The politics of the climate change debate

Penn State professor compares the political choices as World War I loomed with action on climate change today

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It may not happen with a bang. No guns or bombs. No political assassinations or ultimatums borne of diplomatic alliances.

The world's next great conflagration will occur because of the slow and steady warming of the climate, because of the concentration of greenhouse gases emitted by humans, argues a retired Navy rear admiral in a Friday editorial in Science magazine. David Titley, now director of Penn State's Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, finds a parallel between the choices elected officials face regarding climate change and the choices political leaders faced in 1914, as the First World War loomed.

Officials in Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and France could have quieted the bang from the gun that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria instead of fanning the flames of war if they had properly assessed risk and prioritized collective well-being above "short-term gains" and "institutional hubris," Mr. Titley writes, citing the British historian Max Hastings' "Catastrophe 1914."

At the centennial of the war to end all wars, history offers a sobering lesson for those who deny human-caused global warming, Mr. Titley argues in his editorial, titled "Ghosts From the Past." European leaders were similarly in denial, he writes; they refused to acknowledge imminent loss of life. He implores today's leaders to imagine what catastrophe would mean.

Indications of the worst-case scenario already lurk in rising sea levels and ocean acidification, he said in a recent interview, moments after he had finished testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the national security implications of energy and climate issues. He's not a lobbyist, he insisted, just an expert and a concerned citizen.

"I don't see this is a partisan issue. It's just physics," he said. "The ice doesn't vote. It doesn't caucus. It doesn't watch Fox or MSNBC. It just melts."

Whether it's partisan, the problem is a political one, said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, based in Philadelphia. He laid blame on politicians who ignore the counsel of scientists, citing the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said human actions are "very likely" responsible for global warming.

He hailed Mr. Titley's analogy as "incredibly insightful," offering a historical example of his own: "It's like Nero fiddling while Rome burns."

The problem, Mr. Minott said, is that each actor is trying to extract the last benefit from the environment, all at the cost of future well-being. Meanwhile, the impacts still seem remote.

"If you live next to a refinery, you can see it and smell it. You feel sick, and cause and effect are easier to talk about," he said. "Otherwise it's hard for people to understand the urgency. It's hard to find the political will."

Understanding is indeed critical, said Tony Novosel, a historian of modern Europe at the University of Pittsburgh. An unwillingness or inability on the part of many European leaders to understand the motivations, fears and concerns of the other great powers was among the factors that led these powers into war in 1914, he said. In the climate change debate, however, it is not simply a clash of opinions but a dispute over facts, making it more difficult to find common ground.

Certainly among Pennsylvania legislators, global warming is disputed. State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said he isn't convinced greenhouse gases are to blame for warming, asking how bodies of water, such as the Finger Lakes, formed 2 million years ago without such contaminants in the atmosphere.

"I'm not convinced that the underlying cause is anything but a normal climate cycle of the world," he said. The issue of global warming has never come before his committee, he added. He scoffed at Mr. Titley's recommendation that societies must take measures to maintain basic infrastructure -- water, food and the coastline.

"Let's build a wall around New York City -- I have no idea," he said with a laugh. "This is not a burning issue."

State Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, agreed, calling into question the veracity of global warming: "I'm sitting on my porch near the end of July, and the temperature's in the 70s. Why is no one yelling about global cooling?"

He called Mr. Titley's editorial, which suggests pairing short-term measures with a shift to a no-carbon energy future, a "scare tactic."

Michael Mann, a colleague at Penn State who is meteorology professor and director of the Earth System Science Center, came to Mr. Titley's defense, calling the science of climate change true whether state leaders believe it or not. He said the editorial makes a compelling case that climate change is a veritable national security crisis, causing competition for diminishing food, water and land. He called warming a "threat multiplier," pointing to water as a critical factor in the conflict in Syria.

"We ignore what scientists say at our peril," Mr. Mann said. "Sure, there's a debate to be had about how the reductions should be made. That's what Sen. Yaw's committee should be talking about."

In response to the editorial, members of Gov. Tom Corbett's administration were adamant they are taking action on climate change. Morgan Wagner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo has "repeatedly acknowledged that climate change is happening and that there are indeed impacts." Mr. Abruzzo, who was under scrutiny during confirmation hearings last December for remarking that he wasn't convinced there were adverse impacts of climate change, was not available for comment.

Ms. Wagner said the state has made a series of strides in emission reductions; carbon monoxide emissions have gone down 16 percent since 2008, she said, and carbon dioxide emissions from the state's fossil fuel-fired electric generating fleet have declined as well.

Patrick Henderson, Mr. Corbett's energy executive and deputy chief of staff, said these efforts must be balanced against legitimate industry interests. Because climate change is a transnational problem, he said, everyone should do their fair share.

"If we ratchet down emissions in Pennsylvania, what benefit does that provide if China or India is throwing up a brand-new, coal-fired power plant that more than exceeds any reductions we have here?" he said.

He said he prefers to let market mechanisms, rather than the government, drive energy standards.

Mr. Titley said he doesn't much care how it gets done -- or by which political party -- so long as action is taken to prevent history from repeating itself.

"How do they intend to stabilize the climate? Reduce greenhouse gases? Producing electricity?" he said. "The sooner they start working on this, the higher the chances are we avoid the worst of the consequences."

Isaac Stanley-Becker: or 412-263-3775. Twitter: @isb_isaac.

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