Ross Gelbspan on Global Warming

The news is not that climate shapes history. What is news is that the heating of our atmosphere has propelled our climate into a new state of instability. This new era of climate change could well be the most profound threat ever facing humanity. Its most predictable is stability—in our political systems, our economic organizations and our weather.

Early in my reporting I realized that climate change is far more than a merely environmental issue. Its dimensions cut to the core of our economic and political lives—even to the basis of our existence as an organized species.

From my perspective, the crisis of the global climate clusters together three issues of enormous scope and pervasive impact.

Its natural dimensions are of truly cosmic proportions. The eleven hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 1983. The period from 1991 to 1995 constitutes the hottest five-year period on record. 1998 replaced 1997 as the hottest year in human history. And 2000 to date is the hottest year in U.S. history. The decade of the 1990s is the hottest in this millennium. And the planet is heating at a faster rate than at any time in the last 10,000 years.

Its energy dimension is staggering to contemplate. To restore our inflamed atmosphere to a hospitable state ultimately requires nothing less than rewiring the entire globe—and replacing every oil burning furnace, every gasoline-burning car, every coal-powered generating plant with renewable and climate-friendly energy sources. The earth’s fossil fuel resources have blessed us with a level of prosperity and abundance unimaginable even a century ago; today they are propelling us forward into a century of disintegration.

Finally, the economic dimension of the climate crisis centers around a widening global fault line which threatens to split humanity irreparably between rich and poor. The impact of that inequality on the global climate crisis rests on one simple fact: if tomorrow the US and the rest of the industrial world were to cut its emissions dramatically, that reduction would be overwhelmed by the coming pulse of carbon from China, India, Brazil, Mexico and all the developing nations who are struggling to keep ahead of the relentless undertow of chronic poverty.

We simply cannot deal with the crisis of the global climate without dealing with the crisis of global economic inequity.

Today, while governments try to ratify emissions reductions of six to seven percent, a larger reality is being ignored. The science tells us clearly we must cut our emissions by at least 70 percent if we are to stabilize the global climate.

It is a fascinating and deeply engaging set of issues that challenges both our habits and our intellects in ways that no other environmental problem ever has.

I will not take the time here to walk through the science. But the facts underlying the science are simple. Carbon dioxide traps in heat. For 10,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has remained the same—280 ppm—until roughly the turn of the century when we began burning more coal and oil. That 280 will double in the next century. A concentration of 560 ppm which most experts regard as inevitable correlates with an increase in the global temperature of 3° to 7° F. By contrast, the last Ice Age was only 5° to 9° F colder than our current climate. Each year, we are pumping seven billion tons of heat-trapping carbon into our atmosphere whose outer extent is only about 10 miles overhead.

The first consequence of the small warming that has already occurred is a forcing of the planet’s hydrological cycle which is expressing itself in altered drought and rainfall patterns, more severe storms, more heat waves, and the fact that we are getting much more of our snow and rain in intense, severe downpours than we did 20 years ago. The physics are simple. Warming accelerates the evaporation of surface waters. It also expands the air to hold more water. So when the normal turbulence comes through the atmosphere, it releases these intense dumps of rain and snow.

The most direct evidence of this new climatic instability lies in the relentless succession of extreme weather events all over the world during the past few years.

By itself, anecdotal evidence is not conclusive. But, in this case, it is very compelling. I’d like to give you some examples from my notes; just from the last two years:

1998 began with an extraordinary ice storm which immobilized parts of northern New England and Quebec for a month,

  • It brought us the fires in Brazil, Mexico, and Florida (and what was especially troubling about the fires in Brazil and Mexico was this was the first time rainforests actually caught fire),
  • killer heat waves in Texas, the Middle East and India,
  • Mexico’s worst drought in 70 years,
  • flooding in China which left 14 million people homeless,
  • the worst flooding in the history of Bangladesh which left some 30 million people homeless,
  • and the 9,000 hurricane casualties in Central America.

