Martin concedes that "the solution required is quite different if the answer to the first question is that most global warming is due to greenhouse gases." This body of scientists gives a strong answer to Martin's first question.
In fact, James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies argues that the evidence "implies that we are getting close to dangerous levels of human-made pollution. If further global warming reaches 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know." (Courier Journal, 9/26/06).
The problem is cumulative
Martin's "reversibility" criterion misses the fact that the problem is cumulative. Worse, atmospheric signals are delayed. So, the question really isn't whether action can reverse the problem but whether inaction will worsen it - with potentially disastrous consequences.
A second problem with Martin's article arises from his contention that we would already be using alternative energy sources if they were cheaper than hydrocarbons. But why are the alternatives not cheaper?
In part, the current hydrocarbon economy is itself a product of deliberate public policy choices that have favored the auto industry, the oil industry, and transportation patterns that neglect public transport. As federally-funded research priorities, tax incentives and subsidies shift to other alternatives, these are becoming more affordable. But this shift will require something other than last year's "welfare-for-corporations" energy bill that was more responsive to special interests than to the public interest.
Third, Martin assumes that policies that address climate change will result in slowed economic growth and hence more people living in poverty. Ironically, as pro-globalization New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues, "green cars, homes, offices, appliances, designs and renewable energies will be the biggest growth industry of the 21st century." (Courier-Journal, 1/28/06). The economic growth argument presents false choices. If intelligent long-term growth is what we're after, policies that address global warming make sense.
Further, higher economic growth does not automatically shrink the number of people living in poverty. Aggregate increases in GNP frequently benefit elites while leaving the poor no better off, or even worse off. Apart from public policy that attends to patterns of distribution, growth may worsen the troubling coexistence of super wealth alongside scandalous poverty.
So, the question we must ask is not simply whether economies are growing, but what kind of growth we're promoting and for whom.
Finally, Martin tells us that "every dollar we spend to protect us against global warming is a dollar we cannot spend to protect us from terrorists." Of course, we can certainly spend more on combating global warming without spending less on the "war on terror." But, as the recent NIE assessment showed, spending billions on the war in Iraq may actually increase the terror threat rather than decrease it.
Here also, Thomas Friedman's wise guidance moves us beyond false alternatives. He highlights the connection between our dependence on foreign oil and threats to our security. Our thirst for oil fills the treasuries of authoritarian regimes like Iran, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Venezuela - many of which are anti-democratic states or sponsors of terror. Friedman notes that our adversaries are "indirectly financed by our consumption of oil." (Courier Journal, 1/28/06). He argues that living green is a "national security imperative" and criticizes "defeatists" who contend that the U.S. is "incapable of innovating its way to energy independence." (Courier Journal, 1/7/06).
The heartening reality is that policies that lessen our addiction to oil can protect the environment and protect ourselves from terror at the same time.
Rick Axtell is Associate Professor of Religion and College Chaplain at Centre College.
Eric Mount is Rodes Professor of Religion emeritus at Centre College.