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What will it take to force political action on climate change?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As utilities fire up their "clean coal" machines and international negotiators haggle over the precise definition of a tree, only one entity has the courage to stand and deliver the hot air the world so desperately craves on climate change: the U.S. Senate. After a hectic couple of weeks, filled with Republican walkouts and Democratic intransigence, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee has pushed a bill to the Senate floor that would cut carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, Republicans (other than Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina) are dead set against it. "My colleagues have advanced a bill with potentially serious economic harm without a comprehensive analysis of its costs," wrote Ohio Sen. George Voinovich to Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "My request [for an economic analysis of the proposal] could have shown whether the bill would have any appreciable impact on global climate change."

And Democrats from coal country are skeptical of a bill that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. "I’m not for either bill," either the House or Senate version, known alternately as Waxman–Markey and Kerry–Boxer, respectively, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia at an event to unveil the world’s first demonstration project to both capture and store CO2 (albeit just 1.5 percent of the attached power plant’s total emissions). "It’s too much too soon."

And Rockefeller is just one of 32 senators from the 16 states that produce coal—to say nothing of the many more states that rely on the dirty black rock to produce cheap electricity—some of whose votes will be needed to pass any bill. Rockefeller’s price tag is not low: He’s calling for another $10 billion to develop carbon capture and storage to make coal cleaner (on top of the $3.5 billion in the recent stimulus package) followed by another $20 billion to $25 billion over the long term, "which is nothing. Health care is $850 billion and we’re talking about the future of the world," Rockefeller said.

Nevertheless, the coal country senator is no contrarian about climate change. "Some think it’s a hoax," he said. "Well, it isn’t. It just isn’t." And he feels the time is coming for climate legislation, if not quite yet (or in time for international negotiations in Copenhagen this December). "The climate change legislative piece is going to be pushed off to next year."

Meanwhile, the House Science and Technology Committee looked into what might be done if the world fails to act before climate change becomes catastrophic: geoengineering. "If geoengineering is ever used, it should be as a short-term emergency measure, as a supplement to, and not as a substitute for, mitigation and adaptation," testified environmental scientist Alan Robock of Rutgers University. "And we are not ready to implement geoengineering now." Sounds like exactly the kind of thing the Senate is looking for.

Image: Senator John D. Rockefeller IV





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  1. 1. Shoshin 5:57 pm 11/6/2009

    Too bad NASA and GISS have just blown another big hole in the discredited Man Made CO2 Caused Global Warming charade. The researchers found that ALL the climate models use flawed forcing data. Funny how all the models can agree and still all be wrong… its called a false assumption. The article was published in Science.

    Hopefully the political action that is forced is a big fat zero. We have real problems like pollution (real pollution, chemicals, toxins, remember that kind of stuff?) , AIDS, starvation, education and on and on. We don’t need to spend one more dime on an imaginary issue like Man Made CO2 Caused Global Warming. Is the earth warming? Probably. Did Man cause it? Perhaps an insignificant amount . Can Man do anything about it? No. Can Man create havoc trying to fix an imaginary problem? Absolutely. Witness W.’s attempt to destroy WMD in Iraq.

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  2. 2. stefanharjes 6:31 pm 11/6/2009

    Hey (not yet) illegal trash dumpers:

    If you fill up your gas tank with lets say 25 gallons, you just dumped 500lbs of trash (carbon dioxide). Why don’t you put that amount in your trash container and tell the company removing it, that it is your right as American, that they take it away for free?

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  3. 3. sethdayal 6:53 pm 11/6/2009

    For those that think a conversion from fossil fuels would take 50 years, or is too expensive, here’s what it would it take using Hyperion units.

    A Hyperion unit weighs 15 tons the same as 10 more complex automobiles. Fifty thousand units would end American fossil fuel use – 5% of 2007 auto production.

    A $1.5 trillion investment in American Hyperion nuclear power, paid by ending $1 trillion in US fossil fuels expenditures with average paybacks of less than two years using a tiny fraction of US industrial capacity and American GHG emissions/oil imports end.

    Fuel and waste disposal would come from design complete GenIV reactors like the IFR, Clinton shelved at Idaho National Labs.

    Whether we do this with small nukes or the mass produced big nukes the nuclear conversion saves us a ton of money, eliminates our air pollution, creates a huge employment boosting domestic and export industry, and makes our economy far more competitive than Europe’s run by fools with the "renewable" religion. With the current depression, the industrial capacity is available. We can do this.

    Even Denialista’s could compromise on this one!!!

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  4. 4. raptordigits 7:53 pm 11/6/2009

    The issue is that the ‘definition of a tree’ does matter. It’s about reality. The ‘touchy-feely’ climate warming groupies are so removed from science that they fail to understand that the devil is indeed in the details. Science is based on evidence and definition.

