So We’re Green. Now What?

Illustration by Ward Sutton

On the last day of spring vacation, as I drove through the San Gorgonio Pass out of Palm Springs, emitting carbon dioxide from my Hertz shitbox and thinking about the Supreme Court’s decision that the Environmental Protection Agency is obliged to protect the environment (and us) from greenhouse gases, I started counting the giant white turbines on the wind farm we were passing. I quit after 100.

When I arrived back in New York and opened the mail, I found an invitation to a screening of Robert Redford’s new environmental TV show The Green (which premieres this week) and the May Vanity Fair—Leo DiCaprio on the cover of the second annual “green issue.” Then I read about the special green-themed issue of The Week (online this Friday), and the Discovery Channel’s plan to launch a new cable channel “focused on ecofriendly living.”

And the next morning came the front-page stories about the latest report from the IPCC, the U.N.’s 200-scientist blue-ribbon task force—their “high confidence” that global warming is indeed being caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Then there was the Doris Duke foundation’s announcement last week that it’s giving $100 million to global-warming research—which came the same day Sheryl Crow started her “Stop Global Warming College Tour.”

Sure, a good bit of this is marketing hoo-ha timed to coincide with Earth Day this Sunday. But for the last three decades, who apart from schoolkids has paid any attention to Earth Day? In the spring of 2004, only a quarter of Americans in a Gallup Poll said they were worried “a great deal” by climate change; today, the number is over 40 percent. If you’d told me two years ago that in 2007 all my household’s nice old incandescent lightbulbs would be replaced by weird little curlicue fluorescents—ten tons of CO2 emissions eliminated; check—I’d have rolled my eyes and snorted.

How and why is this happening so quickly? As always at such moments of bandwagoneering social change, it’s hard to distinguish between causes and effects. The science has gotten more unambiguous and empirical. And in this Infotainment Age, Al Gore successfully distilled (and, um … dramatized) the relevant science in last year’s An Inconvenient Truth. The anecdotal folk science—New Orleans flooded, January days in the seventies—has been freakishly on-message. (Katrina was the liberal equivalent of neoconservatives’ blaming Saddam for 9/11, a connect-the-dots opportunity too good to resist, even if it wasn’t true.) Giant, super-American, ultra-Republican corporations—Wal-Mart!—have started greening themselves. There’s an acutely appealing feel-good aspect right now, as we contemplate our present geopolitical debacle—having fucked up Iraq, maybe we can manage to do better on global warming. And Americans have also come to take climate change seriously, I think, partly as a result of George Bush’s strenuous discounting of the problem. Since his administration’s main claims about Iraq have proved spectacularly false—the 9/11 connection, WMDs, Mission Accomplished, the insurgency’s “last throes”—an intuitive syllogism has naturally taken hold among Americans: If Bush asserts something, no matter how sincerely, then probably the opposite is true.

The first big “global warming” stories I remember were in 1981, when two studies came out. But while the cultural elite was totally into dystopian scenarios—Blade Runner was just about to be released—the prevailing national spirit was post–Whole Earth, post-oil-shock, post-malaise, all about a willful reversion to fat-and-happy American guiltlessness and optimism. We were in a mood to de-regulate business and discover SUVs. In 1986, a Times article summarized the expert consensus about global warming as “more like an expensive irritant than an impending disaster.”

That was then. And the new climate-change consensus is rearranging conventional alliances. The most pro-war Republican candidate for president, John McCain, is also the most “green” by far. A founder of Greenpeace and the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog both support nuclear power. It’s one thing for Redford and Leo and Larry David’s wife and other glamorous default Democrats to be anti-carbon activists—vanity, thy name is green—but when default-Republican Fortune 100 CEOs join the struggle, an inflection point has been reached. It’s happening because unlike with evolution, say, the truth of which has no bearing on anyone’s earnings or quality of life, climate change has profound economic impacts. And unlike true ideologues, who can ignore empirical evidence when it contradicts their articles of faith, businesspeople succeed by regarding data agnostically and responding effectively to bad news.

