I never much liked the idea of arms control. During the Cold War, we managed our nuclear arsenals rather than reduced them. We treated our nukes like huge, dangerous animals. We restricted their movements but gave them ample care and feeding. Until recently, getting rid of the animals altogether wasn’t part of the political agenda. After all, our leaders believed that these beasts were useful. They scared away the covetous neighbors.
We have a similar approach to our production of carbon emissions, which are quickly raising the temperature of our planetary home. We get excited about a few new windmills, the latest type of electric car, or a more energy-efficient refrigerator. But this is just tinkering around the edges. Our leaders are willing to control our fossil fuel economy but not to embark on a serious program to disarm it. After all, we believe that our huge, carbon-belching beasts—the coal-fired plants, the SUVs—are useful. They keep our economies strong.
But as long as we maintain our carbon control approach we will be, literally, cooked.
The latest sobering study, from the United Nations Environment Program, argues that even if the international community enacts every climate policy proposed at this point, global temperatures will rise 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. That’s nearly twice the temperature hike that scientists predict will spell irreversible climate chaos.
World leaders are starting to realize the urgency of this situation. In the lead-up to the Copenhagen meeting in December, which will ideally produce a much stronger climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, we’ve begun to see the inklings of a reverse carbon race. Yukio Hatoyama, The new Japanese Prime Minister, kicked things off at a recent UN summit by pledging reductions of 25% from 1990 levels by 2020. China, a much larger emitter of greenhouse gases, promised that renewable energy sources will account for 15% of its total energy output by 2020. The tiny island nation of Maldives trumped everybody by vowing to go carbon neutral by 2020. (That is, if it’s still above water a decade from now.)
The United States hasn’t yet participated in this latest virtuous circle of carbon reductions. President Barack Obama must travel to a place threatened by the rising tide—New Orleans, Dhaka, Kiribati—and commit the United States to leading the reverse carbon race. Global warming deserves its own version of his Prague speech on nuclear abolition. The time for carbon disarmament is now.