What a difference half a year makes! Last October I attended a dinner at the Malibu seaside villa of Dick and Cindy Troop (who I had never met) for an evening’s discussion about global warming. The Troop’s spacious living room and patio looking out over the Pacific were filled with scores of Malibu neighbors. David Nott, President of the Reason Foundation, introduced the two featured speakers, Dan Skopec, Governor Schwarzenegger’s Undersecretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, and Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason Magazine and the author of a number of books about environmental issues including global warming.
Back then, only months ago, people were still questioning if global warming was even a threat. As the evening progressed, both speakers seemed common on many points. There was consensus that even if the science on global warming is less than perfect (as science, by definition, almost always is), the stakes are way too enormous to ignore, and that immediate and major action is in order, including not just consumer conservation, but government options to stem the release of carbon dioxide. Much has changed since that evening in Malibu – Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the Democrats’ control of the House and Senate in D.C., Governor Schwarzenegger’s wholesale commitment to fight greenhouse gases and other forces have combined to finally make global warming a front-and-center issue and bring America’s consciousness perhaps roughly on par with the other industrialized nations.
It also occurred to me that evening in Malibu that a political pattern has become established: seems that every time we have a two-term Republican president we are confronted with the specter of cataclysmal climate threat. With Ronald Reagan, it was the threat of “nuclear winter.” In the opinion of many at the time, Reagan’s nuclear warhead brinksmanship with the Soviet Union revived the possibility of all-out nuclear war. With the late Carl Sagan in the lead, the scientific community was adamant that the particulate matter ejected high into the atmosphere by nuclear exchange and firestorms would cool Earth into a deep freeze, threatening life as we know it. Major volcanic eruptions are a prototype for this event on a smaller scale, and it is thought by many scientists to be the process by which a huge meteor impact ended many life forms worldwide about 70 million years ago. The threat of a human-induced nuclear winter remains. Just last month a group of scientists declared that even a limited regional nuclear exchange – say, India versus Pakistan – would wreak major nuclear winter climatic results upon all of us.
I recall the 1990 IMAX movie Blue Planet, directed by Ben Burtt. It is a stunning look at the fragility of Earth from the space shuttle. What I remember best is one astronaut’s eloquent soliloquy about the thin layer of gases that can be seen on the horizon from low earth orbit – our atmosphere – and the razor thin difference it provides between life and death. It may be our ultimate natural resource, and as our human numbers cross the 6.5 billion mark we may have the destiny to irrevocably alter our atmosphere and deliver our own destruction either by fire or ice.