Come Hell & High Water
By Bill Moore
Dr. Joseph Romm, whom I have meet on several occasions, generously provided me with a review copy of his new book Hell and High Water. But to be perfectly candid, I had a hard time getting through it because it seemed every paragraph, every page revealed some new outrage that just got my dander up.
If it doesn't do the same to you, I'll really be surprised. Not that there are all that many blockbuster revolutions. You can find similar allegations in Ross Gelbspan's global warming books. The difference is the timing, I guess. The problem of global warming seems so much more relevant and the consequences so much more imminent than they did in 2002 when interviewed Gelbspan after he published his first book, The Heat Is On.
My first impression after getting through the opening chapters of Hell and High Water, which deals with the science of global warming -- Romm's PhD is in oceanography, so he knows whereof he speaks -- is how utterly without integrity the "Deniers and Delayers" are, as Romm refers to global warming skeptics. It seems unconscionable that human beings would be so callous and mercenary as to willingly "throw sand in the face of the American public" on this mounting environmental crisis. That obfuscation includes the current American Administration even muzzling its chief climate scientists in order to keep them from telling the facts of global warming.
While Romm doesn't like to impugn others motives, and he concedes that some may genuinely believe that global warming isn't a threat, he said that he has a hard time understanding their stance given the preponderance of evidence against them. It's his view that many of the skeptics don't want to accept the facts because philosophically they are opposed to the solution: government regulation.
[In a recent interview, Senator James Inhofe's press secretary defended global warming skeptics like his boss who see what they consider the hysteria surrounding global warming as a conspiracy by the socialist left to implement one-world government.]
"They don't believe government can solve our problems," Romm stated. "So, when you come to a problem only government can solve, which is to say greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from energy use across the economy. If only government can solve the problem and you don't believe government can solve our problems, then you are much more likely to believe there isn't a problem. That's.. where a lot of them come from. They dislike government more than they worry about the future climate."
He noted that the skeptics "tend to believe the future will take care of itself."
"It's been true for a lot of environmental , that we could wait until we were smarter and could go back and clean-up lake Erie or the Hudson River near where I grew up, but with the climate, the changes may be irreversible, so you can't wait for future generations to fix the problem because you may have crossed the tipping point or a point of no return."
That tipping point might be as little as ten years away, Romm said, though by the time a new Administration takes office in 2009, that decade would, in effect, have shrunk to maybe three or four years in terms of actionable policy and technology. He pointed out that energy consumption infrastructures like cars and power plants can last from 20-80 years.
"If you want to turn around the climate in four decades, you have to start significantly changing energy policy now. So, I think we have a short window, maybe ten years... The next president of the United States has to make this one of his or her top priorities."
Why the Delayers Trumpet New Technology
One of the curious contradictions Romm points out in Hell and High Water, is that climate action delayers always urge society to wait until the right technological "breakthrough" comes along: carbon sequestration, clean coal, nuclear fusion before 'voluntarily' tackling the problem. In Romm's view this is just code for let's not do anything that will upset their lucrative status quo.
"It's not like the [U.S.] president even invests in research and development significantly; he's cut the budget," Romm commented. "In my old office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, [the budget] has actually declined in most areas of greenhouse gas reduction technology. It's actually an embarrassment. But they use this rhetoric of new technologies to create the impression we can't take action now, when in fact, as I make clear in the book, there are more than enough technologies that are available today or are going to be available in the next few years...
"In the vehicle realm, we have hybrid technology. It hasn't be widely deployed yet, but again... we've done nothing on vehicle fuel efficiency standards for two decades. It's high time we increase fuel efficiency standards for cars."
He's like to eventually see plug-in hybrids where hybrids are today. "Push hybrids hard in the interim and push fuel efficiency hard in the interim, and have a two-phased process where over the next fifty years we gradually convert to hybrids and plug-in hybrids, while we're cleaning up the electric grid, pushing renewable energy and energy efficiency so we can have dramatically lower emissions in both the utility sector and transportation sector. I don't want to make it sound like this is easy to do, but it's straight forward. We know what needs to be done. We know what technologies we need to use. Some of them exist or are near commercial, is what I would call plug-in hybrids... are near commercial. We don't need major breakthroughs. We don't have to sit around waiting for some breakthrough in hydrogen storage..."
