Why America is never going to meet Kyoto

March 5, 2007

Over the weekend, Bush finally laid out his plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I say finally because the report was due over a year ago. His plan is, unsurprisingly, pretty wimpy–but there are a few more plans on the table, one by McCain and Lieberman, and one by Bernard Sanders (the socialist, who, by the way, sounds like a fascinating guy) and Barbara Boxer.

This whole debacle is interesting, says a professor of mine, because we already have the technology we need to cut our greenhouse emissions to Kyoto targets or lower. This professor (let’s call him S), who’s teaching a seminar on global climate change, compares our situation now to the space race and moon landing in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Back then, we decided we wanted to go to the moon, but we had no idea how to get there. We had to develop the technology to get someone into space, and then we had to put it into practice.

Gore’s movie (which had its flaws, I’ll grant) made it perfectly clear that if we simply stepped up use of technology we already have, we could curb our emissions. Investing in clean power plants (though hydro, wind, and nuclear all have their drawbacks), more hybrid cars, more fuel-efficient cars, and so on, would be more than enough to clean up this country, CO2-wise. The one other significant factor–though I can’t find the graph anywhere online–was, I believe, advances in efficiency in homes and offices, along the lines of replacing incandescents with CFLs, installing energy-efficient appliances, weatherproofing walls and windows with insulation and double-paned glass, etc.–things you can do today! (Seriously. Go buy a CFL right now, will you?)

But I digress. The point is, unlike the space race, we already have the technology, says Prof. S. He also points out that his wife, who is from China, was shocked to see so few scientists appearing on American television. In China, she says, scientists are on the tube for something or other almost every day. Prof. S. said he told her “it’s not the America I grew up with.”

We can learn from the space race era. Why do you think there were scientists on American television in the ’50’s and ’60’s? Why do you think we were able to get a guy on the moon just eleven years after getting the first ever American satellite into orbit?

Easy.

We were terrified that the “dirty Russkies” were going to get there first and do something terrible to us.

boom
Nuclear test. Things that go boom are cool scary. Public domain image, from Wikipedia

There’s no way to “compete” against the planet itself. Not only that, but I don’t believe our culture thinks it’s appropriate to compete against other countries the way we competed against the USSR. We don’t compete–not outwardly. We “cooperate.” (No, actually, we say we’re going to cooperate and then sit around with our thumbs up our asses for decades. Hello, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Sure, there are studies published all the time about how our science students are lagging behind pretty much everyone else, but where’s the widespread panic we need to kick us into action?

Speaking hypothetically and completely off-the-wall fantastically here: If Iran developed a device that, I don’t know, fanned all the CO2 over the Atlantic to New York City, and turned each CO2 molecule into a microscopic spy camera, and, oh, throw in something to do with nukes for good measure, you can bet we’d be all over the Kyoto protocol in an instant.

Until then, we’re probably screwed.

Oh, and by the way? Recently this blog has been mostly about a) street art and b) environmental concerns (or as we cynical activists like to say, “tree-hugging hippie shit”). I promise the next post is going to shake things up a little.

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