Creating irresistible demand
for a global atmosphere upgrade

Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Movement


Viridian Note 00468 Those World-Killing Yankees
by Bruce Sterling
Key concepts:
United States of America, national warming, Al Gore, Elizabeth Kolbert, New Statesman
Attention Conservation Notice:
It's a contrite American discussing American climate politics for an audience of left-wing Britons.


Believe it or not, I just sent this Viridian Note, via wifi, from a German jet aircraft flying over the mid-Atlantic. You should see the awesome trail of pollution I'm leaving behind me as I type.

In other wacky aviation news, check out the possible apps for these solar-powered semi-permanent stratospheric blimps. Could make a pretty good Internet Service Provider. Heck, why not live up there?

Even Frank Luntz, the American political operative who sold his soul to wreck your climate, is perfectly aware that global warming exists. Luntz just doesn't want his machinations to become grounds for his crimes-against-humanity indictment. He knew it was happening; he just never expected to be personally blamed for his personal success at helping to kill you.

We can rebuild the planet's energy systems. That's hard. It means taxing the hell out of skywrecking pollutants and using the revenue to build pretty much anything else in a godawful hurry. It may be cheaper and simpler to meet the Kyoto Accords by wrecking the economy with climate shocks and killing off some hefty percentage of the planet's consumers.


Can America go green?

Cover story by Elizabeth Kolbert
Monday 19th June 2006

"Why are Americans so sceptical about global warming? Possibly because they really don't want to do anything about it, argues Elizabeth Kolbert

(((Or, possibly the Americans don't want to "go green" in any way that requires approval from the likes of "New Statesman." For instance, Americans are doing plenty "about" climate change as they panic this storm season. They're just not global in sentiment or global government-centric. It may be that Americans will come to believe in "national warming" with a private-enterprise climate-change industry.)))

"In An Inconvenient Truth, perhaps the world's first film based on a PowerPoint presentation, (((judging by most Hollywood product, surely not))) Al Gore plays himself: a sometimes brooding, sometimes funny ex-politician come to deliver a message about 'a planetary emergency'.

"He gives an impressive performance, one that the American press == a group that never before seemed terribly sympathetic to the former vice- president == has greeted with almost universal enthusiasm. (In two fairly representative examples: the New York Times described Gore as "the surprisingly engaging vehicle for some very disturbing information", while USA Today called the documentary a showcase for his "dedication, warmth and, yes, charm".)

"An Inconvenient Truth has prompted a great deal of discussion in the United States about what might have happened had Gore revealed a few more of the qualities of his on-screen persona while out campaigning in 2000, and even more speculation about whether he is preparing to run again in 2008.

"Perhaps not surprisingly, the strongest claims about the film's reception have come from the star himself. Speaking last month on the popular public radio show Fresh Air, Gore said that recent events had made him 'optimistic' that American attitudes towards global warming were finally changing. The US political system, he further observed, 'shares one thing in common with the climate system. It's non-linear. It can appear to move at a glacier's pace and then, after crossing a tipping point, it can suddenly move rapidly into a completely new pattern. I've seen that happen.'

"Certainly, there are few questions more urgent than how == and how quickly == the US will react to climate change. As is well known, Americans represent less than 5 per cent of the world's population, and yet they produce roughly 25 per cent of its carbon- dioxide emissions. (((In other words, even if Americans magically vaporize to the last man, woman, and overfed child, the climate is still in deep trouble.))) The country is one of only two industrialised nations that has rejected the Kyoto Protocol and, with it, mandatory emissions cuts. (The other is Australia.) (((And don't forget those new right-wingers running Canada, the Maple Leaf State.)))

"Even as European leaders are pushing for negotiations to begin on a post-Kyoto treaty, the US has refused to participate. And on and on. (((The Americans don't do multilateral "treaties" about anything any more. Have you noticed the WTO, always considered the primary tool of the Washington Consensus, is collapsing? Not only is America not running the world, nobody is.))) At this point, it is almost impossible to imagine how the world will avoid disastrous climate impacts without a fundamental, and prompt, change in US policy.

(((I can imagine it. Somebody discovers cold fusion. The fossil-fuel biz would collapse from the sheer number of shots already being fired at it. Or, I can imagine a summit of the G-17 where America is simply delivered an ultimatum: quit wrecking the planet, or we declare you an outlaw state, indict your leaders and launch economic embargos. The USA is only five percent of the population: if they became the new Serbia or South Africa, they would totally panic.)))