And last year, 1999, saw:

  • record drought in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states which led to declarations of emergency in 6 states;
  • the heat wave that killed 271 people in the Midwest and Northeast;
  • Hurricane Floyd, with it’s billion-dollar plus damages;
  • the super-cyclone in Orissa State India which killed some 10,000 people;
  • the torrential rains and mudslides that left some 15,000 dead in Venezuela;
  • December’s extraordinary windstorms in northern Europe which left more than $4 billion in damages;
  • and my own Boston record of 304 consecutive snowless days.

What is significant about these events is that they constitute the precise pattern of weather extremes the computer models project as early stage global warming.

The economic consequences of our newly unstable climate are visible in the rising disaster relief costs to governments and the escalating losses of the world’s property insurers. During the 1980s those insurance losses to extreme weather events averaged $2 billion a year; in the 1990s they are averaging $12 billion a year. Since 1980, the US has absorbed more than a billion dollars in losses from each 42 separate weather events. And the $89 billion in losses to extreme events just in 1998 exceeds the total of all such losses for the entire decade of the 1980s. An official of the insurance giant, Munich Re, said recently: “Man-made climate change will … bring us increasingly extreme natural events and consequently increasingly large catastrophe losses.” And the head of the Re-insurance Association of America has said that unless something is done to stabilize the climate, it could well bankrupt the industry.

Politically, there is a strong totalitarian threat to climate change. It is easiest to see in certain poor countries whose ecosystems are as fragile as their traditions of democracy. It is not hard to foresee governments resorting to permanent states of martial law in the face of food shortages, droughts, floods, incursions of environmental refugees and epidemics of infectious disease. In the fall of 1997, for instance, following a four-month spell of drought and frost, 700,000 Papua New Guineans left their homes and began wandering the countryside in search of food, water and warmth. And officials said they could not control the situation. Fortunately, other countries came to their aid, but the situation is a vivid illustration of the kind of political instability that climate change implies.

Again, when eastern India was hit by a super cyclone last November, the government could not distribute medicine and water purifying tablets because relief workers were afraid of attacks from desperate villagers.

The escalation of climatic instability holds anti-democratic potentials for the North as well. It will cause big job losses. It will shrink foreign markets and impair the flow of industrial commodities from abroad. This is not the kind of climate in which democracy flourishes. This is the kind of climate that could easily lead to food rationing, with its associated black-market crime. It could lead to the militarization of disaster relief forces to maintain social order. It is a fact that today the Central Intelligence Agency is assessing potentials for political destabilization from climate-related disruptions.

If you look at the direct, warming-driven impacts on the planet itself, you will see a number of very troubling physical changes on the planet which are independent of computer models and data analysis:

  • Last summer, two uninhabited islands in the South Pacific were submerged by rising sea levels. But two neighboring inhabited islands—Kiribati and Tuvalu—are on the bring of submersion as well. So disaster planners have begun the process of relocating whole populations to other islands in the region. (Recently the Prime Minister of New Zealand offered to providing homes for the entire population of Tuvalu when it succumbs to rising sea levels.)
  • In the last two decades, the surface waters in the eastern Pacific warmed by 3 degrees, triggering a 70 percent decline in the population of zooplankton off the coast of southern California, jeopardizing the survival of several species of fish and seabirds.
  • In Monterey Bay, ocean warming caused a turnover in the population of marine life, driving cold-water fish northward as warm-water fish and sea animals moved in to populate the area. As ocean warming pushed fish populations northward, atmospheric warming has pushed whole populations of butterflies in the same direction—from the mountains of Mexico to the hills of Vancouver.
  • Warming has been detected in the deep oceans. That is causing the break up of Antarctic ice shelves—one piece the size of Connecticut broke off in the spring of 1998. Two more of the same magnitude broke off this spring. This deep warming is also almost certainly fueling more frequent and severe El Ninos. The El Niño before last, which ended in 1995, lasted a record 5 years 8 months. That is a 1-in-2000-year event. And the El Nina of 1997-98 was the most severe on record.
  • High above the oceans, most of earth’s glaciers are retreating at accelerating rates. The biggest glacier in the Peruvian Andes was retreating by 14 feet a year 20 years ago; today it is shrinking by 99 feet a year. The second largest glacier on earth—the Greenland ice sheet—since 1993 has been losing two cubic miles of ice a year—enough to cover the state of Maryland with a foot of ice.
  • The Alaskan Tundra, which for thousands of years absorbed methane and CO2, is now thawing and releasing those gases back into the atmosphere;
  • The permafrost in Siberia and Alaska is turning to pea soup in many areas.
  • The Arctic sea ice has thinned by 40 percent in the last two decades
  • And we have actually altered the timing of the seasons. Because of the buildup of atmospheric CO2, spring is now arriving a week earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago.

