Global Warming: A Sputnik Moment?

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10, 9, 8, 7… [william.ward / Flickr]

The science is incontrovertible: if we don’t act now to curb global warming, we’re in serious trouble.

And U.S. public opinion is finally catching on, helped along, most recently, by Al Gore’s new movie An Inconvenient Truth (see our hour on Al Gore Unplugged). The buzz about the movie turns on whether or not Gore’s going to run in 2008, which begs this question: could a presidential candidate now actually build a viable political platform based on global warming? If enough politicians sense the tide turning, could we imagine a kind of Sputnik moment for climate change, where political and business forces align to meet the challenge?

So, the question of the day: If the majority of Americans now understand the gravity of global warming, how could we seize this moment to do what we do best, to innovate? How could we take the lead in what may be the next “new economy” of alternative fuels? Could this be America’s chance to keep its grip on economic power and prevent China or India from closing in? What will it take to jump-start a Manhattan Project or Sputnik rocket for global warming?

Kevin Sweeney

Lecturer in socially responsible business, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley

Former environmental strategies director, Patagonia

Former special assistant to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

Former press secretary for Senator Gary Hart

Former chairman, Ozone Action

Author, “Climate of Hope“, Salon

Bracken Hendricks

Senior fellow, Center for American Progress

Former executive director, Apollo Alliance

Author, “A New Prairie Populism“, The American Prospect

Brian Schweitzer

Governor of Montana

Robert Metcalfe

General Partner, venture capital firm Polaris Venture Partners

Co-inventor of Ethernet

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  • hshah1

    Google Maps directions to Graceland from I-55

    1. Take the US-51 exit 5B to Elvis Presley Blvd South – go 0.2 mi

    2. Bear left onto the Elvis Presley Blvd ramp – go 133 ft

    3. Bear right at Elvis Presley Blvd – go 1.2 mi

    4. Turn left at Dolan Dr – go 0.1 mi

    This comment broke the rules and has been Gracelanded.

  • joel

    This whole exercise is silly until the people of the world realize the population

    of the world needs to be drastically reduced. Any remedy being considered will

    cause uncomfortable reductions in standards of living. Any significant remedy will

    cause suffering of large segments of the population. The only remedy that increases the standard of living by any standards is the reduction of population replacement. The least happy period of people’s lives is apparently the period of child raising ((?) see last half of Charlie Rose Show 30 May 2006 – can’t find the URL on PBS website that gives me info for last September and other useless info… but it does seem to be so by most appearances.) Lots of luck!


  • Today’s computers take up less space and energy than computers from the 1960s, but they offer far more. Can society be upgraded in a similar way? Using public transit, rather than the automobile where over 42,000 Americans die in accidents each year. Learning to tele-commute. Denser, rather than sprawling cities. Vancouver, BC’s “West End” neighborhood could be the wave of the future. Highrise apartments overlooking a nearby park. Hardly any traffic on the narrow streets, people out walking, taking public transit. Active nighlife and community gatherings. The West End is often thought of as the “gay district” also. Lower population growth due to more acceptance of “alternative lifestyles.” A brighter, more innovative future.

  • Ben

    There are many possible solutions for America and the rest of the west, and things are looking hopeful though painfully slow here.

    I’m curious how the conversation and dialogue will play in the developing world. What will prevent nationless entities from simply moving their operational bases and economies to parts of the world that are not going to have any incentive to be environmentally responsible in the foreseeable future?

    How do the guests see America and the west begin to lay the global legal and political groundwork as well as leading by example?

  • mulp

    I spent a few hours yesterday on the MoveOn forum yesterday posting responses to statements made to the effect “energy independence is number 1 democrat priority” and “no, global warming is…”

    My comments had the theme “motherhood, apple pie, but what’s the plan, stan?”

    I frame the issue this way: We need a public policy based on principles, and the principles that I present are:

    EQUALITY – we must provide equal fossil energy, or climate, to not just ourselves, but our children, and our heirs of a thousand year hence

    MARKET – we must use the market to guide individuals to the best solution for themselves and for society

    LIBERTY – we must put each person in charge of their own decisions and assume each is responsible

    We charge for the use of resources that are dug from the ground, never to be replenished – of course the only one that really matter is gas and oil. And “we” is “we” the people, and “we” pay ourselves for the loss of our common resources, and we trust that “we” will invest it the best way possible for our future and the future of our children.

    The fee gradually increases until the consumption declines to the rate that ensures that the supply will last for a thousand years.

    Controlling the destruction of carbon fossil fuels will control the production of climate changing CO2.

    Ok, maybe you don’t like my proposal, but the key is to produce concrete proposals, not to just wring our hands and say woe is we.

  • chitowncarl


    Make all the clean energy you want, where are you going to get the sustainable materials to convert?

    A barrel of oil is the caloric equivalent of 8 people working at hard labor for a year. That makes for 860 billion invisible laborers per year at 82 bbl/year. When the oil is gone we can’t use it to convert resources or to convert it as a resource.