(((But never mind those "unimaginable" scenarios. Consider the "unthinkable" one: the glaring likelihood of a reeling, comprehensive collapse in global governance DURING and AFTER the "disastrous climate impacts." New Orleans already had a "disastrous climate impact." New Orleans is still there. More or less. If global governance fails, then we get a "failed globe." Living in a failed glove is pretty much like living in a failed state, only the problem's much, much bigger.)))

"Gore's professed optimism that such a change is at hand, which is shared, at least for the purposes of public consumption, (((come on, Elizabeth, tell us what they really think, we're all grownups here))) by many of the country's leading environmentalists, (((the "retreating environmentalists"))) rests on what might be called the democratic (with a small "d") imperative. (((Well "democracy" sure worked for Iraq! Hoo-ah!)))

"As Gore points out, accurately enough, companies such as ExxonMobil and General Motors, working in concert with right-wing think-tanks such as the George C Marshall Institute, have spent millions of dollars trying systematically to obscure the facts. (Indeed, as if on cue, the Competitive Enterprise Institute greeted the premiere of Gore's movie with a pair of 60-second TV ads full of jumping gazelles and kids skipping rope, carrying the tag line: "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life.") Add to this an American press corps axiomatically devoted to the notion of "balance", and the result has been confusion. But as soon as Americans understand "the inconvenient truth" about climate change, Gore has asserted, they'll do the right thing. ((("Carbon dioxide: they called it pollution, and we got life in prison for creating disastrous climate impacts." That would be Americans "doing the right thing.")))

(((This also elides the fact that the federal government itself has spent millions of dollars trying systematically to obscure the facts. The American government is not in opposition to capitalist "companies." The American political elite consists almost entirely of people from "companies." When the Vice President is closeted with Exxon and Enron, he's speaking directly to his colleagues.)))

"Making generalisations about an entire nation is always a dubious enterprise, (((oh come on, go right ahead))) and this is especially true of the US. The modern environmental movement was born in America and enjoyed its first successes there. Even under George W Bush == perhaps the most polluter-friendly president in the nation's history == the country still spends more money than any other on environmental science; as the president likes to boast, this year alone, the federal government will spend roughly $2bn on climate research and monitoring. (((I wonder why nobody ever points out how much pollution the federal government itself emits. It's like the federal government exists on some Hegelian plane of abstraction where nobody has fossil-fueled armies and navies.)))

"Britain's Met Office has the Hadley Centre: the US supports three climate modelling teams == one at Nasa, the second at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the third at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). (((Let's take bets on which of these climate-watching enterprises will be the first one smashed by a "megacat" disastrous climate impact. Are any of them sited anywhere near sea level?)))

"All around the country there are towns and cities and state governments that are actively working to reduce their emissions in spite of == or perhaps one should say because of == federal inaction. (((Even if the Kyoto Accords passed tomorrow, who would enforce them? Halliburton? Blackwater? It isn't a matter of the federal government coming to its senses, it's a matter of whether there will be an enterprise that fits that description of a government.)))

"In February 2005 the mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, (((should be President, but he'd probably get less useful done))) began to circulate the "US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement", which calls on cities to "strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities"; as of this month, 243 mayors, representing communities as diverse as Miami, (((megacat target))) Racine in Wisconsin and Charleston, South Carolina, (((megacat target))) had signed on. (((US mayors are getting together to look Kyoto-friendly; that may look better politically to politicians offshore, but it's not going to avert disastrous climate change, because that's already happening.)))

"New York, New Jersey and several other north-eastern states have pledged to freeze their power-plant emissions at current levels and, eventually, to begin to roll them back. Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hummer collector, (((at least they've stopped calling this weird guy "the Austrian bodybuilder"))) has joined in the effort: an executive order he signed last year calls on California to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010 and to 1990 levels by 2020. 'I say the debate is over,' Schwarzenegger declared before signing the order. 'We know the science. We see the threat. And we know the time for action is now.' The California Public Utilities Commission recently launched a $2.9bn rebate programme aimed at installing solar-power arrays on one million rooftops. (((They're outdoing Al Gore's "Million Solar Roofs Initiative" all by their little Californian selves.)))

