Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environmentby James Gustave Speth
This book will change the way we understand the future of our planet. It is both alarming and hopeful. James Gustave Speth, renowned as a visionary environmentalist leader, warns that in spite of all the international negotiations and agreements of the past two decades, efforts to protect Earth's environment are not succeeding. Still, he says, the challenges are not insurmountable. He offers comprehensive, viable new strategies for dealing with environmental threats around the world. The author explains why current approaches to critical global environmental problems -- climate change, biodiversity loss, deterioration of marine environments, deforestation, water shortages, and others -- don't work now and won't work in the future. He provides a stinging critique of the failure of U.S. leadership and offers intriguing insights into why we have been able to address domestic environmental threats with some success while largely failing at the international level. Setting forth eight specific steps to a sustainable future, Speth convincingly argues that dramatically different and far-reaching actions by citizens and governments are now urgent. If ever a book could be described as "essential," this is it.
“Gus Speth brought global environmental concerns to the world’s attention nearly a quarter of a century ago. His extraordinary new book is an impassioned plea to take these issues seriously before it is too late. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to read Red Sky at Morning and take action while we can.”Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States
“The ultimate insider offers a devastating critique of global environmental efforts.”Eugene Linden, Time
“A profoundly sobering study . . . of the nation’s failure to address the probability of global warming.”New York Times Book Review
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Red Sky at MorningAmerica and the Crisis of the Global Environment
By James Gustave Speth
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2004 James Gustave Speth
All right reserved.
What did the president know, and when did he know it? Senator Howard Baker, Watergate hearings, 1973
Red Sky at Morning tells a story, and we are its authors. The plot is driven by human propagation and poverty and even more by a vast and growing world economy. There is a beleaguered heroine, Mother Earth. The story's ending has not yet been written. There are two possible outcomes, one tragic and one not. A global crisis has unfolded quickly, and, as in classic Greek tragedy, we have been told what the future may hold, but so far we seem unable to step from the path to disaster that has been mapped out for us. The last act is about to begin.
A quarter century ago, scientists and others sounded the alarm regarding a set of linked threats to the global environment. Governments were put on notice, and, indeed, they acknowledged the issues and the need to address them. An "agenda" of large-scale threats was widely agreed upon and measures were put in place to address them. Yet the rates of environmental deterioration that stirred the international community continue essentially unabated today. The disturbing trends persist, and the problems have become deeper and truly urgent. The steps that governments took over the past two decades represent the first attempt at global environmental governance. It is an experiment that has largely failed.
It would be comforting to think that all the international negotiations, summit and conference agreements, conventions and protocols have at least got us to the point where we are now prepared to act decisively-comforting but wrong. The problems have gone from bad to worse; we are not yet prepared to deal with them; and many countries around the world lack the leadership to get prepared.
My exposure to global-scale environmental concerns began in mid-1977 when President Jimmy Carter asked the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of State to prepare a report on "probable changes in the world's population, natural resources and environment through the end of the century." I was one of the three members of CEQ at that time and would later become its chair. It was a daunting assignment that took us several years to complete.
While our interagency team was working away, I was approached by Gordon MacDonald, a top environmental scientist, and Rafe Pomerance, then president of Friends of the Earth. They were seeking my help in calling wide attention to an emerging problem that I was just beginning to understand-global climate disruption. I promised to take the matter to the president if they would prepare a reliable, scientifically credible memorandum on the problem. It was not long before the report was on my desk, signed by four distinguished American scientists-David Keeling, Roger Revelle, and George Woodwell, in addition to MacDonald. Its contents were alarming. The report predicted "a warming that will probably be conspicuous within the next twenty years," and it called for early action: "Enlightened policies in the management of fossil fuels and forests can delay or avoid these changes, but the time for implementing the policies is fast passing." The year was 1979.
I soon presented the report to President Carter and others in his administration. The new Department of Energy reacted negatively. It was promoting a massive program of synthetic fuels to be made from coal, tar sands, and oil shale, and these synthetic fuels would produce more climate-altering gases than most other energy technologies. DOE promptly produced a countermemorandum.
