Experts Talk Climate at the Met

The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature hosted a star-studded panel discussion last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, investigating the question that's on everyone's mind these days: what can we do about global warming? The program, titled "The Weather Report: What Can We Do?" featured leading scientists and writers such as James Hansen, Andrew Revkin and Bill McKibben. The discussion barreled past its posted 9:30 pm deadline and, judging by the excitement of the panelists, could have continued on into the night.

Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie's World and co-founder of the environmental Sophie Prize, began the evening. Gaarder posed a brilliant metaphor, comparing carbon in our atmosphere to a genie that has escaped from a lamp. Before the Industrial Revolution, Gaarder imagined, this "genie" screamed from inside the lamp, "Let me out!" Now the genie has escaped, and we are desperately trying to push him back inside.

James Hansen spoke next, with the dispassionate certainty of a scientist who has been looking at the causes and implications of global warming for over thirty years. Hansen, who recently published the book "Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity," advocates a tax on oil, gas and coal that would require the industry to pay for its own damages. As long as fossil fuels are cheap, he says, people will use them, a practice that unequivocally must be stopped.

Bill McKibben agreed with Hansen that a new way of thinking about energy production and use is long overdue. The global warming ship has sailed, he said, and since stopping its progress completely is impossible, we need to find ways to mitigate and adapt. We have made the earth "a different place already," McKibben said, "and it will get much different still."

Even so, McKibben is far from disillusioned. The interest and excitement generated from his international campaign ("350" being the parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere scientists say is a tipping point against stabilizing global warming) has reinforced his belief that the will exists to put the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions.

Andrew Revkin, drawing from a long career as an environmental reporter, introduced some sobering statistics toward the end of the evening. People living in the United States, Revkin said, have a higher per capita carbon footprint than any other population in the world. Each U.S. citizen is responsible for about 20 tons of carbon annually, compared with 10 tons per person in Europe, and about 6 tons in India and China. Even if all countries agreed to either shrink or cap per capita carbon output at 6 tons, 2050's projected population of 9 billion people would still be spewing 54 billion tons of CO2 each year into the atmosphere. Although green technologies and political treaties are steps in the right direction, Revkin's math communicated the inevitable message that globally, we are facing this challenge together, and no one solution alone will do the trick.

Early in the evening, Bill McKibben called climate change the "greatest problem humans have ever faced by far." Sitting in the auditorium at the Met last night, it seemed possible that we are up to the challenge, and we will commit to real changes and solutions. But waking up this morning to news of oil gushing toward the coast off the Gulf of Mexico, and commuting through NYC's overstuffed shopping district in bumper-to-bumper traffic, those solutions seemed less possible, and the gravity of the task ahead more clear.