"Ballooning house sizes

"If you focus on efforts such as these, it's tempting to conclude that the US is ready to shift course and, indeed, to some extent is already doing so. Look elsewhere, however, and it's far less clear. Consider what has happened to the average new home built in the country. Even as average household size has declined, the size of the average house has ballooned. (((Lonely people need more toys.)))

"It was 1,000 square feet in 1950 and is nearly 2,500 square feet to-day. New homes, meanwhile, now routinely feature a gamut of energy-intensive conveniences, such as outdoor kitchens, professional-sized appliances and heated towel racks. ((("Heated towel-racks," how dare they, oh the humanity.)))

"Or consider what has happened to the American automobile. (((They stopped selling.))) At the same time Americans were being presented with ever more compelling evidence of global climate change, they were also, in ever greater numbers, purchasing cars like GM's Yukon Denali, which has a 335-horsepower engine, weighs 7,000lb, comes equipped with heated leather seats, (((boo!))) and gets 13 miles to the gallon.

"On average, passenger vehicles purchased in the US last year got 21.0 miles to the gallon; this was a worse gas mileage than the average passenger vehicle got 20 years earlier. (((As an interesting sidelight, the British SUV is fondly known as the "Chelsea Tractor.")))

"In many parts of the country George Bush's recalcitrance isn't representative, but in others his equivocations look positively progressive: Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate committee on environment and public works, has famously called global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people". ((("National warming." The hoax perpetrated on the 95% of the planet that isn't American simply doesn't matter to Inhofe.)))

"Every year Senator John McCain, the Republican Party's most vocal proponent of action on climate change, brings to the floor a bill that would impose federal limits on CO2 emissions. Every year it's a foregone conclusion that the bill will be defeated. (((Because it's McCain's bill.))) It is worth noting that all the way back in 1992, Gore published a book, Earth in the Balance, which eloquently laid out the dangers of global warming. (((I read it.))) The book became a bestseller. Gore became the vice-president. And still nothing happened. (((All kinds of things happened, just nothing that this commentator considers progressive. On the plus side, it's kind of nice to see a British article about climate change that doesn't ritually lambaste BP, whose green corporate climate- change propaganda is literally drenching the UK. The same for Shell, DuPont, GE... they are WAY ahead of the politicals.)))

"Are such patterns really the result of disinformation? Do Americans drive around in 7,000lb cars because somehow they missed the many thousands of news stories and scientific studies documenting record high temperatures, rising sea levels and shrinking ice caps? As an American, I'd like to believe this is so. But it's hard to. (((As an American, you ought to be able to believe in inerrant Biblical prophesy and creationism, because that's the creed of the politically dominant electoral clique. So maybe you should ease up a little on the knowing incredulity there. They needed that 7,000lb SUV to take the kids to Bible-study class.)))

"Life in the United States, more than just about anywhere else save perhaps some of the oil-producing Gulf states, depends on cheap and plentiful energy. (((EVERYBODY WITHOUT EXCEPTION depends on cheap and plentiful energy, because otherwise, when they starve at subsistence-level, nobody flies in with fossil- fueled choppers to hand them fossil-fueled food. And you shoulda seen the mayhem this winter when the Russians and Chechnyans started shutting off gas pipelines. The southern USA doesn't spend every winter in 15 feet of freezing snow.)))

"This is a fact of American culture and also of the American economy. Really addressing the problem of climate change will require many small-scale adjustments (no more heated towel racks) (((I predict that heated towel racks will surge in popularity if banned))) and also a great many more substantial ones: changes in energy consumption, energy production, patterns of land use, transportation systems, international relations. (((This list of "actions" is so vague as to be meaningless.I'm starting to think that the real crux of the matter is sucking the carbon-dioxide out of the sky. There may already be too much CO2 up there for civilization to survive. Fighting the greenhouse has to mean redressing the damage, and it may well be that the only way out of a "tipping point" is the artificial creation of some "tipping-back point.")))

"Rather than assume that Americans haven't done anything about global warming because they are sceptical about the threat, one could just as plausibly argue that they are sceptical about the threat because they don't want to do anything. (((If American's didn't want to do anything, they wouldn't be workaholics busting every sinew to buy those huge houses and cars. They just don't want to do vague and ludicrous hairshirt-Green things, and neither does anybody else. Even hairshirt-Greens do hairshirt Green things for the sake of the hairshirt, not for the green-ness. If you had a solar-powered heated towel-rack, you'd still get a scolding from the hairshirt contingent because your warm, toasty flesh is insufficiently mortified.)))