The administration responded by asking the National Academy of Sciences to assess the scientific basis for concern about man-made climate change. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Jule Charney led the NAS review, and the "Charney Report" was published in late 1979. Its findings supported those in the report I had received at CEQ. The chair of the NAS's Climate Research Board summarized them: "The conclusions of this brief but intense investigation may be comforting to scientists but disturbing to policymakers. If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible. The conclusions of prior studies have been generally reaffirmed. However, the study group points out that the ocean, the great and ponderous flywheel of the global climate system, may be expected to slow the course of observable climatic change. A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late."
Emboldened, we at CEQ focused our most intense scrutiny on the issue of global climate disruption. In my foreword to our report, prepared in 1980, we sought to explain the climate disruption issue and its seriousness to a large audience:
"In recent decades the concentration of carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) in the atmosphere has been increasing in a manner that corresponds closely with the increasing global use of fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels -oil, natural gas, and coal-releases carbon dioxide, about one-half of which appears to be retained in the atmosphere. The permanent clearing of forests and the decay of soil humus may also be net sources of carbon dioxide.
"Atmospheric carbon dioxide plays a critical role in warming the earth; it absorbs heat radiation from the earth's surface, trapping it and preventing it from dissipating into space. As the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, more of the earth's radiated heat is trapped. Many scientists now believe that, if global fossil fuel use grows rapidly in the decades ahead, the accompanying carbon dioxide increases will lead to profound and long-term alteration of the earth's climate. These climatic changes, in turn, could have far-reaching adverse consequences, affecting our ability to feed a hungry and increasingly crowded world, the habitability of coastal areas and cities, and the preservation of natural areas as we know them today....
"The carbon dioxide issue may present the ultimate environmental dilemma. Collective judgments of historic and possibly unique importance must be made-by decision or default-largely on the basis of scientific models that have severe limitations and that few can understand. To some, the competing factors will be seen as whether to provide the energy needed for economic and military security or whether to protect humanity from a distant and uncertain threat that currently affects no one. Further, addressing that threat will require a global effort in a world where international cooperation on the scale that may be required is seldom achieved.
"Yet, with atmospheric carbon dioxide already increasing and the pressures here and abroad to expand fossil fuel use, the world economy is well on its way to performing a great planetary experiment. Before the first results are known, our children and future generations may well have been irrevocably committed to an altered world-one that could be better in some respects but that also involves unprecedented risks.
"Clearly, a deeper appreciation of the risks of a carbon dioxide buildup should spread to leaders of government and business and to the general public. The carbon dioxide problem should be taken seriously in new ways: it should become a factor in making energy policy and not simply be the subject of scientific investigation. Every effort should be made to ensure that nations are not compelled to choose between the risks of energy shortages and the risks of carbon dioxide. This goal requires making a priority commitment here and abroad to energy efficiency and to renewable energy resources; it also requires avoiding a commitment to fossil fuels that would preclude holding carbon dioxide to tolerable levels. Steps should also be taken to slow the disturbing global deforestation now under way, particularly in the tropics, and to encourage the regrowth of forests....
"One imperative we share is to protect the integrity of our fragile craft and the security of its passengers for the duration of our voyage. With our limited knowledge of its workings, we should not experiment with its great systems in a way that imposes unknown and potentially large risks on future generations. In particular, we cannot presume that, in order to decide whether to proceed with the carbon dioxide experiment, we can accurately assess the long-term costs and benefits of unprecedented changes in global climate.
"Whatever the consequences of the carbon dioxide experiment for humanity over the long term, our duty to exercise a conserving and protecting restraint extends as well to the community of life-animal and plant-that evolved here with us. There are limits beyond which we should not go in disrupting or changing this community of life, which, after all, we did not create. Although our dominion over the earth may be nearly absolute, our right to exercise it is not.
These observations are more than twenty years old. For more than two decades even nongeniuses like myself have known not only the gravity of the climate challenge but also more or less what to do about it. And, of course, little has been done. We are still struggling to achieve international agreement on the first treaty with any teeth in it-the Kyoto Protocol-and it is only a beginning.
