If you want to know just how far the United States has drifted from the global conversation on key environmental issues, consider a speech that was given this month — and one that wasn't.
Michael Howard, leader of Britain's Conservative Party, attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair for his stance on global warming. Blair wasn't doing enough, Howard said. Carbon emissions weren't falling with sufficient speed; the Labor Party was too focused on wind-power development and ignoring the energy-producing potential of tidal, solar and biomass technology. "Promoting greener behavior need not hold back economic growth or restrict choice," the Tory chief said. "But the longer we delay action, the harder it will be to achieve the outcome."
The point is not that Blair is bad on the environment (he shot back with a speech of his own, pledging that the country would meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions 20% by 2010). The point is that it's more or less impossible to imagine any U.S. conservative leader rising to demand that Americans take tidal power more seriously, that we start spending some real cash on biomass.
President Bush, though he's talked plenty about the suffering of hurricane victims in Florida and the Gulf Coast, hasn't even mentioned the idea that such storms presage havoc ahead if we don't quickly address climate change. No one can say that hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne were "caused" by global warming, but the scientific consensus is clear that ocean water will warm and sea levels will rise in the next few decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative scientific body on the issue, stated in its last report that researchers had "high confidence" that global warming would result in enhanced coastal erosion, coastal flooding, loss of coastal wetlands and increased risk from storm surge. Particularly in Florida and much of the U.S. Atlantic coast.
As people hunkered down from Apalachicola to Grand Isle, one might have thought that it was a teachable moment. But that assumes our leaders take the problem seriously, and clearly they don't. Bush abrogated the Kyoto accord, an international global warming treaty, within weeks of taking office and since then has steadfastly ignored the issue. Though Blair's government has put forward plans to cut carbon emissions 50% by 2050, Vice President Dick Cheney's energy plan for this country foresees a 20% increase in our CO2 output over the next generation. Even strong environmentalists like John Kerry are a little cowed — he's barely mentioned his green credentials in the campaign, almost certainly for fear of being perceived as too liberal.
In a global context, there's no question which nation is out of touch. The British debate could be happening in any European capital, where politicians of all stripes now take it for granted that the environment and, in particular, global warming are consensus issues. In Berlin or Tokyo, you'd no more oppose action on climate change than you'd oppose cracking down on crime. And the results are showing. Japan is leading in the installation of solar power technology. Wind energy is the fastest-growing source of electricity in the world, because the Germans and the Danes and the British and others are putting up windmills as fast as they can. The U.S., which for a century led the world in environmental concern and environmental technology, now trails far behind.
There are plenty of reasons the U.S. has fallen into this state: Our political system magnifies the power of coal, oil and automotive interests (West Virginia and Michigan are both in the battleground category in the presidential election); our sprawling suburbs make trains more difficult to operate than they are in Europe.
But at a deeper level, it's as if we've decided there's no need to listen; that as the last superpower left standing, surely the laws of physics and chemistry don't apply to us. In fact, it's clear that the world now views us chiefly as an obstacle. The Tory leader's gravest charge against Blair was that he had failed to get the U.S. on board in the fight for global warming.
It's clear that foreign entreaties won't change the administration's mind on climate change any more than they altered its plans for the war on Iraq. Only American voters can accomplish that.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author of "The End of Nature" (Anchor, 1999).
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