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  5. 5. Michael Cook 12:12 am 11/7/2009

    Well, the bottom line is that humans are not guilty of global warming. We had nothing to do with it. It is a quirk of human nature that so many people will jump on a bandwagon because of socio/political considerations and will ignore intellectually rigorous considerations altogether.

    Correlation is not causation. CO2 is a greenhouse gas but it was the tiny shrimp in an ocean of mightier climate-forcing causes. Where the climate goes now we can not calculate because the preponderance of our climate experts jumped on a mindless bandwagon to intellectual nowhere and can not get off that bandwagon without risking harm to their academic careers, due entirely to political thuggery.

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  6. 6. FollowFacts 1:36 am 11/7/2009

    How about a nice game of "Dalton Minimum"? That would be a fine "Climate Change". The IPCC can claim a victory over CO2 without a 0.7% to 2% tax on the GDP of developed nations; intake by the oceans will put a dent in CO2 rise.
    Which is a shame. We will need it.

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  7. 7. Michael Cook 2:31 am 11/7/2009

    I like nuke fuels and think that once Dirty Harry is out of the way we should be able to put a lot of nuclear waste safely to bed in Nevada at Yucca Mountain. What a negative human being is Senator Reid. A magnifier of insignificant dangers, totally oblivious to the truly dangerous challenges facing America. That is Harry Reid, intellectual anti-power and obnoxious toady in every aspect of his pathetic being.

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  8. 8. doug 1 3:56 am 11/7/2009

    I don’t know what it will take but I say it’s worth not doing, particularly worth not doing when the path that’s been determined by an even less scientific means than the terribly imprecise study that’s created the climate guilt and fear we read about. The very same hedge fund managers and derivative traders who created the current economic mess are now going to use their proven bad understanding to fix the climate. Our best hope is that the politicians are so self concerned that they will do nothing.

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  9. 9. JamesDavis 7:49 am 11/7/2009

    West Virginia is the blind and stupid leading the blind and stupid and it looks like Rockefeller is the most stupid. If you look at a smokers lungs, you will see the effects of the smoke; if you look at a West Virgians brain, they look like a smokers lungs. These people are living so far back in time that they haven’t moved out of the stone age. Get with it West Virginia…instead of spending those billions on that worthless piece of stone age technology, build a clean geothermal power plant and sell that excess power to the other 14 blind and stupid you are leading down the path of death and destruction and get those children an excellent health benefits plan and get your justice system off the number one "HELLHOLE" list so you won’t also be number one in the nation in Child Abuse Deaths.

    Their governor is almost as smart as that evil tirant Bush and they should take his job and shove it right into their hellhold justice system and charge these people with crimes against nature and humanity. I think (R)Capito is even more stupid than (D)Rockefeller in that she believes that coal is already clean and carbon neutral. These idiots are destroying West Virginia and the coal and natural gas companies are paying them millions to do it. Because of coal, West Virginia is number one in the nation in chronic childhood disease and the state does not have affordable health care and because of the brain damage coal smoke causes, West Virginia is also number one in the nation in child abuse death and obesity. Get these idiots out of the lime light and clean up our country before these fool republicans and idiot democrats plunge us into becoming a trashy polluted third-world country.

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  10. 10. becolby 9:01 am 11/7/2009

    What will it take to force political action of climate change?

    For one, it will take an actual crisis that is able to be proven by science. A consensus of scientists means nothing. Concensus is a political word and has no meaning in science. It amazes me the amount of self justification that continues in this arena. No matter how the facts change, the "Global Warmers" continue to hold fast to their assumptions. Not much differnent from the cell phone/brain tumor concept. Even this article uses the dodge-and-evade "new" title of climate change. What ever happened to global warming, or even the coming of the second Ice Age that was predicted in the 1970s?

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  11. 11. Soccerdad 9:20 am 11/7/2009

    I am enjoying this immensely. For years all we heard was how Bush and the Republicans were standing in the way of the US "doing its part" in climate change. Now we see the truth. These policies are a bad idea, and even with total control of both branches of government, the Democrats can’t sell this load of crap.

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  12. 12. eco-steve 10:01 am 11/7/2009

    Shoshin : Your statements may appear to blow climate change thinking to pieces, but I won’t believe a word you say until you let us have a web-site reference to prove that what you are advancing is correctly reported. Personally, I find it very doubtful than the NASA now deny climate change. If it were true all the sensationalist media worldwide would have taken up the story massively, which is clearly not the case…

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  13. 13. warpsix 10:09 am 11/7/2009

    It isn’t broke DON’T fix it

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  14. 14. candide 10:11 am 11/7/2009

    The USA will not do anything – until millions of people start dying and Manhattan is under water.

