Editorial: Climate Change Mandates Regime Change

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday April 04, 2006

Rain. Rain. And more rain. We have sure had a lot of it this spring. Around the bay, March’s 31 days produced from 22 to 25 days of rain, depending on where you were standing when you counted, breaking records going all the way back to the middle of the 19th century. The total amount of rain in March set records too, ranging from 7.22 inches at the usually warm and sunny Oakland airport to 8.74 inches in San Francisco, always somewhat damper than the East Bay. And the prediction is that it won’t let up for a while. 

In the face of so much weather, it’s not hard to believe what they’ve been telling us about climate change. No scientific authority, in the reports I’ve read, is attributing last month’s record rainfall specifically to climate change, but all of the dire reports of the melting of the polar ice cap have led to informal speculation across back fences that what we’re seeing might be the forerunner of worse to come. Some, of course, notably the ostriches who hold the power in Washington at the moment, pretend not to believe that climate change is in our future, but they’re in a shrinking minority. 

Among those who keep up with such things, there are now at least three schools of thought, not just two. Politically minded optimists continue to preach that individual action can make a difference. The Ad Council last week launched a new series of television spots, in partnership with Environmental Defense (formerly known as the Environmental Defense Fund) to promote personal attitude change in response to perception of threat—a direct confrontation with the administration’s “it’s not happening” stance. They show a man in front of a speeding train who steps aside just in time to avoid being hit, but reveals a little girl standing behind him. “There’s still time,” the ad says.  

But some scientists are not so optimistic, as reported by Seth Borenstein for the Associated Press: 

“There are limits, experts say, to how much individuals can do. The best we can hope for is to prevent the worst—world-altering disasters like catastrophic climate change and a drastic rise in sea levels, say 10 leading climate scientists interviewed by the Associated Press. They pull out ominous phrases like ‘point of no return.’”  

Americans are culturally optimistic. They need and want to believe that they can shape the future, so doomsday predictions have never found a big audience. That’s why ad campaigns about how people can reduce the dangers of climate change are going to be popular. According to the AP report, “Despite what scientists say, 70 percent of Americans believe it’s possible to reduce the effects of global warming, and 59 percent think their individual actions can help, according to a poll commissioned by Environmental Defense as part of its public service campaign. Climate scientists find themselves in the delicate position of trying to balance calculations that lead to scientific despair with an optimistic public’s hope.” 

The Bay Area’s dominant progressive political culture leans toward bigger and better band-aids: Motorcycle parking on Telegraph! Ever-more refined trash sorting! Organic produce from Chile! New Priuses for city employees! Windmills on the waterfront! What we lack in conventional religious affiliation we make up for with belief in our power to change outcomes by local or personal pious behavior. Pursuing this train of thought too far will inevitably produce a barrage of angry letters from Berkeley zealots, but perhaps it’s time to face the fact that just about the only chance Americans have of affecting the inexorable progress of climate change is serious major political change, and this needs to happen immediately at the national and international level. 

In a major policy speech on Monday, Senator Barack Obama got it right: “…there’s a reason that some have compared the quest for energy independence to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon landing. Like those historic efforts, moving away from an oil economy is a major challenge that will require a sustained national commitment.”  

The current national administration’s total abdication of responsibility for looming climate disaster is yet another example (like the messes we’ve made in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Medicare prescription screw-up and many more) of why Americans need to work as hard as we can for national regime change, and why just “think global, act local” won’t cut it any more. We need to do whatever we can as fast as we can, and on the national level, even, perish the thought, skimping on some of the time we devote to household recycling if necessary.  

The Environmental Defense commercial’s image of the runaway train is even more apt if it’s taken as a metaphor for where this country has been going in the last six years. A country as big and as powerful as the United States of America cannot be allowed to roll along any longer with no one in the engineer’s cab. Even Republicans are starting to realize that, as they contemplate the burgeoning national debt.