The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


A couple of weeks ago Harry Reid, leader of the Democrats

in the U.S. Senate, threw in the towel on trying to get a bill passed to deal

with climate change. "We don't have the votes," Reid said.


was especially critical of Republicans, not one of whom was willing to cast a

vote in favor of trying to curb our society's appetite for coal-powered energy.

But a number of Democrats with ties to coal producers and heavy industry also

failed to support the bill.


the Senate did nothing. At this point, it's not clear when Congress will

revisit climate change legislation.


McKibben, who was one of the first to sound the alarm about climate change in

1989, was exasperated by what he called "the disastrous Senate non-vote." In an

essay called "We're Hot as Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Any More," he

contrasted the Senate's dithering with several recent milestones.


to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Earth has just

experienced the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months,

and the warmest April, May and June on record.


researchers have found that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base

of the marine food chain, by 40 percent since 1950.


date, nine nations have set their all-time temperature records in 2010,

including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq

(126 apiece), and Pakistan, which set the all-time Asia record in May (129).


McKibben, the Senate's walking away from climate change legislation –

legislation, by the way, that many environmentalists thought was dangerously

flawed by compromises made to appease the energy industry – represents a

tipping point. Time is short, McKibben says. A more full-throated activism is

called for. "If we're going to slow global warming in the very short time

available to us, then we don't actually need an incredibly complicated

legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry...We need

a stiff price on carbon, set by the scientific understanding that we can't

still be burning black rocks a couple of decades hence."


calls for what amounts to a new industrial revolution, "upending the future

business plans of Exxon and BP, Peabody Coal and Duke Energy, not to speak of

everyone else who's made a fortune by treating the atmosphere as an open



need a mass movement to demand the changes necessary to save the planet, McKibben says. Fine. One wishes, though, that he paid as much attention to

addictive behavior as he does greenhouse gases. It's not just business models

that have to change, it's personal lifestyles. As long as I can run my air

conditioning, a record-breaking temperature is a number I can almost root for.


is the last thing people want to change. The torturous compromises that plagued

the failed Senate bill on climate change were actually a fair representation of

our collective feelings about the issue. Yes, we know it's a problem. And maybe

it will go away – kind of like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.


is fatal nonsense, but it underscores how hard it is for us

technologically-mediated animals to relate to any but the most intrusive

happenings in the natural world.


seems off-key about McKibben's argument is that while he calls for political

will, he shies away from political implications. He prefers, it seems, to keep

his focus on the survival of the planet when he could just as easily argue

that, in the shorter term, it's our form of government that's at stake.


the moment, we have the luxury of being able to take votes on things like

carbon emissions. But our process of debate, compromise, and backroom dealing

leading up to yea or nay is going to seem downright quaint when the summer

temperature in Indianapolis is routinely over 90 degrees and people are ordered

to stay indoors because the air's not fit to breathe.


conditions impinging on our air, water and fuel supplies become more dire,

political debate about what to do will likely give way to dictates. We'll be

told how cool or warm we can keep our houses and when and where we can drive.

At first, these conditions might be implemented by high prices, allowing a

privileged few the illusion that everything's ok. Eventually everyone will be



most steadfast naysayers regarding climate change often invoke freedom as a

reason for trying to perpetuate a style of life based on the consumption of

fossil fuels. It's a cartoon concept, equating waste with abundance, like the

image of the plutocrat who lights his cigars with hundred dollar bills. What

these people fail to appreciate is how quickly their notion of freedom could be



McKibben is right: the planet's future is at stake. But our representative

democracy is also being tested. If we are unwilling or incapable of crafting an

effective response to climate change, then, when the crisis is undeniable, other

changes will be in store – and one of them could be our form of