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  15. 15. warpsix 10:12 am 11/7/2009

    And why all the propaganda , most of these same people were saying we would be in the middle of an Iceage by now, look it up the potus science guy was one.

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  16. 16. pulsar8472 11:51 am 11/7/2009

    The politicians who spend decades denying the existence of global warning now complain about the economic costs of remedying the situation. Either we implement the solutions or nature will impose its own solutions.

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  17. 17. Shoshin 12:49 pm 11/7/2009

    eco-steve:

    You can try getting on to the Science website to see the original publication. I don’t have a membership to Science, but I’m surprised that SCIAM has not picked up on this one yet. I found the reference on:

    http://theresilientearth.com/?q=content/global-warming-predictions-invalidated

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  18. 18. Shoshin 12:54 pm 11/7/2009

    eco-steve:

    In a sad way I’m not surprised that the media has yet to pick up on it. Which of the following headlines sells more papers?

    1. Manhattan predicted to be underwater by 2030!

    2. Death Trains Coming to your Town!

    3. Today’s weather: Sunny and fine.

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  19. 19. FollowFacts 5:29 pm 11/7/2009

    "What will it take to force political action…"?
    The much-admired philosopher Mao suggested "the muzzle of a gun".
    The sage from Chicago said about "those who . . . make cynical claims that contradict", "”We’ll just have to deal with those people".
    The Stasi say nothing.

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  20. 20. ildenizen 6:48 pm 11/7/2009

    becolby…
    Of course consensus is significant! What planet do you live on?
    We live and decide most things by consensus. You cross a street when the walk light comes on because most people live when doing so. You decide not to get an operation if 3 of your 4 doctors recommends agaist it.
    There is a myth that science can divide truth and fiction. It can, but only as long as you bracket this with a confidence number. And when scientists’ consensus says we have global warming/climate change that is more than likely caused by mankind – we should pay heed.
    It just astounds me the arguments we have seen used over the last 10 years to combat the established and scientific veracity of global warming:
    – We are not experienceing any warming
    – Ok – its warming, but it is not mankind’s fault
    – It could be warming… but really, who can tell, science is so inexact – heck can’t even predict my local weather.
    – Hey, even is scientists have concenses on the matter, they are just all wrong… so say’s I (HS drop out?)
    – What is wrong with a little warming – bring it on, open waters, nice tan during the summer…

    The list goes on and on, and they are as agenda ridden as you claim the majority of scientists are.

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  21. 21. dubay.denis 8:28 pm 11/7/2009

    Please give us the title, authors, and date of the article you claim was published in Science magazine.

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  22. 22. motie 9:36 pm 11/7/2009

    At the rate we are squandering fossil fuels, the problem will soon solve itself. My guess is we’ve got 100 years. It won’t be a soft landing. The petroleum economy will no longer have its primary raw material. The Green Revolution will no longer have its Nitrogen fertilizers and petrochemicals. Carbon emissions will collapse, and so will human population.

    Global warming: iffy. Resource exhaustion: 100% certain.

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  23. 23. hankroberts 10:44 pm 11/7/2009

    > What will it take to force

    First, quit talking about forcing _people_ because you lose your democracy by that kind of talk. What will it take to _educate_ people?

    Well, SciAm could do something. How about coming up with three little icons you editors could add to the Comments as you read them:

    :^# Debunked
    :*} Just posted to stir up trouble; trolling
    8^d Likely reliable information; help citing sources

    Something like that.

    Otherwise anyone new to the question will come here and read the Comments and not have a clue whether SciAm is the reliable source, or whether the people posting in Comments are smarter and better informed.

    And without information, you get people making emotional decisions based on suspicion, mistrust, discomfort, or just plain selfishness — which many of your commenters encourage.

    What will it take? You could start by distinguishing crap from good information when people add it in comments on your site.

    Please.

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  24. 24. omegaclass 1:13 pm 11/8/2009

    what will it take? nothing short of a total total dictator-ship with the the concept that human life has no value. the US constitution will need to be rescinded and a world constitution put in its place. a NEW WORLD ORDER as the presidents of our country keep saying, where the planet is united under one rule of law where only the very rich have freedom to consume the resources and have a carbon foot print the size of Mount Saint Hellen, while we commoners barley have the option to to exhale Co2 our body make.

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  25. 25. pulsar8472 3:11 pm 11/8/2009

    seems panic caused by ignorance of science

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  26. 26. pulsar8472 3:25 pm 11/8/2009

    Nuclear power , really bad until they find a place or plan for the waste.

