Ross Gelbspan  [Printer-friendly version]
July 1, 2006


[Introduction: This is the final chapter of Ross Gelbspan's 2005 book,
Boiling Point.]

"Our house is burning down and we're blind to it...The earth and
humankind are in danger and we are all responsible. It is time to open
our eyes. Alarms are sounding across all the continents... We cannot
say that we did not know! Climate warming is still reversible. Heavy
would be the responsibility of those who refused to fight it."
-- French President Jacques Chirac, September, 2002

It is hard to get people focused on climate change today, not only
because it has been misrepresented as a future problem, but because
there is so much competition from other problems.

We are under attack from terrorists. We are apprehensive about the
aftermath of the war with Iraq. The recent period of economic
stagnation has stunned us with the realization that the global economy
is just as vulnerable to abrupt and unpredictable shocks as the
nation's electricity grid. The press has stubbornly refused to accord
this story the attention and energy it requires.

So it is worth repeating that climate change is not just another issue
in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It is the issue
which, unchecked, will swamp all other issues.

Conversely, the solution to the climate crisis may well contain the
seeds for solutions to some of the most threatening problems facing
humanity today. The solutions to climate change have the potential to
begin to mend a profoundly fractured world.

Take, for example, our newfound vulnerability to terrorism.

The most obvious connection is that the solution to the climate crisis
-- a worldwide transition to renewable energy -- would dramatically
reduce the significance of oil, and with it our exposure to the
political volatility in the Middle East.

A second connection is that a renewable energy economy would have far
more independent sources of power -- home-based fuel cells, stand-
alone solar systems, regional windfarms -- which would make the
nation's electricity grid a far less strategic target for future
guerrilla attacks. (Even absent terrorism, the vulnerability of large
grid-based systems was underscored by the blackout of much of the
northeastern U.S. in the summer of 2003. That power outage, whose
reach exceeded a similar blackout in 1977, was the fourth such failure
in the last decade, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.)

More relevant to our security is the fact that poor countries are much
more immediately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The
continuing indifference by the U.S. to atmospheric warming -- since
this country generates a quarter of the world's emissions with 5
percent of its people -- will almost guarantee more anti-U.S. attacks
from people whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose
populations are afflicted by epidemics of infectious disease and whose
borders are overrun by environmental refugees.

The real truth about terrorism is that, aside from hardening specific
targets like airports and nuclear plants, there is no way to protect
any complex organized society from guerrilla attacks. In the long run,
what is really required is a major change in our posture toward
developing countries.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the new chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate change, pointed out at the end of 2002 that the impacts of
climate change " will exacerbate world poverty and could make millions
of people more open to extremism." In an interview with Reuters New
Service, Pachauri added: "Large areas of poverty are dangerous for the
world as a whole as they provide fertile ground for extremist views.
Things go wrong. People want to blame someone." In this case, the U.S.
really is the major culprit.

Just as runaway carbon concentrations are threatening to destabilize
the global climate, runaway economic inequity can only continue to
destabilize our global political environment.

The prevailing view of developing countries as economic competitors
reflects a near-mystical, almost fundamentalist, belief in the
divinity of free markets -- and an equivalent of hypocrisy about the
unacknowledged political control we exert over those markets. In fact,
the continuing economic exploitation of the developing world --
through rigged trade rules, unfair subsidies in industrial countries
and the stultifying burden of chronic indebtedness -- will only
further impoverish poor countries relative to the industrial world. In
shrinking foreign markets and preventing the sound development of an
industrial base in many developing countries, this posture is
basically a recipe for the slow-motion suicide of global capitalism.

Stepping back, it is worth repeating that the real economic issue in
rewiring the globe with clean energy is not cost. The real economic
issue is whether the world has a big enough labor force to accomplish
the task in time to meet nature's deadline.

A properly-funded global transition to clean energy would create
millions of jobs in poor countries and substantially raise living
standards in the developing world.

It is an article of faith among development economists that energy
investments in poor countries create far more wealth and jobs than
investments in any other sector. Were the U.S. to spearhead a
wholesale transfer of clean energy to developing countries, that would
do more than anything else in the long term to address the economic
desperation that underlies anti-U.S. sentiment.

Beyond the threat of terrorism, the competition for the world's
dwindling supply of oil is certain to be a major source of potential
military conflict in the coming decades. "Many resources are needed to
sustain a modern industrialized society, but only those that are
viewed as being vital to national security are likely to provoke the
use of military force when access... is placed in jeopardy. There is
no question that oil [enjoys] this distinctive status," according to
Michael Klare, a leading expert on international security issues.

