Al Gore
Al Gore

Climate Change Solutions

The mercury stops here! (Sort of.)

Al Gore

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When leaders from 193 countries meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 7–18, their mission will be to save the planet from global warming. Yet unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. and Australia rebuffed, this treaty probably won’t focus on hard emissions target=s and the so-called cap-and-trade legislation that would enforce those limits. Would that make it a failure? We gathered opinions from experts from both ends of the political spectrum and discovered that, while the debate over the existence of global warming may be settled, the battle over what to do about it is still heating up.

Climate Change Solution: Invest in Tech

Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, a nonprofit environmental think thank.

Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus Ted Nordhaus

China and India won’t embrace binding emissions limits. But that’s the old paradigm, which focused on target=s and timetables. There’s a new paradigm where we move from abstract—unenforceable—reduction commitments to direct actions that change the underlying technologies that are the source of carbon dioxide. For example, how many plug-in hybrids is China going to have by 2015? I would judge success in Copenhagen based on our commitment to developing low-carbon energy technology. We’re going to see some mix of the old paradigm and the new: The EU will continue to focus on emissions-reduction target=s; the U.S., Canada, and Australia, less so; and China and India will agree to make changes in their energy economies and transportation systems, and we’ll count that as their commitment. Bottom line: We need to get people to deploy as much clean energy as we possibly can. We’re not going to wag the energy-technology dog with the pollution-control tail.

Climate Change Solution: Underpromise, Overdeliver

David Roberts, staff writer for the enviro-news site

David Roberts
David Roberts of

You’ve been talking to Nordhaus. Let me guess: New paradigm is what he’s saying, and old paradigm is what everyone else is saying. My take: It’s a false dichotomy. He has a point insofar as the Kyoto Protocol failed by skipping directly to what a final treaty would look like: concrete emissions target=s. But ultimately, they’re what’s going to save our asses, so a “new paradigm”? No, because we eventually need the old treaty. The thing to do is what Obama is trying: Set expectations low and then beat them. Get commitments of money to prevent deforestation and for x number of electric vehicles—the investments Nordhaus loves—and fill the gap between here and a full-fledged treaty. Everybody’s worried it’s going be this economic hit, but I think making your economy more efficient is going to turn out as a boon.

Climate Change Solution: Adapt to a Hotter Planet

William O'Keefe, CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute, a policy-research group.

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe William O'Keefe

There is no practical way to get carbon dioxide levels down to 350 [parts per million in the atmosphere] without the annihilation of large numbers of people and collapsing economies. When the 1.6 billion people in developing countries raise their standard of living, what we do here and in Western Europe is not going to have any real effect. We’re going to have higher emissions for the next several decades in spite of anyone’s efforts. If that’s the reality, then we have to deal with it. If people believe that going above 450 ppm is going to cause an environmental calamity, then we’d better spend more resources on adaptation, because it’s almost inevitable that we’re going to go beyond that level.

Climate Change Solution: Obey the Science

Bill McKibben, founder of, which aims to refocus the climate debate on science.

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben (courtesy of Nancie Battaglia)

With more than 350 ppm, the planet doesn’t work right. We’re already at 390. Any outcome in Copenhagen will be judged on whether it gets us back to a place where the planet does work. In the end, it’s a negotiation among human beings, on one hand, and physics and chemistry on the other. And physics and chemistry don’t negotiate very well.

Climate Change Solution: Tax Carbon

Al Gore, former vice president.

Al Gore
Al Gore (courtesy of Tipper Gore)

It’s too much to hope for that we would get a perfect treaty that carves out a pathway to 350 in short order, but if we get an agreement that puts a price on carbon, even indirectly, that is the necessary first step. Copenhagen won’t go as far as I would like—it won’t meet the tests that scientists would like it to meet—but it will begin shifting the global economy. Businesses and governments around the world will begin to see that this transition is far easier than the pessimists have been predicting. There’s just so much low-hanging fruit out there. As soon as carbon dioxide emissions have any price, you’re going to see powerful changes building on the momentum that’s beginning to manifest now.

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