The Tipping Point

by Patrick Appel

Charles Homans profiles Henry Waxman and his climate change bill

In many respects, where climate change is now looks a lot like where tobacco was in the early ’90s. Public opinion was cautiously on Waxman’s side then, narrowly favoring limits on smoking and regulation of the industry. Waxman spent the next fifteen years patiently battling to shift the political consensus, leveraging broad but shallow popular support against a small but determined opposition. But if the fight over climate change looks too much like the fight over tobacco, we’re in trouble, because here are the brutal facts:
The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changethe gold standard of conservative risk assessmentadvises that governments start curbing emissions no later than three years from now. Delaying any further will undermine what may be the final chance to stabilize temperatures below a level that will otherwise become catastrophic within the next century. Most climatologists believe that if moderately ambitious targets on the order of Waxman’s bill are not met by 2020, we will be helpless to stop warming trends before they hit a tipping point, beyond which there is nothing we can do. Officials and staffers close to the negotiating process admit that digging in and fighting for fifteen years is not an option this time around.