Finally, scientists are documenting the warming-driven northward migration of tropical diseases. Warming accelerates the breeding rates and the biting rate of insects. It also accelerates the maturation of the pathogens they carry. And it is propelling them to altitudes and latitudes which were only a few years ago too cold to support their survival. As a result, mosquitoes are spreading malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever to populations which have never previously been exposed. Locally transmitted cases of malaria have appeared in Ohio, New Jersey and, last summer, in Long Island.

At current rates of warming, scientists project mosquito-borne diseases to double in the tropical regions in the next century—and to increase a hundred-fold in the temperate regions where we live. Globally, the incidence of malaria over the last five years has quadrupled.

The cholera epidemic of the early 1990s which affected a half million people in Peru alone was due in part to warming. And changes in the climate have promoted the emergence of frequently lethal pulmonary virus in the southwest called hantavirus (which increased last year 9-fold over 1998), the spread of a strain of Encephalitis and a striking increase in my part of the country of tick-borne Lyme disease.

(In March, 1998, when my wife and I were in Guatemala, the government declared a nationwide health alert in the face of an epidemic of cholera and other intestinal diseases. According to a full page article in the national newspaper, the drought-driven evaporation of drinking water was concentrating the amount of bacteria, and the warming from the El Niño was accelerating their breeding rates. So the government warned the public not only not to drink the water, but not even to wash vegetables or bathe in it.)

Recently, I’ve had occasion to speak to a number of scientists I had interviewed about four years ago for the book. Today many say that the climate is changing far more quickly than they imagined even a few years ago—and that the systems of the planet are proving far more sensitive to even a small degree of warming than they initially anticipated.

Last December, in a remarkable joint statement, the chief British meteorologist and the head of NOAA said the climate situation has now become “critical” and they called for immediate cutbacks on carbon emissions.

New findings published in March indicated that while the planet had been heating at the rate of 1* per century until the mid-1970s, for the past 20 years it has been heating at the rate of 4* per century—which is off the charts.

So the consequences to our social existence are truly profound. As one top IPCC scientist told me: “If this newly unstable climate had begun 150 years ago, the planet would likely never have been able to support its current population of 6 billion people.”

This, then, is the central drama underlying the issue: the ability of this planet to sustain civilization versus the survival of the largest commercial enterprise in human history. The oil and coal industries together generate nearly two trillion dollars a year in revenues. They support the economies of more than a dozen countries in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. In the battle against their inevitable transformation or demise, their resources are virtually without limit.

Over the last eight years, the fossil fuel lobby has mounted a extremely effective campaign of disinformation to persuade the public and policy-makers that the issue of atmospheric warming is still stuck in the limbo of scientific uncertainty. That campaign for the longest time targeted the science. It then misrepresented the economics. And most recently it attacked the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention. And it has been extraordinarily successful in creating a relentless drumbeat of doubt in the public mind.

In 1991, Western Fuels, a $400-million coal consortium, declared in its annual report it was launching a direct attack on mainstream science and enlisting several scientists who are skeptical about climate change—specifically Drs. Robert Balling, Pat Michaels and S. Fred Singer.

