Frank White, a Boston writer, with whom I had worked with many years ago, had then recently written a book called “The Overview Effect” about making the case for exploring outer space. His argument, based on his study of several astronauts, is that the experience is literally physically metaphysical when transported to view the earth without political boundaries. Though it takes a lot more work to reconcile the truth of that metaphysics and the physics of politics, the view from well beyond the mountain top is decidedly unifying and flat.
That physical boundarilessness is both advantageous and disadvantageous, depending on our behaviors. If we want to put weapons in space or pollute it, it can be dangerous, like the bolt of Zeus as if we are the gods of the Greek myth. On the other hand, if we want to use it for peaceful purposes it can potentially perpetuate life.
As the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tries to regain credibility on matters of climate, the glaciers on the mountain tops which have always experienced this overview effect do not care if a country emits a certain amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) per capita or per unit of its gross domestic product (GDP). What matters for the atmosphere is the absolute amount of GHGs that are emitted, measured in CO2 equivalents of all the gases, because the sky above our head is not our own.
Whether one believes in the glaciers melting because of GHGs or not (I do not, given the scientific evidence from the carboniferous period that produced the fossil fuels we use today when the CO2 levels were around 800 ppm, more than twice the current CO2 levels), that using unclean technologies cause health problems and even if we want to continue to use them they will not last forever, forces the structure of economic activity to change to using cleaner sources of energy.
The reportage from Copenhagen has put every consequential country’s emissions against a different annual baseline ranging from 1990 for Europe to 2005 for the United States and China and at 2007 for the purposes of measurement and statistics, as though the negotiating parties at the table deliberately do not want to compare apples to apples. But should all countries agree on the same number against the same deadline, especially given the resource crunch that would be common to all?
The United States has been accused of unilateralism on Iraq, an oil rich country. During that same period in the Bush administration it has also been accused of non-cooperation on climate. The point here is to get off of all fossil fuels or figure out ways to use them cleanly as long as they last. Whoever can do so will be better prepared for the latter half of this century. It is, therefore, in the best interest of everybody at the negotiating table to compete to change, not to compete to stall or delay.
Perhaps unilateralism on GHG emission reductions is in the best interest of the United States if we are to lead the change, reversing more than three decades of energy policy where we led the movement not to change even at the expense of Americans on the battlefield. Had we changed we would not have had the need today to worry about stationing battle ships in the Persian Gulf or going to war in 1991 (let alone in 2003) and not in the Congo or Rwanda or Sudan later, for example.