Flight 447 and the Climate Crisis

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Five years ago tonight, in Rio de Janeiro, 216 passengers and 12 crew members boarded Air France flight 447 bound for Paris. The overnight flight takes about 11 hours. Many passengers would have been sleeping – some stretched out flat and comfortable in business class, others wedged in with their necks aching in economy – when, a couple hours into the flight, a mechanical glitch triggered a tragic string of events.

The probes measuring the plane’s airspeed (pitot tubes) iced up, denying the pilots an accurate airspeed indicator. The autopilot disengaged and the pilot flying struggled a bit to level off the plane. Soon, confusion reigned. Facing an unfamiliar situation, the three pilots suffered from the “startle effect” and never grasped the nature of the problem. They never recognized that they simply lost airspeed indicators. They kept the nose of the plane angled too high, costing the plane speed until it stalled. Then they failed to recognize the stall and kept the plane’s nose too high even as it began to fall to the ocean.

What does this tragedy have to do with climate? It illustrates an important point: recognizing that one faces a crisis is not enough; one must both understand the nature of the underlying problem and respond appropriately. Had the pilots on flight 447 understood the situation and the true nature of the problems they faced, lives would have been saved. Instead, barely more than a minute before the flight crashed, one pilot wondered aloud, “What is… how come we’re continuing to go right down now?”

Are American leaders similarly flailing when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis? For the most part, yes. Most policies adopted thus far have focused on subsidizing renewable energy by means of grants and tax credits. Not only do subsidies burden taxpayers while letting polluters off the hook, more crucially they fail to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change. We are past the point where we can use government largess to encourage responsible behavior – we are now to the point when we need to require (not merely encourage) the market to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, there is still hope for a successful maneuver to regain control of the situation. On Monday, the Obama Administration will unveil new draft regulations to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants. Among other things, the regulations are expected encourage states to participate in existing cap-and-trade programs.

While existing cap-and-trade programs fall far short of the broad based type of system that Pure Cap-and-Dividend would provide, they are at least a step in the right direction. To put a real climate policy in place, we probably need the cooperation of Congress. But let’s hope that the president’s new policy proposal is a big step toward averting the climate disaster before us by moving us toward a Pure Cap-and-Dividend program.