    Can you see where I’m headed here?

  • mulp

    In response to Ben, my policy says that we charge for the consumption of fossil hydrocarbons, and this charge would take place when the hydrocarbons or the products of those hydrocarbons cross the border. So, you go to China to get away from the tax on a ton of coal, but when the steel from a ton of coal enters the US, that ton of coal that produced it is taxed.

    This puts both the US and China on equal footing so that which ever country can smelt steel using solar, it wins against the other.

    This is the mechanism used to compute VAT – at the borders, the VAT collected inside the border is credited, and on imports, the VAT is collected, so doing this for the charges on consumption of fossil carbon is not new.

  • mulp

    To chitowncarl: Yes, you are saying that in Bush American we never invest and only spend more than we produce.

    But that hasn’t been the way of the world, or even the US, for nearly all of our histories.

    Besides, we can delegate the work like any good steward. We take some grains and sow them on the soil and say to them, bring forth a bountiful harvest of saw grass, and we convert that into the stuff that will drive our engines. So we have used slaves to produce energy slaves.

    All it takes is a reversal of the US ideology that the world is ending in 2010, as it seems Bush has concluded.

  • Good to hear from Governor of Montana. Bicycling is cool. Montana is headquarters for one of the nation’s largest bike touring advocacy organizations. It is called “Adventure Cycling Association.” Headquartered in Missoula, MT. Bicycling is one of the many fun solutions. Better for health also. See much more of America than zipping past on the freeway.

  • chitowncarl

    Coal- At curent consumption rates we have 200 years left, if demnd ib=ncrease by 2%, we have 25 years. Try again.

  • Phil Henshaw

    on warming you’re so right on, but there’s a much bigger jump coming right up.

    You’re one of the few public voices who are responding as if the truth mattered. I’m so relieved that there are a few at least. That itself is one of the telling symptoms of what’s wrong. Most everyone sees the truth but can’t make it make it meaningful. There’s something quite off the scale going on… and we need to improvise.

    There’s an even bigger dilemma than global warming you need to look at. Global warming is a direct consequence of economic growth, from following our simple design concept for redesigning the earth, having investors maximizing current returns.

    The problem of our redesigning the earth for exploding personal gains, and getting into trouble, is deeper than people just being selfish and shortsighted, and getting caught. It’s that the concerted global plan, to increase consumption and change the earth ever more rapidly forever, is incredibly stupid. What’s happening is that we’re exposing a massive delusion. Naturally it would be good if we were both sharp and more or less good humored about it.

    Our whole concept of nature has failed because it’s based on fanciful images of ourselves that are hundreds of years old. Now Earth time is moving rather fast and the learning lag times are absolutely killing us.

    There’s a global professional consensus that economic growth in necessary and desirable, but not a sole seems to have asked what in nature growth is for… Growth itself is actually not not sustainable. It’s a transition, a change of form. It’s also extremely dangerous to push a homeostatic system to growth failure.

    We’re so stupid we’ve made all our institutional and social structures heavily reliant on growth for solvency (geat!). The investment cycle, the source of wealth for all the powerful, serves as an efficient growth imperative(2xgreat!). The truth is that mankind is a drunk who invented a rocket and flew off a cliff. A silver lining? Sure, we may still have the reserves to reverse jets in mid-air. All it takes is making the truth meaningful.

    I’ll try to post this on you chat page too.

  • franco334

    ISO14001, RoHS, WEEE…it’s all good thought and intent, but implemented so incredibly poorly…$millions are wasted.

    New restaurants open with all throw away plastic and plates.

    people constantly use their throw away coffee cups…

    i am into doing my part to help support the new environmental political movement, but my generation and my son’s especially…your guests are not talking about the reality at the ground floor.

    education and culture and habit is going to take more than just political will – that whole movement is not in step with Al’s movie and dialogue – although believe me i welcome it and intend to jump oon his and other’s bandwagon.

  • franco334

    the movement needs to be with green/sustainable technology and that’s where MR. Bushes Tax cuts should be going.

    and where we should be pushing education.

  • rob hart

    The first huge task on the problem of climate change is education of the general public. A great book is “The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. Also, The upcoming film “An Inconvenient Truth” and the accompanying book will help in this effort. Then what? Its back to the future, no wheel reinvention needed. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw many great innovative ways to use solar energy.

    One example is passive solar home heating. Here’s a super squashed intro:

    Site one wall directly to the south. Install windows on that wall. Let the sunlight shine in on your insulated slab foundation. Viola! You are the happy owner of a passive solar home. Now put bedrooms upstairs, shade windows seasonally, insulate well and enjoy. You use conduction, convection and radiant heat from the most dependable source of energy known, and no carbon dioxide emitted.