On the economic front, it seems clear the entire global economy is
susceptible to periods of stagnation, even recession. In mid-2003,
economists at the Federal Reserve were raising concerns about that
most frightening of economic dynamics -- deflation. A truly
floundering economy seems relatively immune to tax cuts and interest
rate reductions. A more proven remedy for long-term economic
stagnation seems to lie in public works programs. Depression-era "New
Deal" programs, like the Works Progress Administration, implemented by
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, created jobs for millions of
unemployed people. A generation later, President Dwight Eisenhower's
construction of a national interstate highway system -- at the time
the biggest public works program in history -- provided a substantial
number of government- funded job opportunities.

Today, a global public works program to rewire the globe with clean
energy would be the most productive investment we could make in our
future. Within a decade, it would begin to generate a major and
continuing worldwide economic lift-off.

Given the ferocious resistance of big coal and big oil, it is clear
that the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry are, in many
ways, diametrically opposed to the economic interests of the larger

For example, there are a large number of multi-national corporations
-- many of them based in the United States -- who have saturated their
markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan. A large class of companies like
Boeing, Gillette, Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble and many others see
virtually all their future earnings growth coming from developing

But as we have seen, the impacts of climate change hit poor countries
first and hardest -- not because nature discriminates against the
poor, but because most developing countries cannot afford the
infrastructures to accommodate flood, droughts, severe storms,
epidemics of disease and incursions of environmental refugees.

The majority of the extreme weather events that have been rocking the
world for the last few years have taken increasingly severe economic
tolls on developing countries. That trend will only continue. And as
it does, those global corporations that look to developing countries
for their future profits will see that projected growth evaporate as
climate disasters drain national budgets and shrink purchasing power
in the developing world.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that climatic instability is
beginning to threaten the keystones of the world's financial structure
-- its banks and insurers.

In the 1980s, the world's property insurers lost an average of $2
billion a year to weather extremes. In the 1990s, they lost an average
of $12 billion a year. In 1998 alone, property insurers lost $89
billion to extreme weather events which is more than they lost in the
entire decade of the 1980s.

As noted earlier, the community of property re-insurers estimates
losses from climate impacts to the global economy to jump to about
$150 billion a year within this decade, to $300 billion a year in the
next few decades, and even to bankrupting the global economy by 2065.

By contrast, the dramatic expansion of the overall wealth in the
global economy from a worldwide energy transition would create new
markets and significantly invigorate existing ones.

There is, however, another line of argument that centers not on the
economy but on the most basic human moral principles. When policy
makers discuss climate change, they discuss it in economic terms --
the costs of climate impacts versus the costs of addressing the issue.
That is the vocabulary that counts today with many decision-makers.

But, at root, climate change is not an economic issue. It is, first
and foremost, a moral issue.

It is telling that, of all sectors of civil society in the U.S.,
perhaps the most proactive and energetic response to the climate
crisis is coming from the religious community. Congregations around
the country are mobilizing both practically as well as in the pulpits.
A number of congregations are beginning to bulk-buy renewable energy
for their churches, synagogues and mosques. But even more critical
than the buying power of churches is the resonance of unified voices
of faith.

To continue to ignore climate impacts means putting at risk billions
of poor people around the world who are much more immediately
vulnerable to its impacts. It means dishonoring all the effort and
sacrifice of all those generations who have worked so hard to create
this civilization we enjoy today. Ultimately, it means consigning our
children to a future of chaos and disintegration.

What is really missing from the climate debate is an insistence on the
moral imperative of truly facing this challenge in all its dimensions.
In this case, that moral imperative requires an equivalent policy

One model of such a policy centers on a set of macro-level, global
scale policies that would address both the extraordinary threat of
climate impacts and the economic desperation of the majority of the
world's citizens.

The World Energy Modernization Plan contains three interactive,
mutually- reinforcing strategies that are designed to reduce carbon
emissions by the 70 percent required by nature -- at the same time as
they would create millions of jobs around the world, especially in
developing countries.

The Plan was developed by an ad hoc, informal group of about 15 energy
company presidents, economists, energy policy experts and others
(including the author) in 1998 who met at the Center for Health and
the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Since that time, the
plan has been presented at side conferences to the climate
negotiations in Buenos Aires and Bonn. It has been endorsed by a
number of developing country NGOs. It received a very positive
reception from the former CEO of Shell/UK who was also director of a
G-8 Task Force on Renewable Energy and has attracted the interest of a
small number of senators and congressmen. Most recently, it was
endorsed by a former British Ambassador to the United Nations.