These self-proclaimed “greenhouse skeptics” would normally not be worthy of much attention. There are only about a dozen visible ones versus a consensus of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries. But, with extraordinary access to the media thanks to their corporate sponsors, they have been able to create the general perception that the issue is hopelessly stuck in uncertainty.

Nine years ago, Western Fuels and several coal utilities launched a half-million-dollar public relations campaign which called for local press, radio and TV appearances by Drs. Balling, Michaels and Singer. According to its strategy papers, the purpose of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.” The same document indicates the campaign was designed to target “older, less-educated men…[and] young, low-income women” in districts which receive their electricity from coal and, preferably, have a representative on the House Energy Committee.

Following that fraudulent campaign, Western Fuels spent $250,000 on a propaganda video to convince audiences that enhanced carbon dioxide is good for us—that it will benefit humanity by increasing crop yields to help feed an expanding population. The video was shown extensively in the Bush White House and in the capitols of OPEC. Unfortunately, the video overlooks two factors. The first is the bugs. Of all natural systems, one of the most sensitive to even slightest temperature change is insects; even a slight warming will trigger an explosion of crop-destroying, disease-spreading insects. Plant biologists point out an even more unconscionable omission. While enhanced CO2 may temporarily increase yields in the northern latitudes, it will decimate food crop growth in the tropical latitudes where the majority of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live. A half-degree increase in the average temperature will cause a substantial decline in rice yields in Southeast Asia—and a drop-off of 20 percent of the wheat crop in India—a country where a third of the population—more than 300 million people—live in extreme poverty.

For its part, the oil industry has been every bit as active as the coal lobby in spreading public confusion. In 1995, researchers at the National Climate Data Center documented the new climatic instability with its increase in extreme events. A few months later, the oil lobby released a study it had commissioned a private weather forecasting firm denied any changes in climatic stability or weather extremes. On closer examination, it turned out that the NCDC study was based on all the weather data in the US collected since the beginning of instrumentation—enough to fill a half million 1995-vintage PCs. By contrast, the industry study drew on temperature data from three towns—Augusta, Ga., State College, Pa., and Des Moines, Iowa. And while it was a laughingstock in the scientific community, it received quite a lot of coverage in the press.

This is not ancient history. You need look no further than the March 23 op-ed page of the New York Times to see a quarter-page ad by Exxon Mobil headlined: “Unsettled Science.”

The use of the tiny group of dissenting “skeptics” became clear when they were compelled to disclose under oath how much funding they had received from industry sources—funding they had never before publicly acknowledged.

Dr. Balling received about a half million dollars from coal and oil interests between 1990 and 1995. That money came from the British Coal Corporation, the German Coal Mining Association, Cyprus Minerals, and OPEC. His book’s publication in Arabic was funded by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.

Michaels, who had acknowledged receiving $16,000 from industry, actually received more than ten times that amount in three years from Western Fuels, the German Coal Mining Association and Cyprus Minerals. Cyprus Minerals, at the time, was the largest single funder of the militantly anti-environmental Wise Use movement. Another highly visible skeptic, Fred Singer, has received funding from Exxon, Unocal and ARCO.

The bottom line on the tiny group of greenhouse skeptics is this. There are about a dozen dissenters on the one hand versus a consensus of more than 2,000the scientists on the other. Without the millions of industry dollars spent to amplify their opinions out of all proportion to their scientific standing, the skeptics would be no more than footnotes to the reports of the IPCC.

Unfortunately, their impact has been profound. In 1996, when the chairman of the House Science Committee drastically cut funding for global research programs, he cited statements by the “greenhouse skeptics” and ignored the testimony of four of the world’s most accomplished scientists. The chairman of a House subcommittee said the industry-sponsored skeptics persuaded him that funding global warming research amounted to “throwing money down a rat hole.”

Two polls by Newsweek Magazine underscore the effectiveness of this industry campaign. In 1991, 35 percent of those polled said global warming is a very serious problem. But by 1996, that percentage had dropped to 22 percent.