"Shortly after Gore was elected vice-president, he proposed a tax on energy == specifically on the energy content of fossil fuels. It was defeated ignominiously, even though the Democrats still controlled Congress. Gore never raised the prospect of an energy tax again. Four years later he flew to Japan to salvage the Kyoto Protocol when negotiations seemed on the verge of breaking down. The Clinton administration eventually signed the protocol but never presented it to the Senate for ratification. Though Gore knew that the very future of the planet was at stake, he apparently concluded that pressing for action was hopeless, or politically inexpedient, or both. Talk about an inconvenient truth. (((What would you do if you concluded that a political solution to climate change was hopeless and politically inexpedient? Well, whatever that course of action is, stop scolding Al Gore and just go do that right now.)))

"Beyond the tipping point

"At this point, midterm elections in the US are just five months away. Recent polls suggest that control of both houses of Congress is up for grabs. It's possible that the Democrats will win a majority in at least one, in which case the chairmanships of certain important committees will shift to less openly anti-science members. (((For the time being. Being openly anti-science is kinda the coming thing worldwide; ask any Moslem.)))

"On the other hand, it is also possible that the Republicans will retain their majorities, in which case they are likely to interpret the results as a mandate for staying the course. Two years from now is a presidential election. Among the current leading contenders are some of the most passionate advocates of action == Gore and McCain == and also some of the leading obstructionists, such as Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. (Hagel was among the chief opponents of Kyoto.) Whoever wins in 2008 will face an American public that still expects the government to respond to rising energy prices by cutting gasoline taxes. (((Unless energy prices have gone into complete Global-War-On-Terror Peak Oil insanity by 2008, which would seem to me to be at least a lively prospect, especially given that Russia, Venezuela, Iran and the Saudis are sitting on the taps.)))

"Such is the inexorable nature of global warming that, at some point or other, even the US will be forced to acknowledge the scale of the problem. As McCain has observed: "'his is clearly an issue that we will win on over time because of the evidence.' (((Maybe. Evolution is pretty inexorable too, and the guys who deny it have faithful voters.))) The tragedy is: we don't have more time. The earth's climate system is vast and hugely inertial, and so already we are much further along the path to catastrophe than it appears. The rapid melting of mountain glaciers, the accelerating flow off the Greenland ice sheet, the 2003 heatwave in Europe, the 2005 hurricane season in the US == these are just the first faint harbingers of changes that have, by now, already become inevitable.

"If we continue on our present course, at a certain point, truly terrible climatic disasters == the disintegration of the Greenland or the West Antarctic ice sheet, for instance == will become similarly unavoidable. These disasters may take centuries to play out fully, but once the process begins, it will become self-reinforcing and therefore virtually impossible to stop. This "tipping point" could be reached 20 years from now, or ten years from now, or, if truth be told, it could have already been reached ten years ago. Of course the US can go green. The question is: will it do so before it is too late?"

(((I note that James Lovelock, who concluded in despair that the planet's population would end up as ragged Mad Max barbarians clustered at the poles, recently changed his stance to suggest that we ought to be planning a "polar civilization." We're not literally running out of time; we may be spending centuries dealing with the huge and evil consequences of the past 200 years.

(((With the best political will in the world, there isn't time for a political solution to global climate change. As Bush should have learned in New Orleans and probably didn't, it's gonna be the climate change shaping the politics from now on, not vice versa. Politics and climate change don't have that much to do with one another: there are no ballotboxes in the clouds. Nobody ever voted to have climate change. There isn't a single nation on the planet, including the Americans, who favors climate change. There is no pro-climate-change political party anywhere. Plus, the Washington Consensus is over. It'll likely take a generation before anybody on the planet is any mood to do anything Americans say about anything.

(((The real need is pretty simple: we've gotta stop burning stuff. Thinking that President Al will save our bacon after negotiating Kyoto II: that is the figment of a lost epoch. If that approach was ever gonna work, it's not gonna work now that the bacon's visibly smoking in the pan.)))

"Elizabeth Kolbert is a writer for the New Yorker. Her book 'Field Notes from a Catastrophe: climate change == is time running out?" is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99)

"This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs take out a print or online subscription."

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