To set the plan in its starkest context: the deep oceans are warming,
the tundra is thawing, the glaciers are melting, infectious diseases
are migrating and the timing of the seasons have changed. And all that
has resulted from one degree of warming. By contrast, the earth will
warm from 3 to 10 degrees F. later in this century, according to the

Against that background, we are offering this set of strategies. While
they have been vetted by a number of economists and energy policy
experts, they are still provisional. Some elements may require major
surgery. Although we happen to think this proposal is elegant, we are
not dogmatic about its particulars.

What we do believe -- very strongly -- is that these strategies
present a model of the scope and scale of action that is appropriate
to the magnitude of the climate crisis. And, to date, we have not seen
other policy recommendations that adequately address the urgency of
the problem.

As Britain's prestigious Institute for Public Policy Research declared
recently, "Kyoto will not stop climate change. The next international
climate change negotiations must agree on a safe level of emissions in
the long term and fair shares between nations." Tony Grayling, of the
IPPR added: "Future international climate change policy should be
based on sound science and social justice, not the horse trading that
characterized the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol."

Those sentiments were echoed by Graeme Pearman, chief scientist at the
Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Organization, who added : "Slowing the rate of emissions of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere will not stop the increase of its
concentration and thus climate change. [R]eductions of 70% or more in
current global emissions are necessary in order to stabilize

Because of U.S. recalcitrance, coupled with the escalating pace of
climate change, the Kyoto goals (but not the Kyoto process) are today
irrelevant. It is time to go straight for a global reduction of 70
percent. The hope is to get ideas of this scope into the conversation
to help move it to an appropriate level.

The Plan involves three interacting strategies:

* a change of energy subsidy policies in industrial countries;

* the creation of a large fund to transfer renewable energy
technologies to developing countries; and,

* the subordination within a Kyoto-type framework of the mechanism of
international emissions trading to a progressively more stringent
Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year.

While each of these strategies can be viewed as a stand-alone policy,
they are better understood as a systemic set of interactive policies
that could speed the energy transition far more rapidly than if they
were implemented in piecemeal fashion.

On the issue of subsidies, the United States currently spends more
than $20 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuels. Industrial country
subsidies for fossil fuels have been estimated at $200 billion a year.
(That figure does not include another $15 billion in U.S. subsidies
that is frequently cited by other economists. That figure represents
the amount of military expenditures the U.S. spends to ensure the
security of transportation of oil from the Middle East).

In the industrial countries, those subsidies would be withdrawn from
fossil fuels and equivalent subsidies established to promote the
development of clean energy sources. Clearly a small portion of the
U.S. subsidies must be used to retrain or buyout the nation's 50,000
or so coal miners. Their welfare cannot be sacrificed to the interest
of climate stabilization. But the lions' share of the subsidies would
still be available for use by the major oil companies to retrain their
workers and re-tool to become aggressive developers of fuel cells,
wind farms, and solar systems. In other words, the subsidy switch is
intended as a tool to help oil companies transform themselves into
renewable energy companies.

These strategies would best not be implemented in isolation. If the
subsidy switch alone were implemented in industrial nations, it would
promote the growth of the renewable energy industry in the North.

But, as we know, the problem is global in scope. Even if the countries
of the North were to dramatically reduce emissions, those cuts would
be overwhelmed by emissions from the large developing countries.
Therefore the second element of the plan involves the creation of a
new $300 billion a year fund to help transfer renewable energy
resources to poor countries. Virtually all poor countries would love
to go solar; virtually none can afford it. The most air- polluted
cities in the world today are in China, Mexico, Thailand, Chile and
other developing and transitional countries.

One attractive source of revenue to fund the transfer lies in a "Tobin
tax" on international currency transactions, named after its
developer, Nobel prize- winning economist Dr. James Tobin. Tobin
conceived of his tax, which has yet to be implemented, as a way to
dampen the volatility in capital markets by discouraging short-term
trading and encouraging longer-term capital investments. But it would
also generate enormous revenues. Today the commerce in currency swaps
by banks and speculators amounts to $1.5 trillion per day. A tax of a
quarter-penny on a dollar would net about $300 billion a year for wind
farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa, solar assemblies
in El Salvador, and vast, solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle

Since currency transactions are electronically tracked by the private
banking system, the need for a large, new bureaucracy could be avoided
simply by paying the banks a fee to administer the fund. That
administrative fee would, to some extent, offset the banks' loss of
income from the contraction in currency trading that would inevitably
result from the imposition of the tax.

The only new bureaucracy envisioned would be an international auditing
agency to monitor transactions to ensure equal access for all energy
vendors and to minimize corruption in recipient countries.

