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Why Climate Change Isn't Like Health Care

In case you missed it on the homepage today (or on that sidebar to the right), Bill McKibben has a piece in our current print magazine on why global warming, as a policy issue, is going to be fundamentally different from health care. Physics and chemistry, he argues, don't tend to be terribly flexible negotiating partners:

In Washington, and in Copenhagen, political realism dictates reaching some kind of deal. And the pressure from vested interests—mostly the fossil-fuel lobby—combined with the political fear of annoying voters with higher gas prices or lifestyle shifts means that the incentive for anyone who has to run for office anytime soon is to take the easiest possible deal. Look at Waxman-Markey, which has been revised to cut emissions just 17 percent by 2020—and even that comes loaded with loopholes written to win over particular congressmen with particular coal mines. And it barely passed—by seven votes. Scientific realism demands much more.

And scientific realism holds the trump card here. If you pass half a health care bill, you can always come back in a decade. People will suffer in the meantime, but it won't grow impossible to fix the problem: The Clinton debacle in the 1990s didn't mean that we couldn't try again this year. But, if we don't do what the science requires on climate change, the situation will get badly out of hand. In the last two years, methane levels in the atmosphere have begun to spike sharply, apparently because warming temperatures are now melting the permafrost that caps large deposits of the potent greenhouse gas. If we let the planet keep warming, we won't be able to shut that cycle off—we're clearly much closer to that kind of tipping point than we imagined just a few years ago. Half a job may not be better than no job at all.