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Summer Reading (Environment Edition)

The climate wars still dominate discussion of energy and the environment

3 min read

The slightly leftish New York Review of Books may not be the typical Spectrum reader's second choice in technical literature, but two recent articles are worth consulting if you're trying to keep up with the basics of the climate debate. One, by the British economist Nicholas Stern, author of the big British study assessing the long-term costs of global warming and the benefits of curbing it, is aptly titled, "Climate: What You Need to Know." Reviewing the most recent book by the influential environmental writer Bill McKibbon, Stern takes him to task for being unduly pessimistic about the prospects for constructive policy. But this doesn't mean that Stern's view of our situation is sanguine: "The issue for policy is how to manage risk, taking account of strong scientific evidence that the risks are potentially very large. These are not small probabilities of something nasty, but large probabilities of something catastrophic," writes Stern.

Stern's magnum review of climate change economics has been criticized on methodological grounds, and I too have misgivings about its use of discounting. But Stern has an impressive command of climate science basics, and for this reason, it's worth paying attention to what he thinks we need to know. To have a 50 percent chance of keeping additional warming at no more than 2 degrees celsius in this century, Stern notes that we have to reduce global emissions by more than half from today's level by 2050. If countries do their very best to keep their Copenhagen pledges, Stern says we have a chance of making the 2050 target, though cuts will be more costly and difficult after 2020 than before.

What needed is sobering indeed: The world's per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, 7 tons today, must be reduced to 4 tons by 2030 and 2 tons by 2050.

The other recent article in the New York Review, "The Message from the Glaciers," is about the fate of the Tibetan plateau, sometimes called "the third pole" because of its giant ice rivers. The author, Orville Schell, also is no climatologist. But as a prominent Asia expert, Schell does care about what's happening to the Himalayan glaciers, and he knows the context. Though his article does not take account of the very latest scientific findings, it will be useful to anybody who wants to put those findings in perspective.

This week's Sunday New York Times carried a review of The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, by Eric Pooley, a top editor at Bloomberg Business Week who also has worked at Fortune and Time in senior positions. Though described by the reviewer as somewhat ponderous going, the book evidently raises some thorny questions about deals environmental leaders like Fred Krupp have entered into with corporate executives. The whole subject of how the leading environmental groups have worked with Big Business and Big Politics deserves much more critical scrutiny. One wishes that Stephen Schneider had addressed it in his Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate. Though Stanford climatologist Schneider has been a key player for decades, the index to his book does not contain names like Krupp, the hugely influential CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund. Nor do organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth--or even National Geographic, the publisher of his book--appear.

Speaking of environmental politics and the political establishment, the current edition of The Highlands Voice, the monthly newspaper of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, carries an appraisal by the conservancy's president of the late West Virginia senator, Robert C. Byrd. What's interesting is the complexity of the conservancy's relationship with the senator, and the complexity of Byrd's attitudes toward the environment, development, and especially of course the local coal industry. Byrd was an altogether complicated and fascinating man: A member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man, a battler for racial and social justice for the remainder of his life; a country fidddler who could keep up with Appalachia's best; by all accounts the Hill's leading expert on congressional procedure for many decades. He was the senior-most member of Congress, and easily one of Congress's most influential members.

Conservancy president Hugh Rogers reports that Byrd generally considered it his job to bring home the bacon for his consituents--that is, he generally favored development, including initially mountaintop strip mining. But after Judge Haden's landmark decision in 1999 seeking to block further mountaintop removal (Bragg v. Robertson), Byrd retreated from that position. He said that the practice had "a diminishing constituency in Washington" and that most members of Congress, like most Americans, opposed it. Under the circumstances, he said, West Virginians risked shouting themselves out of productive dialogue with the EPA and Congress if they persisted single-mindedly in mountain strip mining.

POSTSCRIPT: As this posts, I have only just now have learned of Stephen Schneider's untimely death, yesterday. Lest the preceding remarks be interpreted as critical, I regret it and apologize if any offense is taken. I am all the sorrier that there will be not future opportunity to discuss with him the climate wars and Big Environmentalism.

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