Several developing country commentators have suggested that corruption
could be further curtailed by requiring recipient governments to
include representatives of indigenous minorities, universities, NGOs
and labor unions in making decisions about the procurement and
deployment of new energy resources.

If a Tobin Tax proves unacceptable -- and some economists express a
nervousness about this untested mechanism -- a tax on airline travel
or a carbon tax in industrial countries, while more regressive, could
fulfill the same function. Florentin Krause, of the IPCC's Working
Group III, and Stephen DeCanio, former staff economist for the Reagan
Council of Economic Advisers, estimate that if carbon emissions were
taxed at the rate of $50 a ton, the revenue would approximate the $300
billion from a tax on currency transactions. (It is unclear what would
happen to transitional prices of carbon fuels if subsidies were
removed and a carbon tax imposed at the same time. That may, or may
not, be an economically viable step.)

Regardless of its revenue source, the fund -- on the ground -- would
be allocated according to a United Nations formula based on climate,
energy use, population, economic growth rates, etc. to determine what
percentage of each year's fund would go to each developing country.

If India, for instance, were to receive $5 billion in the first year,
it would then decide what mix of wind farms, village solar
installations, fuel cell generators and biogas facilities it wanted.
The Indian government (in this hypothetical example) would then
entertain bids for the construction of new windfarms, solar panels and
fuel cells. As contractors reached specified development and
construction benchmarks, they would then be paid directly by the
banks. And the banks, as noted, would receive a fee for administering
the fund.

As self-replicating renewable infrastructures took root in developing
countries, the fund could simply be phased out. Alternatively,
progressively larger amounts of the fund could be diverted to other
global environmental and development needs.

The fund is not a traditional North-South giveaway. Rather it
represents the transfer of resources from the finance sector -- in the
form of speculative, non- productive transactions -- to the industrial
sector, in the form of intensely productive, wealth-generating, job-
creating investments.

The fund also represents a critical investment in our own national
security. The global climate envelops us all. What is needed is the
kind of thinking that gave rise to the Marshall Plan after World War
II. Today, instead of a collection of impoverished and dependent
allies in Europe, we have prosperous and robust trading partners. We
believe a plan of this magnitude would have a similarly enriching
effect on the world's developing economies. It would create millions
of jobs. It would raise living standards abroad without compromising
ours. It would allow developing countries to grow without regard to
atmospheric limits -- and without the budgetary burden of imported oil.
And in a very short time, the renewable energy industry would emerge
as a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.

Any strategy to change the world's energy diet must directly address
the oil producing nations of the world -- especially in the Middle
East. Were the countries of the North to phase out their oil
consumption without accommodating the traditional geopolitical role of
the oil producing nations, the drain on Middle Eastern economies would
be disastrous. It would inflame the world's most politically volatile
region. It would exacerbate tensions in oil kingdoms where popular
resentment against autocratic rulers is already seething. It would
strengthen the perception that the U.S. is waging a war on Islam.
Given the high levels of unemployment in Egypt, Iraq and other oil
producing nations, it would elevate economic despair and political
desperation to new levels.

The solution to this dilemma lies in the fact that hydrogen will be
the central fuel of a new energy economy. The cheapest and most
environmentally benign way to make hydrogen is by putting electricity
into water and capturing the liberated hydrogen gas.

In this case, an energy modernization plan would involve helping the
nations of the Middle East cover their deserts with salt-water
pipelines and electricity-generating solar (photovoltaic) panels and
windfarms. A structure of vast, hydrogen-producing farms would allow
the nations of the Middle East to be hydrogen suppliers to Europe,
North Africa and East Asia. It would allow those countries to use the
resources on top of their land (sunlight and wind), instead of the oil
deposits below the surface. While the countries of the Middle East may
not realize the same profit margins on hydrogen as they do on oil,
they would still retain their geopolitical role as major energy
suppliers in the global economy. Moreover, since the installation of
windfarms and solar panels is far more labor intensive than the highly
automated activity of oil drilling, this kind of initiative would
create jobs for many of the under and unemployed people in the region.

One highly improbable fantasy might involve a collaboration between
Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israeli scientists and engineers are
developing truly cutting-edge solar technologies. Were they to work
with their Arab neighbors on a system of solar-powered hydrogen farms,
it could begin to create the kind of economic collaboration that
might, in time, help create conditions supportive of a real peace

The third -- and unifying -- strategy of the plan -- which makes it
all work -- calls on the parties to Kyoto to subordinate the uneven
and inequitable system of international emissions trading to a simple
and equitable progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency
Standard which goes up by about five percent per year.

