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Earth to Obama

You can't negotiate with the planet.

It's been a long year--Barack Obama has faced, in rough order, John McCain, global financial collapse, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Blue Dogs, the Progressive Caucus, the Gang of Six, Glenn Beck, Representative Joe Wilson (R-Hissy), and the third of Republicans convinced he was born somewhere else. Of course, minus the birth certificates, roughly the same has been true for Hu Jintao and Nicolas Sarkozy, for Angela Merkel and Manmohan Singh. That's what politics is--a series of challenges, which are rarely won or lost completely. You get part of what you wanted (everyone with health insurance), and maybe you leave other stuff for another day (the public option). That's why we call politics the pursuit of the possible.

And it's why the next big issue on the agenda is totally, scarily different. Assuming that the health care fracas eventually ends, Washington will tackle the president's other great priority for his administration--energy and climate. The House has already approved the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and a Senate version is expected at month's end. Even if Congress drags its feet, Obama will visit China in mid-November to likely conclude a bilateral pact that will set the stage for the huge Copenhagen climate conference in December. It promises to be one more big fight.

But, throughout the process, as industry and environmentalists, Chinese and Indians, Americans and Europeans push and prod each other, another more important negotiation will be going on behind the scenes. That negotiation features human beings--led more by Obama than anyone else on the planet--against physics and chemistry. It's not going to be enough to strike a deal with Beijing or Delhi, to meet in the middle on some mutually plausible scheme. A deal has to be struck with the climate itself, and the climate is unlikely to haggle.

In the summer of 2007, sea ice in the Arctic began to melt dramatically, many decades ahead of the schedule that scientists had previously predicted. Before the summer was out, there was about a quarter less ice at the pole than ever before in human history. That scared scientists, who began revising their calculations of how fast we would need to move to stay ahead of global warming. And this growing understanding has, in turn, changed the political demands on policymakers very dramatically. Obama, for instance, had initially campaigned on a pledge to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 80 percent by mid-century, and the Waxman-Markey legislation was designed to, more or less, meet that goal. All of a sudden, that target didn't seem like enough to meet the demands of the new science--researchers were now throwing around numbers like 40 percent cuts by 2020 in the developed world, which would require not a speedy conversion to renewable energy, but a forced march reminiscent of the rapid buildup at the start of World War II. On a global scale, the old goal--still embraced by the Obama administration--was to aim for a planet where atmospheric carbon dioxide topped out at 450 parts per million (ppm), and the temperature didn't rise more than two degrees Celsius. Under the old estimates, that would have been enough to stave off "catastrophic change." But what 2007 showed was that our current level of 390 ppm and a one-degree rise in temperature was enough to melt the Arctic. And it wasn't just the Arctic--scientists were reporting that high-altitude glaciers, flood and drought cycles, and even the chemistry of seawater were all showing the same kind of ahead-of-schedule change. In January of 2008, NASA's James Hansen--at the very least, the most prestigious climatologist employed by the U.S. government--released a paper setting a new target for staving off catastrophe: 350 ppm. It was embraced that year by Al Gore and, this August, by the chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri. That is, the two men who have been awarded Nobel prizes for their work on global warming say that we need to be aiming for far lower emission levels than what Washington currently intends.

So here's the politics. In Washington, and in Copenhagen, political realism dictates reaching some kind of deal. And the pressure from vested interests--mostly the fossil-fuel lobby--combined with the political fear of annoying voters with higher gas prices or lifestyle shifts means that the incentive for anyone who has to run for office anytime soon is to take the easiest possible deal. Look at Waxman-Markey, which has been revised to cut emissions just 17 percent by 2020--and even that comes loaded with loopholes written to win over particular congressmen with particular coal mines. And it barely passed--by seven votes. Scientific realism demands much more.

And scientific realism holds the trump card here. If you pass half a health care bill, you can always come back in a decade. People will suffer in the meantime, but it won't grow impossible to fix the problem: The Clinton debacle in the 1990s didn't mean that we couldn't try again this year. But, if we don't do what the science requires on climate change, the situation will get badly out of hand. In the last two years, methane levels in the atmosphere have begun to spike sharply, apparently because warming temperatures are now melting the permafrost that caps large deposits of the potent greenhouse gas. If we let the planet keep warming, we won't be able to shut that cycle off--we're clearly much closer to that kind of tipping point than we imagined just a few years ago. Half a job may not be better than no job at all.