This is important to understand. Since the book’s publication, I’ve done some foreign travel and attended several rounds of climate negotiations. And what is most remarkable is that there is no debate in virtually any other country in the world about what is happening to the climate. One proof is that when 160 nations came together in Kyoto in late 1997, not one government questioned the science. The general confusion about climate change stops at the borders of the United States.

The industry-sponsored “skeptics” are fond of pointing out uncertainties in the science. The science, they tell us, can’t specify particular impacts in specific regions. Nor can it predict the future rates of warming—or the thresholds of carbon dioxide concentrations which will propel the climate into abrupt shifts.

They have made a living off of scientific uncertainty. But they have used it in a very selective and misleading way.

Here is the truth about uncertainty. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere 100 years. If we could magically stop all our coal and oil burning, we would still be subject to a long spell of costly and traumatic disruptive weather. Moreover new research indicates that prehistoric climate changes have happened as abrupt shifts rather than gradual transitions, and that small changes have triggered catastrophic outcomes. Not only are we gambling with our collective futures. We are gambling with our eyes blindfolded. We can’t even read the cards we’ve been dealt.

The solution to the climate crisis is as simple as it is overwhelming. To pacify our inflamed climate requires emissions reductions of 60 to 70 percent – and that means a rapid global energy transition away from oil and coal and to low-carbon, high efficiency and renewable energy sources.

Industry portrays that pathway as a shortcut to global poverty. I think the exact opposite is true. A properly financed energy transition holds the potential for an unprecedented worldwide economic boom. A global public works program to rewire the planet would create millions and millions of jobs all over the world. It would begin to reverse the widening gap between the North and the South. It would allow developing economies to grow without regard to atmospheric limits—and without the budgetary burden of imported oil. And in a very few years, the renewable energy industry would eclipse high technology as the central driving engine of growth of the global economy.

At the corporate level, we have made some progress. Recently, Mazda joined Ford and Daimler-Chrysler in a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell powered autos. Two years ago the chairman of British Petroleum etc. acknowledged the destructive potentials of climate change; so did the president of Sunoco. BP announced it anticipates doing $1 billion dollars a year in solar commerce within the next decade, and Shell recently created a new $500 million core company in renewable technologies.

But without a strong regime of mandatory regulation by the world’s governments, many of these initiatives will probably fail. Several oil executives have said as much off the record. Without a binding structure of consensus regulation to level the corporate playing field, competing energy companies will undercut these initiatives by selling cheaper oil and coal products. The solar, wind and hydrogen investments by BP, Shell and others will become money losers. And the continuing succession of floods, droughts, storms, disease epidemics and insurance losses will tear holes in our global economic fabric.

Two years ago, more than 2,500 economists declared that we can cut emissions—up to 30 percent—simply by implementing a series of efficiency and conservation measures with a net gain in jobs to the economy. To attain the next 40 percent, however, requires a radical departure from the way we have been doing business. An unregulated market approach is far too gradual and uneven to address the challenge. And the conventional political process, with its negotiated comprises, will—predictably and depressingly—yield nothing more than a new arena of perpetual economic warfare in which industries and nations work to push the pain off themselves and onto their neighbors and competitors. That is clearly the least productive response to the challenge that faces us all.

A more productive response might involve the type of governance the Montreal Protocol provided for the chemical industry. The reason that treaty was successful in eliminating ozone-destroying chemicals was simple: the same companies that made the destructive chemicals were able to produce their substitutes, with no negative impact on their competitive standing within the industry.

The job of governments now is to configure the energy industry in the same way. The good news is that the renewable energy industry today is young and fragmented. There is no Microsoft of renewables. Given the emerging nature of the industry, there is today a moment of opportunity and an abundance of expertise for the energy giants majors to decarbonize their energy supplies. To accomplish this, the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol should establish an enforceable timetable of 10 to 15 years for this transition.

(It is worth noting here that a switch to renewable and high-efficiency energy sources implies no decline in our living standards. An economy based on hydrogen, fuel cells, gas-fired co-generation, photovoltaics, solar and wind could provide all the energy we require today and more. All renewables need to become economically competitive with coal and oil are mass markets, mass production and economies of scale.)

