Climate change—or better, climate disruption—is the single greatest threat that societies face today.

In 1979, the administration of US President Jimmy Carter asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to assess the scientific basis for concern about man-made climate change. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Jule Charney led the NAS review. The chair of the NAS’s Climate Research Board summarized the findings of the Charney Report: “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.… A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.”

Since these early beginnings, the efforts to forecast climate change and to influence policy with the results have become a huge international enterprise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been at the center of the activity, and many US federal agencies, the NAS, and innumerable academic institutions and research centers have been deeply involved.

The effort is at last yielding some significant, if seriously belated, responses. With Russia’s ratification, the Kyoto Protocol has entered into force. European governments, both individually and through the European Union, are taking more significant action. The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, has remarkably committed to a 60 percent reduction in the United Kingdom’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, has developed a plan of action to meet this target, and estimates that the costs would be “very small—equivalent in 2050 to just a small fraction (0.5 to 2 percent) of the nation’s wealth, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), which by then will have tripled.”

Such developments in Europe are encouraging, and some major corporations and a fair portion of US states are also taking significant steps. These changes are contributing to a growing momentum that offers hope for the effort to halt climate change. But an honest assessment reveals that, in general, scientific efforts to influence public opinion and policy on climate change have been disappointingly ineffectual.

The Situation Today

The scientific community has provided credible forecasts and serious warnings for the better part of three decades. Nonetheless, the buildup of GHG in the atmosphere has proceeded apace, climate change has begun in earnest, and even optimistic projections grimly forecast that both trends will worsen. One of the most comprehensive studies ever of the regional impact of climate change is the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. The report makes for disturbing reading: the Arctic is warming much more rapidly than previously known, at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the globe, and increasing GHGs from human activities will likely make it warmer still. In Alaska, Western Canada, and Eastern Russia, average winter temperatures have increased as much as 3 to 4°C in the past 50 years and are projected to rise 4 to 7°C over the next 100 years. Warming over Greenland could melt the Greenland Ice Sheet, contributing to global sea-level rise at increasing rates. Over the long term, Greenland contains enough melt water to eventually raise sea level by about 23 feet. The report makes clear that Arctic developments could affect societies far away from the region by contributing to a rise in the sea level, adding positive feedback that accelerates warming and disrupting ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream.

Looking ahead, among the most widely accepted projections of future fossil fuel use are those provided by the International Energy Agency. Its 2004 “reference scenario,” a business-as-usual projection, has total world carbon dioxide emissions climbing by 62 percent by 2030—several times the tolerable level for climate protection. The US Energy Information Administration has developed a similar business-as-usual scenario for the United States. Forecasting for 2025, it projects that coal use and carbon dioxide emissions will increase by about 42 percent between 2002 and 2025. Of course, the United States should not increase its emissions at all during this period—it should reduce them.

Inaction and Inattention

The current situation in the United States reflects little commitment to climate protection. The administration of US President George W. Bush opposes the Kyoto Protocol and refuses to work with the international community within the framework of the UN climate treaty. It opposes the McCain-Lieberman climate bill, resists efforts to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and to strengthen vehicle mileage standards, and pursues an anti-climate energy strategy while resisting international efforts to frame renewable energy goals. The preceding administration of US President Bill Clinton, too, took disappointingly little action for climate protection in its eight years in office.

Almost as distressing is the state of US public opinion on climate change. Last year, Gallup reported that the public is “practically dozing” on the subject of global warming. The percentage of Americans who worry “a great deal” or a “fair amount” about the “greenhouse effect” or global warming slipped seven points between 2003 and 2004, from 58 percent to 51 percent. Nearly as many Americans (47 percent) now say they worry “only a little” or “not at all” about the issue. As a result, global warming ranks near the bottom of the list of specific environmental issues for which Gallup measured public opinion.

In short, some of the best scientific and policy analysis ever done on any subject has failed to generate sufficient response internationally and especially in the United States. For decades, outstanding science, attractive policy analysis and prescriptions, innumerable warnings, and abundant data have been thrown at a set of extremely serious global-scale environmental problems with limited response. The findings may be distasteful, but those who care about climate protection must assess why this “rationalist,” ever-hopeful approach simply has not been working. Something is terribly, tragically wrong with the system, particularly in the United States.

First, the climate issue, like most global-scale environmental concerns, is difficult to communicate. It is technical, long-term, and chronic rather than acute.

Additionally, the results of scientific research and forecasting generally reach an exceedingly small audience. Such publications as Science and Nature provide a consistent stream of newsworthy results regarding the climate, but these results, often startling in their significance, rarely, if ever, reach beyond a very limited audience. Good climate science simply does not reach the public. Scientists are notably reluctant to speak out and engage in policy and public debates. The disturbingly low environmental and energy literacy of the US public, as measured by the repeated surveys of the National Environmental Education and Testing Foundation, also contributes to this problem.

