Friday, June 6, 2008

To Lead, Politicians Need the People

Yesterday morning, Phil and I spoke about some of the latest signs and symptoms of climate change before a group of Massachusetts legislators and their staff.

We did our absolute best to share clear, accurate information. We told them:

-- Climate change is already dangerous, for people around the world, including those suffering in 12 out of the 13 regions where the UN operated major humanitarian relief operations in 2007 - because 12 out of 13 of 2007's major disasters were 'climate-related'.

-- Current levels of greenhouse gas (at 385 ppm) haven't yet had their full impact on temperature and will take hundreds of years to do so.

-- Prolonged exposure of the planet to current levels of CO2 increases the likelihood of runaway warming, where warming feeds upon itself.

We told them we were convinced by the analysis of James Hansen and his colleagues that CO2 levels should be brought as quickly as possibly to 350 ppm or below, and that this would require dramatic action, on the order of phasing out coal use worldwide by 2030 and ending deforestation by 2015, and avoiding the temptation to tap tar sands or oil shale.

Such changes are ambitious, we said, but feasible, given the collective will to act.

It is, for me, always a strange feeling to share this information. We stood there speaking in ordinary tones, as people sat in chairs, took notes, sipped coffee. Did any of us believe what we were saying, what we were hearing? Twenty-two years to phase out coal, on a planet with billions hungry, in need of better shelter, schools, and health care? Seven years to end deforestation? There were no gasps of shock (except when we showed the graph of Arctic ice melt last summer), no muttering about the magnitude of the challenge being laid out.

But no one disagreed, or quibbled with our facts. No one said the danger was less grave than we suggested.

In fact, the representative who addressed his colleagues after we had finished said he agreed with everything we had said.

But then his remarks took a, for me, unexpected turn:

You can't expect to pass legislation to protect the climate on its own merits, not without showing other benefits.

And anyway, some crops might grow better with higher CO2.

And they are building so many coal plants in China it might not matter what we do here.

And we have to be careful, to not take steps that might harm the economy.

I don't know why it played out this way, why he didn't feel free to urge his colleagues to take bold and decisive action by supporting the climate legislation currently under consideration. I don't have the background to understand the subtleties of this particular moment in Massachusetts' political landscape.

But it did not look like a lack of understanding of the science or a lack of caring about this issue.

It looked like an elected leader unable to go farther without the people urging him forward or protecting his back.

I know how easy it is for us ordinary citizens to think of politicians as the ones with power, and us as the ones without. I fall into that belief easily myself.

But, coming home from our brief foray into the world of political decision making to the news that, in Washington, Senate Republicans succeeded in blocking the global warming legislation under consideration by that body (after Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky required that all 492 pages be read into the record - a move that took 8 1/2 hours) it is clear to me that - on the issue of global warming - it is going to have to be the people who make it possible for the politicians to lead.

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