  • kaybarret

    I am thirilled to hear so many erudite comentators wax lyrical over the possiblity of developing a consensus for change, and I am certainly encouraged by the comments of Rodger Metcalfe regarding the market place impetus to develop alternative green (clean) energy. However, I remain somewhat perplexed regarding the mismatch betwen the current climate, for example, the public outrage at current and rising gas prices(!), the politcal support for ever increasing reliance on fossil fuels, tax support for gas inefficient vehicles etc…. and the contention that there is indeed a growing conscience about this issue. I myself feel that the voting public, unfortunately, are far from the consensus spoken of in the program…… I wonder, how to move this portion of the electorate foward to support specific actions ?

  • rob hart

    An important point in this discussion is the consumer interest (or lack of it!) in conservation efforts needed. Right now car consumers are buying some hybrids, biodiesel, and flex fuel cars, but many more still want the giant SUV’s. Its probably no surprize that when GM built a prototype 100 mile per gallon four passenger car in 1991 there was little interest.

    In an associated topic, home building, consumers want big homes, not green ones.

  • msestak

    So ignoring scientists got us into the problem, surely ignoring scientists will get us out of the problem. Let the market find a solution, let politicians develop new policies to solve the problem. I think not. Why not a sputnik moment where we emphasize funding for both doing science and teaching science, especially science related to conservation. There is the same consensus of scientists that say global climate change is real and of human origin, that says conservation is the best, quickest solution. That is the real challenge.

  • rob hart

    Here’s a response to the competition for conservation idea by the governor. How about comparing monthly home energy bills? example: a photovoltaic, solar hot water, and passive solar home energy bill might not exist except an iou from the energy producing company.

  • rob hart

    Lets save the coal for a future ice age when we may need it to heat the climate back up. Not my idea, I think its from Arthur C. Clarke. Anyway, coal is too dirty, and costs too much to clean up, according to “The Weather Makers”. The author should know, apparently Australia produces more CO/2 per capita then we do since they depend on coal for most of their energy.

  • joel

    Goodness! All those words up there and all are nonsense since none have taken into consideration that when all people have the same standard of living, the standard of living will necessarily come down to the lowest common denominator. Those who once had better than that will not tolerate such a change. All those words are nonsense since none take into consideration that nothing can survive indefinitely while constantly growing and the more rapid the growth, and even worse, the more increasing the rapidity of growth, the sooner the extinction. This is true regardless how much conservation or preservation is practiced or how much the standard of living is reduced. The higher the standards, the less the population MUST be if the depletion of resources is to be kept constant, ie. not increased. The more increasing the depletion, the faster must be the population reduction if the time of survival is not to be shortened, ie. the time of extinction is not to be sooner. If, as unlikely as it is, all required resources can be managed to be sustainable, it will impose a use rate or recycle rate which will in turn impose a size of the population for any particular standard of living. The size of the population is now far larger than can be tolerated for the present use or recycle rate. A population of less than one tenth the present size might necessarily be much more appropriate.

    Have a nice time, people.


  • Kevin

    One more influential person has taken on global climate change as a real issue – Sir David Attenborough. For the whole of his career he has not spoken out about global warming or the human contribution to it. Until recently that is. He wrote an incredibly compelling article in the Independent last week, and unfortunately I can not find a link to the entire text of the article. but here is a piece of it:

    I have been living in the UK for a few months now and it is amazing how often you hear talk about global warming and climate change in the media. It’s everywhere. If only American media would pick it up as well…

  • mdhatter

    “What will it take to jump-start a Manhattan Project or Sputnik rocket for global warming?”

    Well, the MP was to stop the germans and japanese, and apollo was to show up the russians,


    If “the terrorists” could start driving hybrids, or the Taliban could go solar, then and only then would we have to escalate.

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  • veracitatus

    Growth and CO2 reduction are antithetical. The belief that you can have a growth-oriented economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is nonsense.

    A growth economy depends on increasing consumption of energy. Period. You can’t do more physical work with less energy expenditure. And here is the kicker. The alternative energy technologies do not have the ability to provide the kind of energy needed to sustain the economy, let alone allow for growth.

    I don’t like to be one to rain on parades, but all this upbeat talk about sputnik moments is bunk. For example, gassification of coal, mentioned in the show, is a pathetic net energy source. When the governor called for conservation he was on target, but then going on to suggest that biofuels or coal gassification is going to provide anywhere near the level of net energy production as we get from oil is just plain bad information. He claimed we could “just pump the carbon dioxide into the earth.” Pure techno-hubris. (Then, of course, the truth behind his pushing coal came to the surface – his state, Montana, has lots of coal!)

    I find it a serious problem that the people working on policy have no background in plain physics. Listeners should take a look at Energy Return of Energy Investment (ERoEI) on Wikipedia. Open your minds and learn some inconvenient truths.

    What a world.

  • babu

    “Growth and CO2 reduction are antithetical.”

    Thank you veracitatus. Our planet cannot support our western standard of living. There is no way around it.

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