This mechanism, if incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol, would
harmonize and guide the global energy transition in a way that
emissions trading can not.

As noted earlier, the mechanism of emissions trading can work
relatively well within nations. Domestic cap-and-trade programs --
like the U.S. trading program set up to reduce sulfur dioxide
emissions -- have been relatively successful because they are easy to
monitor and enforce. For that reason, a well-constructed, properly
monitored "cap-and-trade" system could work well within individual
companies and countries as a supplementary mechanism to help meet the
five percent annual increase in the Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard.

Under this mechanism, every country would start at its current
baseline to increase its Fossil Fuel energy efficiency by 5 percent
every year until the global 70 percent reduction is attained. That
means a country would produce the same amount of goods as the previous
year with five percent less carbon fuel. Alternatively, it would
produce five percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the
previous year.

Since no economy can grow at five percent for long, emissions
reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.

The fact that every country would begin at its current baseline would
eliminate the equity controversies inherent in the "cap-and-trade"
system -- and would, in tandem with the Fund -- assure the
participation of developing countries.

For the first few years of the efficiency standard, most countries
would likely meet their goals by implementing low-cost or even
profitable efficiencies -- the "low-hanging fruit" -- in their current
energy systems. After a few years, however, as those efficiencies
became more expensive to capture, countries would meet the
progressively more stringent standard by drawing more and more energy
from non-carbon sources -- most of which are 100 percent efficient by
a Fossil Fuel standard.

That, in turn, would create the mass markets and economies of scale
for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them
competitive with coal and oil.

This approach would be far simpler to negotiate than the current
Protocol, with its morass of details involving emissions trading,
reviews of the adequacy of commitments and differentiated targets. It
would also be far easier to monitor and enforce. A nation's compliance
would be measured simply by calculating the annual change in the ratio
of its carbon fuel use to its gross domestic product. That ratio would
have to change by 5 percent a year.

This approach has a precedent in the Montreal Protocol, under which
companies phased out ozone-destroying chemicals. That protocol was
successful because the same companies that made the destructive
chemicals were able to produce their substitutes -- with no loss of
competitive standing within the industry. The energy industry must be
reconfigured in the same way. Several oil executives have said in
private conversations that they can, in an orderly fashion,
decarbonize their energy supplies. British Petroleum may be the
world's largest vendor of solar systems. Shell may have invested $1
billion in a renewable energy subsidiary. Ford and Daimler Chrysler
may have entered into a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell
cars. But for these efforts to have more than a marginal impact, the
oil and auto industries need the governments of the world to regulate
the process so all companies can make the transition in lockstep
without losing market share to competitors. A progressive Fossil Fuel
Efficiency Standard would, I think, provide that type of regulation.

The plan, then, would be driven by three engines: the subsidy switch
would propel the metamorphosis of oil companies into clean energy
companies; the competition for the new $300 billion a year market in
clean energy would power the whole process; and the progressive fossil
fuel efficiency standard would harmonize the transformation of
national energy structures, create a predictable regulation for the
major energy corporations, and jump renewable energy into a global

A global energy transition requires the governments of the world to
regulate some of the largest corporations on the planet. On the
record, corporations reflexively resist any move toward new
regulation. But history indicates that if the regulations are non-
discriminatory, industry-wide and, most important, predictable -- so
corporations can depend on them in formulating their strategic plans
-- business leaders will accept them.

These climate solution strategies present a clear deal to the multi-
national oil majors: the relinquishing of a measure of corporate
autonomy in exchange for a new $300 billion a year market.

They present something else as well -- the glimpse of an opportunity
to begin to democratize the global economy by putting people back in
charge of governments and governments in charge of corporations.

The rise of the current corporate state seems, to many people, to be
killing off the democratic impulse in the name of economic
rationalization. Many people today feel that their human roles have
been reduced to agents for the movement of money. Political
participation in the United States -- especially at the national level
-- has declined to all time lows. One powerful reason for this malaise
of political alienation lies in the control of the government by large
corporate interests. Energized people who organize around obvious and
needed reforms -- campaign finance reform, environmental protection,
worker rights -- become exhausted and demoralized as each popular
demand for reform is trumped in Washington by lobbyists representing
huge corporate interests, who dominate the invisible workings of our
national government.

It is not a stretch to say that the solution to the climate crisis
contains the potential to begin to reverse our slide into a permanent
corporate state and to resuscitate participatory democracy as an
operating principle of our civic lives.

