In Congress there is a deadlock on whether the U.S. should do something about global warming.
But outside Washington, in state capitols, business boardrooms, in churches and universities, America is making up its mind. And what Americans are deciding is that global warming is a serious problem, it is here now, and it would be smart to deal with it carefully, in measured steps, in order to avoid drastic alternatives later.
We live in a world where scientific questions occupy a large part of our agenda. Is nuclear power safe? Are some pain-killers dangerous? What are the odds of an asteroid hitting the Earth? What is unusual about global warming is the strong core consensus among reputable scientists, both American and international, that climate change is a serious problem, and that the penalty for not acting very soon will almost certainly include:
- Driving our climate to more severe weather extremes.
- Damage our coastal and low-lying areas in the form of flooding.
- A loss of agricultural capacity due to increased heat stress and reduced yield.
- A squeeze on water supplies to our cities and farms through the loss of mountain snowpack.
- Interruptions to the marine life-chain caused by temperature and chemical changes in the oceans.
Europe, Japan, Russia and others have now committed to reduce greenhouse gases under a plan that mandates a first round of reductions, allows countries and industries to trade reduction allowances in order to achieve their targets efficiently, and thus rewards economic efficiency and technological ingenuity.
Ironically, this system -- which President Bush rejects as a way to deal with global warming -- was invented in the United States and enacted under the first President Bush, and has worked superbly over the past 15 years to cut back sulfur dioxide and acid rain in this country. Then, as now, the usual wails were raised as some industries said the sulfur dioxide caps would impose backbreaking costs and jeopardize jobs; neither turned out to be true.
Global competitiveness also figures into the global warming challenge. Americans do best when we compete aggressively in the world economy and draw on our deep traditions of innovation and disciplined management. We have suffered when we turned a blind eye to problems or tried to hide behind walls of protectionism or denial. Most of the developed world recognizes that we have entered the era of carbon limits; many American business leaders understand this as well.
There are jobs, growth and profits to be had by mastering, rather than hiding from, the new greenhouse-friendly technologies and America should have its share of them. It makes no sense in terms of either economic competitiveness or climate stability for the U.S. to be trying to derail the first planetary effort to prevent run-away global warming.
What forces in the United States have lined up against doing anything about global warming?
It is a familiar crowd. The coal industry figures prominently among them. Many electric utilities are against it, although some of their leaders privately acknowledge that something has to be done. Many of the right-wing think tanks have inveighed against doing anything; some of this polemic has been quietly financed by Exxon/Mobil.
But Americans are coming to understand that this issue affects us all -- our common future and our children. The Herald editorial of February 27 explained the situation elegantly. And while Washington languishes in temporary stalemate, in the rest of the country the logjam is breaking up.
Several utilities in the American west now require an ''adder'' of several dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emitted in assessing the cost of power generated by fossil fuels. Christianity Today, a widely read evangelical magazine, editorialized in favor of the bill by Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman to establish modest carbon limits. California has enacted a bill to limit future carbon emissions from automobiles, and a group of nine New England states is close to enacting a carbon limit on power plants.
Global warming is here, and it will have severe -- possibly catastrophic -- consequences if we do not reverse it. The way to avoid economic disruption and huge costs later is to start now with measured steps to curb the greenhouse gases that are unbalancing the only climate we've got.
Peter C. Goldmark is director of the climate and air program for Environmental Defense. He served previously as publisher of the International Herald Tribune and president of the Rockefeller Foundation.
© 2005 the Miami Herald