Thus the United States Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP, a new ad hoc group of odd bedfellows—the Natural Resources Defense Council, but also industrial behemoths like Alcoa, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, and G.E. Earlier this year it issued a manifesto calling for immediate caps on greenhouse-gas emissions from burning oil and coal—in other words, for the U.S. to enact something like the central mechanism of the Kyoto Protocols that Bush has refused to ratify. Some of those companies are playing a business-development angle: G.E. makes wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors, and DuPont manufactures materials for all that equipment—which is a good thing, since it means they’re invested, not just making nice.

Then there’s Wal-Mart. We’re supposed to hate them because they drive local shopkeepers out of business, treat employees stingily, and say they don’t care if they ever open a store in New York City. But now the single largest private U.S. consumer of electricity has committed over the next very few years to cutting energy use by 30 percent and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 percent. Given that shopping at Wal-Mart is the closest thing we have to a universal American experience, it’s hard to imagine a more significant driver and symptom of the new eco-Zeitgeist.

There is still a minority of dead-enders, those 27 percent of Americans who insist to Gallup that global warming is nothing to worry about now—a number strikingly similar to the fraction who approve of the job Bush is doing. And they will continue to have their avatars, like James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s environment committee, who says “man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

We’re coming to the end of one of our regular 30-year cycles of laissez-faire-ism, however. The practical details of how and how much we will regulate carbon emissions remain to be worked out. For starters, federal gas-mileage standards haven’t been raised since the eighties—but soon they will be, perhaps along the lines of a bipartisan Senate bill introduced last month that would phase in a ten-miles-per-gallon increase over ten years. The big picture almost everyone now gets, just as Ronald Reagan’s big-picture convictions (about government overreach, about the Soviet empire) successfully shifted political paradigms in the eighties. And on this issue it’s the Inhofes who are about to become the shrill, impotent, out-of-touch paleos.

We are only coming to the end of the very beginning, though. Let’s say we elect a Democratic president next year and Congress remains Democratic. But … is our 40-year target for cutting emissions to be 40 percent, as the USCAP coalition proposes, or 50 percent (the IPCC, Nancy Pelosi), or 80 percent (John Edwards)? And exactly how do we make the new limits stick? The cock-up of Europe’s two-year-old “cap and trade” Kyoto scheme is not encouraging.

But let’s say our apparatus is worked out by 2010, and we go full speed ahead on a radical new set of regulatory and tax-and-tariff mechanisms to reduce the use of oil and coal, and to bring every possible form of alternative energy online. Alternative sources like, say, a miraculous carbon-free technology—nuclear power, that is. One highly inconvenient truth is that nuclear fission is the most practical large-scale source of green power available.

And then it will probably take decades to know if our grand new greening schemes are actually working. Unlike the big national engineering projects at mid-century, the interstate highways and the space program, this isn’t a matter of spending many federal billions and then in a decade marveling at our new road system and astronauts on the moon. It will be more on the scale of the New Deal plus World War II plus the Cold War—but combined with something like the disquieting uncertainty and open-endedness of the war on terror.

Americans have an intensely ambivalent relationship with sin and redemption. Heedlessly ruining the global climate is plainly sinful, and we are a people desperate to feel good about our shining city on a hill. But we also hated Jimmy Carter’s guilt-inducing sermons. (As I do some of the current green epiphenomena: The other day a Whole Foods clerk refused to give me Splenda with my cup of coffee—artificial sweeteners, their Website explains, lack “ideological compatibility.”) Americans have shown themselves willing to undertake epic battles against evil only when there’s somebody else to hold accountable—Nazis, communists, radical Islamists. But blaming and changing our own Homer Simpson–ish ways of life? We couldn’t even make Prohibition work.

This upsurge of alarm and pledges of commitment will grow, but it won’t last forever. As a political matter, we probably have a decade to lock into place new regimes of regulation and market incentives. Which happens to be the same do-or-die time frame that a lot of scientists believe we have to start getting gassy modern life back in balance with the Earth’s natural systems. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this looks to be the ultimate test of our national character: Do we fat, spoiled 21st-century Americans have the requisite gumption and discipline to be born again, and then do what’s necessary to try to keep the planet from going off the rails? I’d say the odds are 50-50.


So We’re Green. Now What?