Down to the Wire

AS AN ENVIRONMENTAL reporter who focuses on American politics, I thought there was no end to my pessimism about Congress and its inability to act on climate change in the near future. But then, somehow, Down to the Wire managed to make me even less optimistic about the future — despite the fact that the author seems to have intended just the opposite.

Environmental and political scholar David Orr’s latest work is a comprehensive look at the climate crisis and the prevailing ideologies that have led us to this point. The conclusion Orr reaches is that the real divide that has caused the current stasis is not between conservatives and liberals — though he gives due responsibility to antiscience and procorporate types — it’s rather a result of how we see ourselves in relation to future generations. And because the vast majority of Americans cannot or will not imagine the impacts of our actions on future generations, we have been unable to take any significant action to reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions we are putting into the atmosphere.

Orr gives equal time to the crisis — which he calls “the long emergency,” a phrase borrowed from James Howard Kunstler — and its potential solutions. Yet the solutions are much more complex and arduous than American politicians and even the modern environmental movement would have us believe. He argues that the solution cannot come from simply putting a widget or gizmo on our power plants and automobiles or making more conscientious consumer choices, but rather must come from a complete overhaul of our systems of energy, politics, media, and civic life.

Orr duly criticizes the lack of sound journalism on climate change, as well as the “50 easy ways to save the earth” type of coverage “that threaten neither the lifestyles of consumers nor the power of corporations.” And he also blames a government structure that is much better suited for preventing action on any issue of importance than for facilitating it.

His most relevant point, however — wherein perhaps lies our only real hope for overcoming all the barriers he outlines — is that there has been a lack of strong leadership and moral voice on this issue. What it took to end slavery in the United States, he writes, was an appeal to moral certitude — not an argument on science or economics. “[N]o national leader has yet done what Lincoln did for slavery and placed the issue of sustainability in its larger moral context,” he writes.

But simple technological solutions are as far as we’ve gone politically so far, and even that has been difficult. The bill that the House of Representatives passed in June 2009, the first major piece of climate legislation to pass in a chamber of Congress, in no way demands that our systems change. Instead, it allots more than 60 billion dollars for the creation and deployment of carbon capture and storage technology, which is widely conceived as the solution that will turn coal from a dirty, dangerous pollutant into a “clean” fuel that will take us to the future by putting that carbon underground rather than into our atmosphere. But no gizmo atop a smokestack can possibly repair the hundreds of mountains, valleys, and streams that have been destroyed by mining practices. It cannot extend the finite reserves of coal, or restore the health and economic livelihood of hundreds of former coal towns around the country.

This is the heart of the divide — the fundamental difference between whether we see the climate crisis as something that can be addressed with pain-free adjustments to our current way of life or whether we recognize that the way we have come to live is inherently untenable.

What makes this book truly distressing, though, is that Orr concluded his writing shortly after the 2008 election, when hopes were high that Barack Obama would shift the debate. And yet, a year later, Congress remains deadlocked on passing even weak legislation, and the U.S. and other nations do not seem much closer to reaching an agreement on how to move forward. We are down to the wire, but the vast majority of the public remains unaware that a wire even exists.