Furthermore, the natural carriers of science’s contributions to the public and the policy process—non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media—have not afforded the climate issue the urgent priority that it deserves. For many environmental groups, climate is one priority on a long list; for some, it is not a priority at all. Meanwhile, the media, when it covers the climate story at all, is afflicted with “balanceitis,” striving to provide equal coverage to “the other side of the story” when it may deserve little or none at all. International comparisons of media demonstrate that US news reports on climate treat the issue as more uncertain, controversial, and theoretical than coverage in other countries.

And once the first three obstacles have been navigated, various economic and ideological interests offer stiff and skilled resistance. This effort ranges from traditional energy-industry lobbying to well-placed charlatans claiming that climate change is a hoax. The energy industry and others have orchestrated skillful media advertising campaigns, for instance, opposing the Kyoto Protocol and, more recently, promoting coal.

These factors might be thought of as the conventional reasons why good science is not heard and heeded. Beyond these barriers to action lie some newer and less conventional ones. The environmental community has recently faced charges, for example, of mishandling the climate issue. As Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of The Death of Environmentalism, have noted, environmental organizations and foundations have earned little return on millions of dollars of investment, perhaps because environmental leaders are not “articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards—proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem.” While these criticisms may verge on blaming the victim, they underscore the need to communicate the importance of climate protection by appealing to the public’s values and aspirations.

Another issue gaining prominence—although actually a very old issue—is religion trumping science. Religious organizations have been at the forefront of environmental causes in the United States for a long time. One of the most powerful statements supporting action on climate, “Earth’s Climate Embraces Us All,” was organized by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and signed by leaders of most religions and Christian denominations, including the National Association of Evangelicals. So, we must be cautious about generalizations and oversimplifying complex phenomena. But there is another side. Many among the one-third of US citizens who are evangelical Christians perceive liberals and scientists as contemptuous of their beliefs. Some see science as a threat or at least as a challenge. The New York Times reported in 2003 that “Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent).” Some Christian fundamentalists believe—as did former US Secretary of the Interior Jim Watt—that we are living in the End Time, so that the long-term environmental future of the planet is not a concern. Indeed, politically active groups associated with the Christian Right support many Washington politicians who have very low ratings from the League of Conservation Voters.

All of this suggests that good environmental science and forecasting are absolutely necessary but far from sufficient. If forecasting is to affect real-world events, strategies are needed to address the issues just catalogued, and probably others. Such strategies can be identified, and it is important to begin this task soon.

In the meantime, there is a job to do. The United States is tragically late in addressing climate change; irreparable damage will unfold in the decades ahead due to past negligence. The imperative now is to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. That, at least, we owe our children and grandchildren.

A Possible Way Out

Fortunately, the outlines of a climate strategy are visible, in part because of the good efforts already being made to move the United States in the right direction. What follows is an overview of action that builds on the many positive, encouraging initiatives already under way.

With the path forward blocked in Washington, states and localities across the country have moved to fill the breach. Twenty-eight states have developed or are developing action plans to reduce GHG emissions. Many of these, such as the programs in Massachusetts and Oregon, focus on reducing emissions from power plants. Other states, such as Connecticut and New Jersey, more ambitiously seek to reduce overall emissions in the state. New York aims to have 25 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2013. California has taken the lead in regulating GHGs from vehicles. In the years immediately ahead, state and local commitments must be deepened and strengthened. Every state should adopt an overall GHG-reduction plan, a renewable energy portfolio standard, the California plan for vehicles, and an energy efficiency program that encompasses everything from tighter building codes to transportation and land-use planning.

In the private sector, carrots and sticks must be provided for business. The good news is that many corporations are not waiting for federal action and are undertaking voluntary initiatives to reduce their GHG emissions. They anticipate they will be regulated one day; they seek to avoid shareholder pressure, consumer campaigns, lawsuits and liability for damages, and, in many cases, they feel a sense of responsibility. More recognition of and reward for positive performance by businesses, and serious pressure on reluctant businesses, can motivate them to further reduce emissions.

Additionally, the financial sector must be “greened.” The financial and insurance sectors are waking up to climate risks. Institutional investors, large lenders, and insurers are becoming increasingly sensitized to financial risks (and opportunities) presented by climate change. Investors large and small should use shareholder resolutions and negotiations to pressure companies to improve climate-risk disclosure and to take risk-reducing actions. The Securities and Exchange Commission should require companies to fully disclose the financial risks of global warming. Mutual fund managers and other investment managers should be pressed to develop climate-risk competence and to support climate-risk disclosure and action at companies in which they are investing.