The elements for this transition seem available now. Let me mention three interactive strategies I think could get this started.

The first involves a change in our subsidy policies. The federal government spends $20 billion each year to subsidize fossil fuels; globally the figure is estimated at $300 billion. If those subsidies were withdrawn from coal and oil and put behind renewable energies, it would do two things. It would raise the price of gasoline and discourage excessive consumption. More importantly, it would provide a strong incentive for the oil companies to follow the subsidies by becoming aggressive developers of solar, hydrogen, wind and biomass technologies.

Second, I think we need to substitute a progressively more stringent fossil fuel efficiency standard for the mechanism of emissions trading. Domestically, carbon trading can be a valuable tool. But internationally emissions trading is a grab-bag of loopholes to be exploited by industry. Unfortunately, we cannot finesse the global climate with accounting tricks. International trading also contains major equity problems for the nations of the South. By contrast a progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel efficiency standard would increase productivity even as it brought down emissions. Internationally, if each country, began at its current baseline to increase its fossil fuel efficiency by specific amounts at designated intervals, it would create an instant market for renewables and efficiencies without compromising any of our energy needs. And merely by imposing that standard and eliminating other regulatory barriers, we would create an open market for energy that allowed for free competition based only on the dual standards of cost and efficiency.

Finally, I think we need to use a tax on international currency transactions to finance the transfer of climate-friendly technologies to the developing world. Virtually all developing countries would love to solar; virtually none can afford it. The currency transaction tax was conceived by Dr. James Tobin, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Yale, as a way to stabilize volatile capital flows. When Tobin first proposed his tax, the commerce in currency transactions totaled several hundred billion dollars a year. Today, those currency transactions total $1.5 trillion every day. A .025 percent tax on those transactions would generate from $200 to $300 billion a year to finance windmill plants in India, fuel cell factories in Russia, vast hydrogen-producing, photovoltaic farms in the Middle East, solar assemblies in El Salvador and super-efficient, gas-fired cogeneration plants in South Africa.

What I am talking about here is not a soft-hearted, liberal giveaway program. The global climate envelops us all. What I am talking about is a critical investment in our own national security. What is required is the kind of visionary thinking that gave rise to the Marshall Plan after World War II. Today, instead of a collection of impoverished and dependent allies, the US enjoys a fruitful and prosperous economic relationship with the nations of Europe. A plan of this scale would, I believe, have a similarly enriching impact on the world’s developing economies—and, by extension, on our own.

When I speak to business groups, they frequently raise concerns about government regulation. But, given the fact that many people today are concerned about the growth of corporate power—as well as role the role of the World Bank and IMF—a different political concern suggests itself. Many people believe our paramount need today is to change underlying economic dynamics to counteract the destructive consequences of economic globalization. But the kind of solution I am suggesting would leave the big oil companies in charge of the energy transition by rewarding them with subsidies and funding the sale of their clean energy products to poor countries.

Personally, I agree that this current period of late-stage capitalism has diminished our humanity. It has reduced many peoples’ roles to being little more than agents for the movement of money. And it has exacerbated inequities both globally and domestically.

But while I agree we need to make our corporate economy far more democratically accountable, the fact is we don’t have time. The climate is changing far too quickly. By the time we can achieve real change in our institutional dynamics, our civilization will be disintegrating under the pressure of warming-driven upheavals.

Some scientists believe we have about 18 years to basically replace our carbon-fueled energy infrastructure. Even now it is a question as to whether that kind of a crash program would restore our planet to a hospitable state. If we wait much longer than that, it will certainly be too late.

Unfortunately there remains the stumbling block of political resistance. In 1997, the Senate resolved 95 to 0 to reject the treaty because it exempts the large developing nations from the first round of emissions cuts. What the industry lobby, as well as many Senators, must stop denying is that most developing nations are too burdened by debt, poverty and social instability. They are in no position to finance energy transitions.

