But Markey isn't there just to talk about disaster response or building seawalls in Boston Harbor. He's there to demonstrate his seriousness on confronting climate change, an issue that had until that week gone all but unmentioned in the election campaign and in the mainstream political media.
"As the Minutemen responded, so must we," Markey tells his audience, calling for an unspecified "bold plan" from Washington to cut greenhouse emissions and prevent future "devastation." Global warming, if unaddressed, could lead to "events so horrific," he says, that they could "dwarf" other catastrophes in human history. In his final remarks, Markey intones, with what sounds like real passion:
"The American Revolution, it started here. The abolitionist movement, it started here. The women's movement, it started here. The anti-Vietnam movement, it started here. . . . The Freedom Riders, going South in the '60s, they left on buses from here. . . . [Global warming] is our generational challenge. The preceding generations accepted their challenges."
I was at Arlington Town Hall that Sunday in November, and I had to wonder: if Markey was as serious as he sounded about climate change, what kind of "bold" action would match the necessity of the moment and his rhetoric invoking the grand radical tradition in American history?
Certainly nothing that he or any other politician in Washington, including (especially) President Obama, has ever proposed comes anywhere close. Even the doomed 2009 "cap-and-trade" bill that Markey co-authored — the strongest, indeed the only, comprehensive national climate legislation ever to pass either chamber of Congress — aimed merely to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (the same amount, as it happens, that Obama meekly pledged at the failed UN climate talks in Copenhagen that year). Compare that with what the scientific consensus, as represented by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says is required if we're to have a chance of stabilizing the climate: at least 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. (Using the internationally recognized 1990 baseline, the Obama-Waxman-Markey target would amount to a roughly 4 percent reduction by 2020.) Those emissions targets are based on the IPCC's most recent assessment, published in 2007, and its new report — due to be published later this year and next — is expected to paint a far darker picture. Global emissions are setting new records, currently rising roughly 3 percent per year.
Around the time that Markey spoke in Arlington, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, and PricewaterhouseCoopers were releasing reports that would surely have been called "alarmist" if issued by climate advocates. (As it happened, the reports were barely mentioned by major news outlets.) The generally conservative IEA affirmed that at least two-thirds of proven fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground between now and 2050 in order to have a shot at keeping the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 F), the internationally agreed-upon "red line." (In its 2011 report, the IEA concluded that unless a massive global shift to clean-energy infrastructure begins in earnest within five years — make that four now — we'll be "locked in" to catastrophic warming.) The World Bank warned that we're on track for 4 degrees C (7.2 F) this century — which it says is quite likely beyond adaptation, and "must be avoided." The analysts at PwC, in a report titled "Too Late for Two Degrees?," concluded that we've "passed a critical threshold," and that we should prepare for 4 degrees, or even 6 degrees (10.8 F), this century, unless the carbon-intensity of the global economy can be reduced by an unprecedented 5 percent per year for the next 40 years.