Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How Long a Slog?

Gail Collins's August 13 column in the New York Times, My Favorite August is a good, brief read on the passage of women's suffrage. Here's how she opens the essay:
The story in American history I most like to tell is the one about how women got the right to vote 90 years ago this month. It has everything. Adventure! Suspense! Treachery! Drunken legislators!

But, first, there was a 70-year slog.

Which is really the important part. We always need to remember that behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.
Of course, she's right. The long slog is the most important part of the fight (but the climax of that slog does make for a good story, as you'll see if you read Collins's essay). The work done to reach the tipping point is far more difficult than that final nudge over the precipice.

So, how long has the slog for action on climate change been underway? I don't know if you can pinpoint the start of a slog, but this one has been going on for a long, long time. I suppose a slog might begin slowly, with the recognition that some standard practice isn't quite right with the world.

Keeling, of the Keeling Curve, identified the rise of CO2 levels in the late 1950s. Not too many years later (1965) Lyndon Johnson sent a Special Message to Congress that included the following:
This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ...a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
That takes us back a few decades, but the idea that carbon dioxide is an important factor in the atmosphere's greenhouse effect has been known for well over a century -- at least since John Tyndall in the 1850s.

Here's a couple of important asides: That requires the important aside that the greenhouse effect isn't itself a bad thing -- without it Earth would be inhospitable to folks like you and me as it would be too cold. The problem is that we're turning up the effect. I also am inclined to add that the greenhouse as a metaphor really can be a bit confusing -- a key factor in heating a greenhouse is that the glass ceiling stops warm air from rising away. In the atmosphere, the troposphere -- the lowest layer of the atmosphere where we live -- heats up as it traps infrared radiation coming off the surface. That infrared radiation is a result of the solid Earth absorbing sunlight, warming up, and then rereleasing that energy. There's nothing quite like that glass ceiling involved.

Was Tyndall concerned about global warming? I'll let you dig back and find out how concern grew over the last century and a half. Here's a video that tells some of the story (and where I picked up that nice Johnson quote and some memory refreshers mentioned above):

Now, back to our slog.
I have to wonder: How long a slog can we afford?

Well, I think we might reasonably say that the costs of the slog for women's suffrage were too high -- though I don't know if we can measure its costs. It seems likely to me that the costs of the slog for reasonable policies on climate and energy will also be too high and also be very difficult to measure.

The upside is that we've been through slogs before and come out somehow with our wits about us (and with some portion of the population missing or damaged). We lost a lot working for the end to slavery, and for the beginning of women's suffrage and equal rights more broadly. Those old slogs still have remnants at work today (as well as opponents at work today).

The slogs discussed here did have clear tipping points: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Nineteenth Amendment. I don't know if this one will, but my guess is that it will. Hopefully that tipping point will come soon, but it's not on the horizon yet.

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