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  27. 27. Koltrast 3:45 pm 11/8/2009

    Everybody should just take it cool despite things getting warmer. When all has been said and done, nothing will have been done. "That which concerns everyone can only be solved by everyone." And everyone will never agree, thus, nothing will be done. By the time some major climate-change disaster takes place (necessary to wake people up), it will be too late. Enjoy the ride. Personally, up here at 57 deg. North, we love the warmer winters and the much earlier spring. Sorry about the rest.

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  28. 28. loopsyel 4:17 pm 11/8/2009

    In the vein of common thought processes on this comment list:

    Clearly there is global warming. It’s been so unseasonably warm this past week!

    Link to this
  29. 29. Shoshin 10:08 am 11/9/2009

    The title of the Science Article is:

    Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions,

    The lead author is Drew T. Shindell

    Link to this
  30. 30. brsecu 3:11 pm 11/9/2009

    Everybody stop talking about global warming. That was so 1998. That is correct that the warmest year on record was 11 years ago. Hahahaha. Now "Climate Change" is all the rage.

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  31. 31. tulcak 4:34 pm 11/9/2009

    NOTHING will be done. You have so many Americans that are entrenched against any CHANGE, ESPECIALLY if it is put forth by the democrats. The fossil fuel business IS our government and conservative ideology is our GOD. We will do nothing, it will be too late, and the people that preserved the status quo will blame those who called for change. That is the reality.

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  32. 32. tulcak 4:42 pm 11/9/2009

    news flash: its been broke for a long time

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  33. 33. no quizzle 9:53 pm 11/9/2009

    Do the people writing these comments realise this is a science mag, not fox news.
    Global temp. flux is natural, but not the speed it is happenning.
    Lot’s of science across all fields recognise this.
    I suppose evolution is a hoax too.
    This is a science magazine people!

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  34. 34. michaelohara 11:19 am 11/10/2009

    The research mentioned by shoshin doesn’t "blow a hole" in the climate change argument, it suggests that we have been underestimating the effect of certain greenhouse gasses and aerosols in combination with each other.

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/48940/title/Aerosols_cloud_the_climate_picture

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  35. 35. omegaclass 12:27 am 11/12/2009

    to make this happen the us constitution will need to be killed and a new one put in place, after all if things are going badly for us commoners you cant have them voting in new leaders who want play ball with forces pushing this crap on us.

    i recommend not voting for an incumbent who voted for "cap and trade" while you still have the power to vote.

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  36. 36. eco-steve 12:26 pm 11/12/2009

    brsecu : Climate change is a better term than global warming, for the effects of global warming are manifest in regional climate changes. For instance current estimations of arctic warming are some 15 to 20 degrees C by the end of the century at the latest, but only 1 to degree in a few regions.

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  37. 37. Angema 7:28 pm 11/13/2009

    Shoshin,

    Did you actually read the article? It says nothing to the effect of "climate change is false." It says that aerosols and GHGs can interact in the atmosphere and have different effects. Some aerosols have a positive feedback, some have a negative feedback. The conclusion posited that controlling emissions of certain aerosols can reduce global warming, buying time to reduce carbon emissions.

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  38. 38. stueysplace 10:55 pm 11/14/2009

    What will it take? As long as these idiots both north and south of the Canadian/US boarder are more interested in greed than actually saving our children then the only solution will be civil disobedience and rioting to get their attention. Actually, I think our species is far to stupid to resolve the problem. If we had any real intelligence we would be in this mess.

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  39. 39. civil_joe 3:15 am 11/24/2009

    James Davis:

    You must not know West Virginia’s other side. How can you blame West Virginia’s poor healthcare and justice systems on residents when West Virginia is one of the poorest states? As for the greedy corporations poisoning West Virginians with "Clean Coal Technology," the companies are based in Missouri (Peabody, Patriot and Arch), Virginia (Massey), and Pennsylvania (CONSOL) – where all the profits go. Mineral rights have been in the possession of absentee landowners since the 1800s.

    Still, let’s not lose sight of what accomplishments West Virginia has made regardless:
    -In 2008, Jessie Johnson ran the most successful 3rd-party gubernatorial campaign in the nation…in West Virginia
    -West Virginia is home to the largest installed wind farm in the Mid-Atlantic and the Coal River Wind Project, also in West Virginia, would be even larger
    -West Virginia has a proud history of resistance – some of the strongest moral convictions in American history – to the very systems you claim we’re complacent in. Lest you forget, Appalachians were instrumental in the American Revolution, the Civil War/Abolition Movement, the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and, today, the Environmental Justice movement. Well over one hundred people from age 18 to 95 have been arrested this year making extraordinary sacrifices to defend mountain communities from the ravages of mountaintop removal, and the state’s college students recently pulled off the largest youth-organized call-in day in American history to save Coal River Mountain.

    Link to this

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