At the national level, a sensible national energy strategy must be devised. National energy legislation is on the agenda of the US Congress, and it is essential that the results move the country toward a low-carbon future. In August 2004, the pro-business Fortune magazine suggested four US initiatives: first to improve fuel economy through subsidizing hybrids, cutting oil and gas subsidies, and applying the gas-guzzler tax to sport utility vehicles, second to ramp up spending on alternative fuels, including hydrogen and biofuels, third to redouble the commitment to energy efficiency, taking advantage of the United States’ current position as the “Saudi Arabia of energy waste” to wring more production out of each unit of energy, and fourth to get serious about solar and wind power. The US business community should listen to its own best thinkers.

A specific part of this new national energy strategy is to enact the McCain-Lieberman bill. The McCain-Lieberman bill, which only seeks to cut US GHG emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, is modest by international standards, but it is the best hope of getting the United States on the path to emissions reduction. The bill garnered 43 votes (8 shy of a majority) in the Senate in 2003, and Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman are determined to keep pushing. Broader public support from businesses, universities, religious organizations, the conservation community, and elsewhere is required to pass the bill into law.

Moreover, the United States must resume working internationally on environmental issues. The signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, which now include Russia, constitute an international coalition that can press the United States to begin credible GHG emissions reduction and to join the climate treaty process. European advocates of trade sanctions and other measures aimed at the United States are to be taken seriously. The European Union could also invite US states to participate in its cap-and-trade GHG emissions market. If it is too late for the United States to comply strictly with the Kyoto Protocol, it is certainly not too late to catch up with Europe during the more ambitious post-2012 phase of GHG reductions.

Part of this renewed work in the international sphere must include climate-friendly cooperation with developing countries. With China’s emissions now over half of US emissions, future agreements should include developing country commitments to GHG reductions. Such agreements need not seek actual reduction in GHG emissions from the developing world as a whole. They should, however, vigorously promote measures to achieve rapid decreases in developing-country GHG releases per unit of GDP, or the carbon intensity of production. To support these efforts, the international community, including the World Bank, should offer large-scale capacity-building assistance, urgent transfer of green technology, programs to link access to low-cost capital to climate-friendly investments, expanded incentives to encourage international investment in climate-supporting projects, country-specific North-South compacts to reverse tropical deforestation, and lighter tariffs and improved economic access to countries complying with climate agreements.

Much must also be done at the consumer level. Individuals can further climate protection by consuming responsibly and by urging the adoption of tougher building codes, appliance efficiency standards, and mileage standards. Individuals can also effect change by persuading the institutions with which they are associated to take climate action, starting locally. What if all US colleges and universities joined in a commitment to reduce their GHG emissions impressively below 1990 levels by 2015 or 2020? What if all US religious organizations made a similar commitment? Fraternal organizations? And all environmental, consumer, civil rights, and other organizations with commitments to the public interest?

Concretely, the United States must limit its coal use. In November 2004, The New York Times reported on plans to construct 118 coal-fired power plants in 36 US states. US coal use is projected to rise by more than 40 percent over the next 20 years. The United States has a huge capacity to grow by using existing energy inputs more efficiently: it currently consumes about 45 percent more energy and electricity than the European Union, but has a GDP only about 5 percent higher than the European Union’s (measured by purchasing power). A new generation of more than 100 coal-fired power plants, without plans for capturing and storing the carbon, moves in precisely the wrong direction. A combination of national, state, and local efforts must ensure that decisions regarding new coal plants take into account environmental risks. In Congress, the prospect of the new wave of coal plants should spur, with sufficient local backing, the so-called four-pollutants bill, which would regulate sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and carbon dioxide from power plants.

The last thing that must occur is a movement of concerned citizens at the grassroots level. If the environmental community could win the fight against climate disruption without help, it would have done so already. Climate protection thus requires, more than anything else, a new movement joining a wide array of civic, scientific, environmental, religious, student, and other organizations with enlightened business leaders, concerned families, and engaged communities. These groups and individuals must network, protest, demand action and accountability from governments and corporations, and act as consumers and communities to realize sustainability in everyday life. Much must, and can, be done to increase public awareness and build this movement. The entertainment industry and the media need to do far more. Scientists can no longer content themselves with publishing and lecturing: the scientific community has the unique credibility to influence the public and politicians, but with a few exceptions, it has not been sufficiently outspoken. And the US foreign policy community—which has given the climate threat very little attention—needs to move this issue front and center.

Changing US energy and climate policies has proven extremely difficult in the face of public apathy, vigorous industry opposition, and recalcitrance among political elites. Climate protection will not occur without a powerful popular movement for change. The task of building that movement falls to us.