction in terms; it is spawning a new generation of insurgents while tarnishing America’s image. As the philosopher Hegel noted, defining oneself by what one is against, as opposed to what one is for, creates a negative identity, and identity that all too frequently begins to mirror the dreaded other. By taking a leading role in rolling back global warming, however, America can once again define itself in positive terms
The Bush Administration has set America on a declining course because it is in a state of denial. As Mark Twain said, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” But staying in denial will not lead us to a more promising future.