Given the reach of the major multi-national energy companies in
today's globalized economy, it is apparent that the problem requires a
mechanism of international governance to achieve this regulation. In
the case of the climate crisis, that institution is the UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change, the compact under which the Kyoto
Protocol was drafted. That mechanism of international governance could
well provide a pilot model for a much more extensive regime of popular
governance of the world's industries.

Even as we are seeing the globalization of the economy, we are also
seeing the globalization of communication among activist groups all
over the world. In many countries, moreover, governments depend on the
expertise and insights of non-governmental organizations for policy
guidance. This is especially true in many developing countries, where
governments simply do not have the resources to develop their own
expertise in specialized areas. There are also a large number of
established NGOs in industrial nations that exert considerable
influence on government policies. One can readily imagine a
coordinated global movement in which activist organizations around the
world mount simultaneous campaigns to pressure their individual
governments to impose uniform regulations on multi-national industries
-- and to penalize governments that do not comply.

Those coordinated national-level campaigns could be paralleled by a
coordinated international effort. The climate crisis -- like many
other global problems -- requires an international agency to regulate
multi-national corporations. That agency could provide an access point
for real influence by a global community of electronically-linked
activists. The United Nations has long provided institutional roles
for accredited non-governmental organizations in its decision-making.
Civil society groups have participated with the UN and its member
states on a range of issues including, among others, disarmament,
human rights, sustainable development, social policy and humanitarian

Initially one can envision the activist community participating in
international decisions on the narrow area of energy technologies.
Ultimately, that participation could expand to include popular
regulation of many other areas of corporate activities that affect not
only our environment but our social and economic well-being as well.

If such a collaboration on climate and carbon emissions were to be
broadened and refined, one could imagine people around the world
voting on what is the acceptable discrepancy between the salary of a
CEO and a janitor. One could imagine people voting to put
democratically-determined limits on the activities of entire
industries. For instance, people might vote to require multinational
corporations, setting up manufacturing facilities in developing
countries, to pay new workers 150 percent of median income in the host
country. One could imagine people voting on a mandatory regime of
testing for any new chemical released into the environment. Groups
representing investors might vote on a set of corporate reporting
standards that are far more transparent and publicly accessible than
those that provided cover for the unconscionable deceptions at Enron,
Tyco and Worldcom among others. In all kinds of areas, people could be
given the opportunity to vote on regulations which would limit the
most damaging impacts of corporate activities on vulnerable
communities, populations and ecosystems.

This is one promise embedded in the climate crisis -- an opportunity
to begin to put corporations in the service of people rather than
keeping people at the mercy of increasingly huge conglomerates whose
activities are determined by the demands of a market that does not
account for the social or environmental consequences of its

This is not socialism. Companies would still compete within these
democratically-determined boundaries -- and the quality of product
development, customer service and corporate innovation would continue
to determine the winners and losers in the marketplace. In specific
industries, these regulations might reduce overall profit margins --
but they would be reduced equally for all the companies within an

It seems highly probable, moreover, that those lower profits would be
offset by the economic benefits of better working conditions, higher
wages, less costly environmental clean-ups, far lower expenditures on
negative public health impacts and a massive savings in the amount of
money most corporations pay -- directly to their lobbyists and
indirectly to candidates and their parties -- to procure special
advantages in Washington.

That is a process that could begin with a program of public
involvement in the area of emissions reduction -- and lead toward a
new kind of democratization of the global economy.

Were the nations of the world to come together around the climate
crisis, it could also set the tone for a new set of international
relationships. The meltdown of the planet can not be reversed by
unilateral policies or exclusive alliances. The global climate does
not respect national boundaries or international coalitions. The
climate crisis pits us all against the gathering fury of nature.

But there is a central conundrum embedded in these solutions -- how to
expand the overall wealth in the global economy without destroying the
physical environment on which it depends. Ultimately, the
democratization of the economy must be yoked to the twin goals of
equity and sustainability. The ominous arrival of climate change
aside, the physical planet will not long support global levels of
consumption, material use and pollution that characterize the
affluence of industrial world.

We are cutting down forests at an astonishing rate. Between 1980 and
1995, for instance, at least 2 million square kilometers of forests
were destroyed -- an area larger than Mexico. According to a recent
study, 90 percent of all large fish have disappeared from the world's
oceans in the past half century because of industrial-scale fishing.
Each year, we release thousands of new chemicals into the environment
-- which aggregate in growing "dead zones" on ocean floors, in the
contamination of already-scarce drinking water sources and in the
extraordinary increase of the amount of chemicals (and, presumably,
cancers, birth defects and reproductive disorders) in our own bodies
over the past several generations.