He observed that hydrogen cars are not the answer to global warming, which he discusses in The Hype About Hydrogen
Mr Luntz's Language
Hell and High Water also explores how the well-oiled skeptics, under the tutelage of spinmeister Frank Luntz, have successfully co-opted public debate, watering down the phrase "global warming" to the less threatening "climate change."
"It's kind of Orwellian; something out of 1984," Romm remarked. Not only did Luntz encourage conservatives to use "climate change" -- the Bush White House ordered government scientists to use it -- but he also was the mastermind behind the "technology breakthrough" strategy, which makes you sound like you care about the issue, while not actually having to do anything about it.
For Romm, however, even the term "global warming" may not clearly portray how profoundly disruptive the climate of the future will be. That's why he uses the term "Hell and High Water", because the planet of late 21st and early 22nd century is likely to be one of extreme droughts and killer heat waves across the planet, along with severe coastal flooding and destructive storm surges as sea levels inexorably rise.
Doubt Is Our Ally
I asked Romm what was the most egregious example of obfuscation he came across during his research and he pointed to how climate skeptics have adopted the strategy first laid out by cigarette makers who realized that they didn't have to disprove the link between smoking and lung cancer, they just had to leave room for doubt in the the public's mind. The Deniers and Delayers have adopted a similar strategy, but unlike the cigarette companies who couldn't claim any potential health benefits to smoking, the climate skeptics argue that global warming will have some positive benefits like opening up the Arctic Ocean to shipping and more oil exploration.
"Some parts of the world will benefit from global warming and other parts not so much," Romm paraphrased the skeptics. "'Maybe we'll even make out better than we are.' Well, that's nonsense! The possibility that global warming would be on the mild side went out the window because of the success of the global warming deniers in getting us to do nothing. If we had started acting ten years ago and kept global warming to very mild and very slow, then perhaps, perhaps some places in the world would see some benefits, but the kind of warming we're facing now will leave virtually no part of the world will be better off."
He cites as an example the stead warming of the Arctic and Alaska in particular where Inuit villages are having to relocated and polar bears are getting harder to find. Because the global warming, pine bark beetle larva aren't being killed off by winter cold and vast tracts of forest in British Columbia are dying from the infestation. He pointed out that between 2000 and 2006, wildfires in the West due to prolonged drought conditions have burned the equivalent of the state of Illinois in forest land.
Romm counters the argument of the Bush Administration and other skeptics that implementing actions to slow and arrest global warming will harm the economy, but pointing out that for the last three decades California has kept its per-capital use of electricity virtually flat while the read of the nation has increased by 60 percent. How'd they do it? By a combination of technology and smart policy.
"That's just due to intelligent building standards and intelligent utility regulation... It's not rocket science. It does require intelligent government, not the heavy-hand of government, it just requires a more intelligent government policy...
"One of the points I make in the book is that the average California uses about 40 percent less electricity than the average American, plus the electricity that Californians use emits about half the CO2, the generation, as the rest of the country. And when you combine the more efficient use with the cleaner electricity you find that the average Californian emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions from their electricity use that the average person emits in the rest of the country and they don't have higher bills. They have slightly higher rates, but because they are more efficient, they have the same bill. So, if the rest of the country did what California did, we'd drop electric utility emisisons, which are the biggest source of emissions by two-thirds."
Romm sees the path that he lays out in his book as dramatically reducing emissions, urban air pollution, the trade deficit, "would generate domestic jobs and would help avoid catastrophic global warming."
To hear other recommendations Romm offers both in his book and in this interview -- including his take on nuclear power -- I encourage you to listen to the entire 33-minute podcast available through either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page or by downloading the 7.7MB file to your computer hard drive for transfer to and playback on your favorite MP3 device: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/hell_highwater.mp3.