The fossil fuel lobby tells us repeatedly that the exemption of the developing countries will cost us jobs in our domestic coal and oil industries. And there is no question that we will have to retrain the nation’s 70,000 coal miners.

But the larger argument cuts both ways. If we do impose significant energy restrictions on the developing countries, we will see multiply larger job losses at companies like Boeing, Gillette, Coca Cola, Proctor and Gamble and all those companies that have saturated the domestic market and see all their future earnings growth coming from developing countries.

The real truth is that if we in the North don’t get this right, we will suffer severe economic damage whether or not we impose energy restrictions on the nations of the South.

Other countries realize this. Holland is now completing a plan to cut its emissions by 80 percent in the next 40 years. Germany is looking at 50 per cent reductions. And Britain recently announced it would cut emissions by 60 percent in the next 40 years.

Nevertheless political conditions have changed significantly since that Senate voted in 1997.

All over the country—and, for that matter, the world—the public is extremely alarmed about our increasingly unstable and violent weather. They are worried about their futures—and their children’s’ futures. Given the attention focused on the issue by the media in the run-up to Kyoto, the issue of climate change is finally on the public’s radar screen. And despite the relentless campaign of disinformation by the fossil fuel lobby, we are now seeing a parade of companies breaking ranks within the industry.

In the last six months, the main industry lobbying group—the Global Climate Coalition—has seen its membership hemorrhage as Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Texaco, the Southern Company and General Motors followed BP, Shell, and DOW in abandoning the group. That is a major sea change.

Here is another. In February, the political leaders and corporate CEOs who attended the World Economic Forum surprised conference organizers when they were asked to vote on five different future scenarios the organizers presented. They voted, instead, that climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity in this new century.

There is also an extraordinary amount of political activity underway in the U.S. Earlier this year, I met in Florida with a group of activists who had mobilized in Seattle. They will be making climate the focus of their future activism. The PIRGs and other activist groups are now taking up climate as their central issue. The Boston office of the EPA just commissioned a million-dollar study of the impacts of climate change on Boston’s infrastructure. A growing number of cities and states are stepping out, in the absence of federal leadership, and beginning to implement their own emissions-reductions programs. All over the country, people are mobilizing to fill the gap left by the media and by their government.

So for all these reasons, I strongly believe that this is the year that the climate issue will surface into the mainstream in a very big way.

Climate change, as I mentioned, is not just another environmental issue. Its impacts exacerbate virtually every other environmental problem. By the same token, because of the centrality of energy to our existence, I believe the solutions to climate change carry with them the potential for immensely positive consequences for humanity.

Today we have the opportunity to begin to pacify the climate and heal the human economic environment at the same time.

I also believe the very act of beginning to implement a solution to the climate crisis would, in itself, create a new ethic of sustainability that would reverberate throughout our political and economic lives.

The climate crisis clusters together so many issues that we cannot address it without, at the same time, embarking on a reassessment of our basic relationship to this planet. That reassessment is long overdue. If we were to address the climate crisis in a truly meaningful way, I think fruits of that effort would include more than clean energy and economic equity.

I think it might even provide a shared sense of purpose and of place that has so far eluded us.

Finally, in addition to changing our energy diet, I think we need to make one other change—and that is a change in the self-image we have all shared since we first became a rational species.

For most of our history, we have thought of ourselves as helpless children of nature, dependent on her whims for our shelter and survival.

Today, at the brink of the 21st Century, we are no longer children. Somewhere in the recent past, with the growth of our population and the power of our technology, we have grown into a collective force as powerful as any force of nature. We are no longer mere inhabitants of the planet. We are also it shapers. And as we continue to act like adolescents by testing its physical limits and denying the destructive consequences of our newfound, adult power, we are putting our entire history at risk.

While we treasure our past, it is time to stop denying our impact on the present. It is time, as well, to honor our responsibilities to the children. I believe the time is here for all of us all over the world to finally grow up.