Fast Forward

Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming, by William Antholis and Strobe Talbott, Brookings Institution Press, $22.95

“Everyone talks about the weather,” Mark Twain observed, “but nobody does anything about it.” The aphorism rings true today in a way the novelist could never have imagined. For almost 20 years, world leaders have gathered at regular intervals to discuss the threat of global warming – with few concrete results.

As last December’s climate summit demonstrated, talk is much easier than action. Following the summit, the Danish capital quickly went from being “Hopenhagen” to “Brokenhagen”. Hillary Clinton was perhaps being polite when she described it as the “worst meeting I’ve been to since eighth grade student council”.

Strobe Talbott and Bill Antholis – head and senior fellow respectively of the Brookings Institution, and former stalwarts of the Clinton administration – prefer to describe Copenhagen as a “useful disappointment”. In their very timely and fast-paced account of where we are today on the politics of global warming, the authors see Copenhagen as having pointed up the futility of relying on the United Nations as the only vehicle through which to tackle climate change.

Instead, they argue, the world’s most important powers, particularly the US, China, India and the European Union, should supplement multilateralism with “minilateralism”, since the number of participants is inversely related to the speed of what a process can deliver. But that still leaves a lot of players. And the domestic politics have, if anything, become even less favourable in Washington and Europe since last December.

Indeed, as the authors observe, it was fashionable in the midst of last February’s snowstorm in Washington for Republicans to make jokes about the onset of global warming. Jim DeMint, a famously sceptical senator from South Carolina, even built an impromptu igloo on Capitol Hill to highlight the punchline.

The book rightly puts last year’s disastrously timed “Climategate” into context. The leak of cynical e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s climate change unit, and the almost simultaneous revelation that there were problems with one portion of the UN’s latest report on climate change exaggerating the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers, were presented by sceptics as proof of the corruption of the whole process.

Given the vast weight of research, that was equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack and then declaring there was no hay to be seen. But the fallout combined with the Great Recession to stop the US legislative process in its tracks.

In spite of the launch last week of a much diluted Senate bill to cap carbon emissions in the US power sector, the momentum has yet to show much sign of revival. Any Republican who votes in favour of what has already been dubbed an “energy tax” will almost certainly be signing his political death warrant.

Yet the authors are unapologetic in making their case that it is effectively now or never – the scientific consensus says 2015 – for the world to begin to reverse emissions growth. “Our forebears had the excuse of ignorance,” they write. “Our descendants will have the excuse of helplessness. We have no excuse.”

In the face of such challenges, the reader is often left wondering whether we can possibly live up to what the authors require of us. Likening the threat of climate change to that of nuclear armageddon during the cold war, they point out that the former would “produce death by a thousand cuts” whereas the latter was a blunter “sword of Damocles”.

It is far easier to mobilise opinion to tackle a threat that has the power to bring such instant devastation. In contrast, the slightest flurry of snow is taken by sceptics as proof that climate change is a myth. Contrast Mr DeMint’s approach to politics with the revolution the authors say will be needed to bring meaningful action.

Improving the process that has stretched from Rio in 1992 to Copenhagen in 2009 will require “nothing less than a revolution in global civics – our understanding of our duties as citizens of the world”, they argue. This must start with the recognition that “Americans are more responsible than anyone else both for causing the problem and for leading the search for a solution”.

The bill enacted in the US lower chamber last year stalled partly because the upper chamber believed the cost would be too high for the average American. That burden was estimated at between $80 and $400 a year. The authors have produced a superbly argued call for action. But people only respond to emergencies when they believe they are in one. Right now, most people clearly do not.

The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief

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