It's an excruciating set of choices--one that has divided environmentalists on the Waxman-Markey legislation. The best case for swallowing hard and accepting an insufficient bill comes from Fred Krupp, longtime head of the Environmental Defense Fund. His argument: Our emissions reduction goals are critically important, but the most important thing is to get started now. If we set the ball in motion, industry will quickly find that it's cheaper than it thinks to move toward clean energy, and the ball will roll far faster than politicians expect. Case in point: the reductions of sulfur dioxide under the Clean Air Act, which turned out to be far cheaper than opponents had predicted--even Bush 43 kept right on pushing for deeper cuts, because there was no real reason not to. And, if we don't get started now, Krupp warns, "if our young people, who best understand the science and the urgency, refrain from calling for Congress to promptly take the first step," then no legislation will pass and "we may not have as good a chance until 2013." By which point a lot more ice will have turned to water and flowed under the bridge.

On the other hand, carbon isn't exactly like sulfur--one required a new filter on your smokestack, the other requires replacing the fossil fuels at the heart of our economy. (Not many folks are addicted to sulfur dioxide, but all of us at some level run on coal and gas and oil.) Of course, Krupp is right about one thing--given how hard it has been to build support even for this watered-down bill, starting again does risk losing everything. But the reason we're in the predicament is pretty simple: the environmental movement, with some noble exceptions, has concentrated too heavily on Beltway lobbying, not on the kind of movement-building that could create a constituency large and vocal enough to motivate members of Congress to support something better.

That's a mistake we don't dare repeat as we head for the Copenhagen conference in December, a negotiation whose complexity--and significance--will make even Waxman-Markey seem simple by comparison. For one thing, even if the half-a-loaf argument sways American environmentalists, Copenhagen will be hard going for those proposing baby steps. There's a solid block of countries that will be pushing for more. Eighty-nine governments have embraced the 350 ppm target, albeit the smallest and most vulnerable nations on earth. A number of them see it as matter of survival--I was in The Maldives recently when President Mohammed Nasheed declared that a pact like the one envisioned by the West was a "death warrant" for his nation, which lies just a meter or two above sea level. Not only are the poor nations of the world demanding compensation for the damage we've caused, and expensive technical assistance to help them build a renewable energy future ("Trillions of dollars might not be enough" for Africa alone, the acting director of the African Union's economy and agriculture department said in August), but they're also asking for truly steep cuts in Western emissions to head off warming so great that they won't be capable of adaptation at any price. Governments will try to finesse these huge gulfs. At the moment, for instance, some drafts of the Copenhagen treaty describe 350 ppm as "a shared vision" even if the actual steps required by the treaty would fall far short.

But, in the end, even a remotely plausible outcome is going to demand more leadership than we've seen so far. It has to come from two places. The first, as I have mentioned, is the citizenry. That's why many of us have volunteered over the last year to build a global calls for hewing much closer to the demands of both science and justice, and which may now have spread farther than any similar environmental movement in the past.

 We also need leadership from the Obama administration. The president has recently concentrated on health care, but he's made it clear that the other priority for his administration will be energy and climate. It will take more than any one speech he could deliver--he'll need to campaign. Fire up Air Force One for a daylong whirl from Barrow in Alaska to McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic, with a stop in New Orleans on the way there and the Amazon on the way home. And, even if he does make this a priority, there's still the question of how hard he will push--whether he'll be talking old science (450 ppm) or the new, harder targets (350 ppm).

Alas, there will be no political imperative driving him to push for the toughest measures. He's already done more on global warming than the previous four presidents combined. He's not going to lose large numbers of votes for going easy on climate targets; if anything, the opposite will happen.

 On the other hand, there are legacies, and then there are legacies. If, as many scientists believe, we're at the last possible moment to make a major turn, then Obama's decision may resonate in geological time. Eight months has been enough to teach us that Obama is a political realist, always unwilling to make the perfect the enemy of the good. What we'll find out soon is if he's a scientific realist, too, and therefore willing to make the necessary the enemy of the convenient.

Bill McKibben wrote the first book for a general audience on climate change, THE END OF NATURE, in 1989. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, he is co-founder of