At the same time as we are decimating our natural world, we are
relentlessly exacerbating the ever-widening divide between the world's
rich and poor. This is a recipe for certain political chaos.

Overshooting the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb our carbon
emissions -- and thereby beginning to destabilize the global climate
-- brings us up against only the first of many limits of the natural

A switch to a clean energy economy will, at best, only buy us a bit
more time to prepare for other retaliations of nature which wait just
around the corner.

The unprecedented challenge is to raise living standards abroad while,
at the same time, reducing the rate at which we are depleting the
global storehouse of resources and exhausting the capacity of the
physical world to accommodate our wastes. Ideally, most of the
economic benefits of an energy transition should accrue to the
developing world so that, even as the wealth gap becomes progressively
narrower, the larger global economy moves toward new levels of
sustainability in which raw material is used more sparingly and
strategically and in which far more of our waste is eliminated at the
source and reused at its endpoint. In the case of the climate crisis,
a global transition to clean energy sources should intrinsically
generate more economic growth in the developing world -- if only
because would provide more new energy sources to poor countries. The
same transition in the industrial, by contrast, would likely involve a
much higher proportion of replacements for currently existing energy

Beyond the technological change involved in a clean-energy revolution,
the continuity of a cohesive civilization seems also to require a
profound shift in our values. It suggests that much more of our
gratification -- especially in the wealthier nations -- comes not from
acquisition and consumption of an endless stream of products, most of
which depend on artificially created demand and many of which are
superfluous to our personal happiness. It seems to require, instead,
that we look for personal fulfillment to our intellectual pursuits,
our creative activities, our recreational competitions and our
expanding web of relationships.

While this is beginning to happen very gradually -- through the shift
from an industrial to an information economy -- it is happening far
too slowly. The transition needs to be accelerated dramatically. The
planet will not accommodate anything less. And it is the planet,
ultimately, that holds our history hostage against a future which, to
remain coherent, must unfold in ways that accommodate nature's limits
and thresholds.

These "climate solutions" represent a technological fix to the climate
crisis. But, given the rapid rate at which many of the systems of the
biosphere are deteriorating, it is clear we can not "fix" our way into
a secure future with technological innovations alone.

My own instinct is that changes in values frequently follow changes in
technology. The larger hope here is that the very act of addressing
the climate crisis in its true proportions would bring home to
everyone around the world the realization that we are living on a
planet with limits -- and that we are now bumping up against those

Ultimately a worldwide crash program to rewire the world with clean
energy would, I believe, yield far more than a fuel switch. It could
very easily lead to "closed-loop" industrial processes (that captures
industrial waste products rather than releasing them into the
environment), "smart-growth" planning (with its emphasis on clustered
housing, more open space and a reliance on public transportation), far
more recycling and reuse, the adoption of "environmental accounting"
(which includes the true costs of resource depletion and pollution in
calculating national GDPs), and, ultimately, a whole new ethic of
sustainability that would transform our institutions and practices and
dynamics in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

I think the realization that we are all part of a larger -- and
increasingly vulnerable -- community could engender a new sense of
common purpose -- that would begin with an energy transition and lead,
in turn, to a sustainable redesign of the entire human enterprise in a
global project which could keep us all very busy for years to come.

This crisis requires the kind of cooperative global response that the
founders of the United Nations never dared dream about. It requires us
to abandon the artificial divisions of a stale nationalism which, even
against our will, we are outgrowing. Our context is changing faster
than our understanding of ourselves.

In the early 21st Century, the U.S. is redefining itself as an empire.
But every empire is doomed by the limits of its military power. We can
not protect a complex, highly organized society against terror
attacks. Ultimately, all empires contains the seeds of their own
destruction -- resistance, resentment and sabotage.

If the U.S. were to lead the world in a global partnership of this
scale, it could lay the foundations for a new era of history. Thus
could the U.S. regain its position of leadership -- not through its
military power but through its nurture and support of the rest of the
world. The payback would take the form of an expansion in trade and
commerce as well as a resurrection of moral leadership and
international goodwill.

A properly framed global public works program to rewire the world
could unite every country around a project that is critical to our
common survival. It would not pit countries or alliances against one
another. There is no historical precedent for this kind of global
cooperation. It has never happened before. The rapid and unpredictable
pace of intensifying climate change may never allow it to happen

Human institutions and planetary system operate on very different time
schedules. Large planetary systems, with huge amounts of inertia,
maintain their equilibrium for centuries, frequently for millennia.
But when they do begin to move toward a new state, their momentum may
be unstoppable until they settle into a new equilibrium -- one which
will probably make conditions on the planet far less hospitable to
organized civilization.

