450 Ways to Stop Global Warming

There's no denying the Earth is getting hotter. Now we just have to draw a line in the sand.

The most important number on Earth is almost certainly 450. And just as certainly, it's not a number that means much to most policymakers. Not yet, anyway.

Everyone without a severe ideological kink knows by now that global warming is a looming problem. Even in the United States, two decades of energy industry disinformation is finally wearing off: Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gore have finally blown most doubt away. But many fewer people realize either the real magnitude of the problem or the speed with which it may be bearing down on us.

Here's the short course. Before the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was roughly 280 parts per million. CO2, by virtue of its molecular structure, regulates how much of the sun's energy stays trapped in our narrow envelope of atmosphere -- Mars, which has very little, is cold; Venus, with a lot, is hellish. We were in a sweet spot, where human civilization developed and thrived. But as we burned coal, gas, and oil, the extra carbon dioxide that combustion produced began to accumulate in the atmosphere. By the late 1950s, when people first started to measure it, atmospheric concentrations were already above 315 parts per million. Now, that number has reached 380 parts per million, and its rise has accelerated: In recent years, we've been adding about 2 parts per million annually to the atmosphere. And, predictably, the temperature has begun to rise.

Twenty years ago, when global warming first came to public consciousness, no one knew precisely how much carbon dioxide was too much. The early computer climate models made a number of predictions about what would happen if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 550 parts per million. But, in recent years, as the science has gotten more robust, scientists have tended to put the red line right around 450 parts per million. That's where NASA's James Hansen, America's foremost climatologist, has said we need to stop if we want to avoid a temperature rise greater than two degrees Celsius. Why would two degrees be a magic number? Because as best we can tell, it's where the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets would become rapid and irrevocable. The ice above Greenland alone contains about 23 feet of sea-level rise, which is more than enough to alter the Earth almost beyond recognition.

So far, the diplomatic effort to do something powerful about climate change has been blocked by a couple of factors. One is the complete intransigence of the United States, where 5 percent of us produce a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide. But assuming that the next president finally gets us on some kind of new course, the international negotiations that could then resume in earnest will still be hampered by the lack of a real and understandable goal. The Kyoto treaty was as much about process as outcome -- it began to build the plumbing for an international system of carbon controls. But the time was not yet ripe to set a real, urgent, ultimate target for that work.

That time has now come. Instead of vague promises about taking global warming seriously, we need numbers. It will be incredibly difficult to stop at 450 parts per million -- it will require large-scale technological and social change, with the investments of financial and political capital that such shifts imply. Even if we muster that will, we won't solve the problem: The Earth will continue to heat, with fairly dire, if not catastrophic, implications. (There are, it should be added, some scientists who think we've already breached the red lines -- that the Earth's feedback systems are already producing a kind of runaway greenhouse effect.) But without a goal, one that we can track as easily as the Dow Jones average or the size of the gross domestic product, the chances for focused and concentrated progress are almost nil. You’ll know the real statesmen and women of the future -- they'll be the ones with the little gold "450" pin on their lapels. In a very real sense, it may be the only number that counts.


A Patently Simple Idea

Half the world is dying of diseases for which we have the cure. Here's a solution that will cost us nothing.

My favorite underappreciated idea is the brainchild of Jean O. Lanjouw, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who died tragically two years ago. It is an idea that would improve access to medicines in poor countries, cost precisely nothing, and, unlike most plans to improve the world, involve no treaties, summits, or complex international coordination.

During the last half-decade or so, the world has made progress on two fronts of the problem of medical access in poor countries. The first addresses the problem that, even though vaccines for diseases such as polio, yellow fever, and hepatitis B have been around for ages, poor countries can't afford to buy them, and, during the 1990s, vaccine makers stopped manufacturing them. The solution to this lack of consumer power is costly but conceptually simple: Led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aid donors have begun to put money into a vaccine-purchase fund.

The second area of progress concerns the lack of incentive for drug companies to invent new cures for diseases that affect the poor. Practically all of the world's drug development addresses the health concerns of rich people: Of the 1,233 drugs licensed worldwide between 1975 and 1997, only 13 targeted tropical diseases. The solution here is "advance market commitments," wherein donors promise to buy a drug that tackles a "poor disease," committing to purchase a set number of doses at a set price. The first such promise was issued in February. Donors declared they would buy drugs to treat pneumococcal disease, a major cause of pneumonia and meningitis that kills 1.6 million people every year.

Lanjouw's idea tackles a third part of the drug-access puzzle. It is aimed at diseases that affect everyone in rich and poor countries alike. For these conditions -- heart disease, cancer, diabetes -- there is plenty of incentive to invent new drugs but little likelihood that any of them will reach poor patients. The drugs are protected by patents, and, thanks to U.S. trade policy, the patents uphold the inventors' monopolies even in developing countries, meaning that nobody can afford them there.

Enter the Lanjouw solution: Amend U.S. patent law so that, as a condition of receiving patent protection in the U.S. market, a drug inventor must renounce patent rights in countries with a per capita income of less than, say, $1,000 per year. It would not destroy incentives for drug invention; innovators would still get monopoly profits in rich markets. Indeed, the patent rights that drug firms would give up are worth nothing to them, because leading cancer cures are not marketed in poor countries.

Lanjouw proposed this tweak to U.S. patent law about six years ago, at around the same time that the advance market commitment idea was first floated. But whereas advance market commitments have become a reality, Lanjouw's proposal never took off. At first, drug companies didn't want to hear about anything that diluted intellectual-property rights, even rights that had no value. Then the Gates Foundation, the main backer of innovative ideas on global health policy, proved similarly leery of the idea -- apparently in the mistaken belief that conditions such as heart disease are rare in poor countries. And then, in 2005, Lanjouw contracted a particularly rare kind of cancer.

Rare diseases don't attract much drug-company investment, so cures tend to be scarce. It is a logic that Jenny understood better than anyone.