What can one conclude from this? Most obviously, current and past leaders have done a poor job on the climate change issue. We need to understand why. Once that is appreciated, we can figure out how to make the future different. If I were a young person being handed this problem by indulgent predecessors, I would be angry. For twenty years thoughtful people and intelligent leaders should have known that we needed to get busy. Precious time has been wasted. And now a new generation has been given a climate problem that is deeper and more difficult. Climate is already changing-nine of the ten hottest years since record-keeping began have occurred since 1990-and the time to begin responsive action has long passed.
The defenders of business-as-usual on climate change began twenty years ago by telling us that concern about global warming was not scientifically justified. A decade later they said, yes, concern is justified, but we have ample time to solve the problem. Now they are saying it is too late to prevent major climate change, and our best strategy is to adapt to it. Remarkably, the Bush administration moved through this string of evasions in half a presidential term. By contrast, the Clinton administration, which preceded it, acknowledged the problem from the outset but let eight years pass by doing little about it, although in fairness much of the blame must rest with Congress.
But global-scale environmental challenges truly moved into American politics when the broader report that President Carter had requested was released in 1980 as The Global 2000 Report to the President. We presented the trends that might unfold between 1980 and 2000 in population and environment if societies continued their business-as-usual approach. Already referred to by some critics as "Bad News Jimmy," President Carter showed courage in supporting this big dollop of gloom and doom in an election year.
From today's perspective, we can look back and see what actually happened. Unfortunately, many of our projections proved correct, at least approximately. Global 2000 projected that population would grow from 4.5 billion to 6.3 billion by 2000. The actual number was 6.1 billion, so we were more or less on target. The report projected that deforestation in the tropics would occur at rates in excess of an acre a second, and for twenty years, an acre a second is what has happened. It projected that 15 to 20 percent of all species could be extinct by 2000, mostly due to tropical deforestation. Biologists Stuart Pimm and Peter Raven have estimated conservatively that there are about seven million species of plants and animals. Two-thirds of these species are in the tropics, largely in the forests. They have estimated that about half the tropical forests have been lost and, with them, that about 15 percent of tropical forest species have already been doomed. So there is evidence that our species loss estimate was perhaps high but not far off the mark.
Global 2000 projected that about six million hectares a year of dry-lands, an area about the size of Maine, would be rendered nearly barren by the various processes we describe as desertification. And that continues to be a decent estimate today.
We predicted: "Rising C[O.sub.2] concentrations are of concern because of their potential for causing a warming of the earth.... If the projected rates of increase in fossil fuel combustion ... were to continue, the doubling of the C[O.sub.2] content of the atmosphere could be expected after the middle of the next century ... The result could be significant alterations of precipitation patterns around the world, and a 2 degree to 3 degree Celsius rise in temperatures in the middle latitudes of the earth." Twenty-three years later, this description still falls neatly within the range of current estimates.
I present these numbers not to pat our Global 2000 team on the back. Some projections, like those on the prices of food and minerals, Global 2000 got wrong, and the report had many shortcomings. But on most of the big issues of population and environment, the report pointed to the trends and the consequences. Other reports-from the United Nations Environment Programme, the Worldwatch Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, and elsewhere-were saying much the same around this time. In short, the basics about emerging global-scale environmental concerns were known a quarter-century ago. Political leaders then and since have been on notice that there was a new environmental agenda-more global, more threatening, and more difficult than the predominantly domestic agenda that spurred the environmental awakening of the late 1960s and the first Earth Day in 1970.
Global 2000 also called attention to the important ramifications of environmental decline for human security and social stability, noting that environmental threats "are inextricably linked to some of the most perplexing and persistent problems in the world-poverty, injustice and social conflict." "Vigorous, determined new initiatives are needed if worsening poverty and human suffering, environmental degradation, and international tensions and conflicts are to be prevented," it concluded.
Excerpted from Red Sky at Morning by James Gustave Speth Copyright © 2004 by James Gustave Speth. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Gustave Speth is dean and professor in the practice of environmental policy and sustainable development at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University. He founded and was president of the World Resources Institute, co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, served as adviser on environmental issues for Presidents Carter and Clinton, and was chief executive officer of the United Nations Development Programme. For his role in bringing the global warming issue to wide public attention, Speth was recently awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize.
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