Human political institutions have much the same type of inertia --
albeit on much smaller time scales. By the time we detect the
beginnings of really major movements in natural systems, our human
institutions must respond immediately.

In the case of the climate crisis, this is happening only partially in
other parts of the world -- and in the United States barely, if at
all. This disjunction may be the undoing of us all. The escalating
pace of climate change may well outstrip our capability to respond. We
have become so engaged in a moment- to-moment global lifestyle, it
seems as though our sense of future is becoming progressively more

Today a significant number of scientists are now saying it is already
too late to avoid major disruptions. Many cite extrapolations of
current trends. But even the ominous trajectory of those trends pales
in the face of a seldom- acknowledged truth about the climate. Nature
is capable of immense and unpredictable surprises -- and those
surprises are becoming progressively more likely than not. The
increasing likelihood of major disruptions, of abrupt discontinuities,
may render current extrapolations obsolete.

All of which raises the question: has humanity already passed the
point of no return in our slide toward climate chaos?

Several years ago, I was invited to make a short presentation to a
small number of senators and congressmen in the office of the late
Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. At the end of my presentation, one
Congressman, John Olver, of Massachusetts, a former chemistry
professor, said: "I agree with everything you've just said. Except
that I think it's too late."

While that sentiment -- which is echoed by a growing number of
observers -- is profoundly discouraging, it may not be completely

What is true is that it now appears very likely that it is too late to
avert a cascade of major and destructive impacts of climate change.
Many, many signals indicate that events are outpacing our ability to
contain them. That is the conclusion one infers from a steady flow of
scientific findings and a succession of warming-driven impacts around
the world.

But the honest truth is that we really do not know.

We do not know where on the trajectory of disintegration we stand. We
can not identify thresholds of carbon concentrations that could flip
the climate into a new regime. We do not know what other feedback
mechanisms lie in wait -- and when they may kick in.

There is one other unknown that may be even more critical than the
mysterious timetables of nature. It has to do with sudden and
unpredictable eruptions of sweeping social and political movements.

Given the urgency and magnitude of the escalating pace of climate
change, the only solution lies in a rapid and unprecedented
mobilization of humanity around this issue. There are a few precious
precedents in our recent history. The Berlin Wall fell within a couple
of years of the demise of the Soviet Union. The citizens of South
Africa overturned that country's long legacy of apartheid in the
historical blink of an eye.

This hope represents the most intellectually honest consolation when
virtually all the evidence points toward the increasing inevitability
of catastrophe: the hope that some spark might ignite a massive
uprising of popular will around a unifying movement for social
survival and the promise it holds for a more prosperous, more
equitable and more peaceful world. Absent that spark, the prognosis is
deeply disheartening. The antidote to the paralysis of despair lies in
acknowledging our ignorance. Regardless of the apparent hopelessness
of our situation, we really do not know the timing or the nature of
the huge surprises embedded in nature and, hopefully, in our own
collective behavior. The existential imperative in the face of this
profound ignorance is simply to keep trying. No alternative seems
morally acceptable.

At this extraordinary crosspoint in history, we are fast approaching a
unique pivot point in our social evolution. Either we will move
forward toward a much more cooperative and coordinated global
community, or we will regress into a progressively more tribalized,
combative and totalitarian existence. And we will watch the unbounded
promise of the future -- which has been our birthright since the
beginning of civilization -- as it disintegrates in a cascade of
climatic disruptions.

There is really no choice. One way or the other, this world we inhabit
will not long continue on its historical trajectory. Like it or not,
we are facing a massive and inevitable discontinuity.

We will either retreat into ourselves and scramble to defend our
private security in an increasingly threatening environment, or we
will move forward into a much more coherent and prosperous and
peaceful future.

This perspective may well be overly visionary. But the alternative --
given the escalating instability of the climate system, the
deterioration of other natural planetary systems and the increasing
desperation of global economic inequity -- is truly horrible to

The ultimate hope is that -- especially given the centrality of energy
to our modern lives -- a meaningful solution to the climate crisis
could potentially be the beginning of a much larger transformation of
our social and economic dynamics.

Our modern history has been marked by a dichotomy between the
totalitarianism of command-and-control economies and the opulence and
brutality of unregulated markets and runaway globalization.

It is just possible that the act of rewiring of the planet could begin
to point us toward that optimal calibration of competition and
cooperation that would maximize our energy and creativity and
productivity while, at the same time, substantially extending the
baseline conditions for peace -- peace among people and peace between
people and nature.

(c) Ross Gelbspan