Cultural Crossroads: Have We Passed the Point Where Humanity Is Doomed?

James Hansen, the chief climatologist for NASA, is saying we need to reduce CO2 levels fast; they are already too high. Other countries are taking action, but Bush (and McCain) are procrastinating. Is it already too late? In Thom Hartmann’s Air America daily radio broadcast of May 12, 2008, Thom riffs on the latest climate news and views.

John McCain goes to a Danish wind turbine facility to give a speech about global warming. He said a few reasonable things: wind power, let’s bring America closer to energy independence, our economy depends on clean and affordable alternatives to fossil fuels. Some of his language is so nice, and it's sort of like, you know, maybe the free market will fix this problem.

Let me put a parallel analogy, a metaphor, out here. If your house was on fire and somebody came along and said, "You know, if we provided enough of an incentive to private corporations, they could come in and start private for-profit fire departments, we might be able to put this fire out." It's an imperfect metaphor, but here's the bottom line.

"Scientists," now this is David Adam writing in The Guardian, "Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere now stand at 387 parts per million." This is up 40% since the Industrial Revolution. It's the highest in 650,000 years. From 1970 to 2000, the average concentration of carbon dioxide was rising at the rate of 1.5 parts per million per year, but since 2000 it has been rising at 2.1 parts per million per year. What does all that mean?

James Hansen, the chief climatologist for NASA, the guy who really gets all this stuff, has laid this out in a very, very stark report that was issued just last week, and that Bill McKibben is writing about over at You can read his piece called "Civilization’s Last Chance." And Bill McKibben, who, you know, has been an activist in this arena and others for many, many years, a great guy, he says, "We have a new number that we have to worry about and direct our attention to. That new number is 350." Now, why 350 if, right now the world is at 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide? Why 350?

Well this is what James Hansen wrote. This is quoting from a scientific paper by NASA's chief climatologist: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." He suggests that there are six irreversible tipping points that we hit when we go above 350 parts per million, where we are right now, by the way.

There's news reports out that methane, which is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is dramatically starting to surge in our hemisphere. Why? Because huge patches of permafrost, particularly in the northern parts of Russia —Siberia — the Siberian permafrost as well as the Alaskan permafrost and northern Canadian permafrost are melting. And these are in many cases, locked up vegetation that has been frozen for 5, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100,000 years. It's melting and rotting and releasing methane from the rotting process into the atmosphere. This speeds up the warming.

On top of that you've got the polar ice caps that used to reflect 80% of the sunlight that hit them because they were white, now melting and being replaced by blue water which absorbs 80% of the sunlight. This is another one of those tipping points.

Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control] said, "If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

As Bill McKibben writes, "If we did everything right, Hansen says we could see carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly…We might stop just short of some of those tipping points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff. More likely, though," McKibben says, "we’re Wylie Coyote." You know, "whoa!" looking down, because if we really want to make this change, what we have to do, says McKibben, "is make car factories turn out efficient hybrids next year, just the way U.S. automakers made them turn out tanks in six months at the start of World War II." That's the kind of action that is going to be necessary.

Well, John McCain says, "Let's bring the free market in here and maybe we could do something about this by 2050." When he's long dead, many of us will be long dead. Well, many of us older farts, anyway. But the generation of people being born now and young people now, they will still be around, but the planet will no longer be hospitable to life, to us.

At the same time the National Geographic organization did a survey on the environmental impact of consumer habits, Mary Shaw was writing about this at comparing lifestyles in fourteen countries. Who are actually doing the most, and the least, to clean up this global warming mess? They looked at Brazil, India, China, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Spain, Japan, France, Canada and the US. And who is dead last? Us, the US.

And John McCain's solution? He says that we should set a goal that by 2050 the country will reduce carbon emissions. George Bush is saying, "Well, let's start and plan for 2025." To his credit, John McCain took a swipe at Bush. Here’s Glen Johnson writing in the Associated Press. He "took a swipe at President Bush, who balked at the beginning of his term at signing the Kyoto…Protocols. John McCain says, ‘I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears. I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. I will not accept the same dead end of failed diplomacy that claimed Kyoto. The United States will lead and will lead with a different approach — an approach that speaks to the interests and obligations of every nation." But again, his remedy is the so-called free market, and letting profit drive the motive to fix the situation, while other nations around the world are saying, "No, we're going to do something about this right now, immediately."

It wasn't the free market that built the atomic bomb. It wasn't the free market the declared the Manhattan project. It wasn't the free market that built the Eisenhower highway system all across the United States. It wasn't, frankly, the free market to put the rail system in the United States in the 1850s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It was that government that built this infrastructure that made it possible for there to be a rail system. It was the government that built the atomic bomb for better or for worse. It was the government that said we're going to fight World War II, were going to stop Hitler and Tojo.

When you're confronted with a serious crisis, you don't sit back and say, "Well, we're going to let the free market take care of this." Because (A), there is no free market. Look at antibiotics right now. Did you realize there's a bacteria that soldiers are bringing back from Iraq for which there is no cure? That it's one of the leading causes of amputations among GI's who have been wounded because it's multi drug resistant? This is worse than MRSA, the multi drug resistance virus. We need a new antibiotic for it, but it's not going to be developed by the so-called free market. The drug companies aren't interested. They can make more money selling cholesterol medication. They want to sell drugs that people need to use throughout their entire lifetime or for years at a time rather than an antibiotic that somebody takes for two weeks.

Sometimes you have to say, "We the people, in the interest of solving a major crisis, we the people need to get involved." Now is the time. Or as James Hansen of NASA says, "The planet may not be hospitable to life."

Thom Hartmann’s national daily progressive radio talk show, now in its fifth year on the air, is live daily on Air America Radio Network from noon-3 PM ET in Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Grand Rapids, and on over fifty other stations nationwide. He is also a four-time Project Censored-award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. Call into the show at 866-303-2270 or visit for more information.