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The Planet Can't Wait

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The warnings are coming from frogs and beetles, from melting ice and changing ocean currents, and from scientists and responsible politicians around the world. And yet what is the U.S. government doing about global warming? Nothing. That should shock the conscience of Americans.

Actually, the Bush administration's policy is worse than doing nothing. It has resisted efforts by other nations to discuss new actions that could reduce emissions of carbon dioxide before the global climate reaches a disastrous tipping point. And it muzzles administration scientists to keep them from warning about the seriousness of the issue. The administration's position is that more research is needed -- and then, as evidence grows that humans are adding to global warming, it calls for still more research.

Congress is no better. Most members apparently are waiting for permission from lobbyists and campaign contributors before getting serious about climate change. The McCain-Lieberman bill to cap emissions languishes in the Senate; Pete Domenici, the powerful chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, has issued a white paper calling for ideas for legislation, but there's no word when a bill might emerge from his committee. Meanwhile, the Senate environment committee is also claiming jurisdiction. So what we have in the Senate is a turf fight. And don't even talk about the House. Maybe members would get interested if they thought Dubai was behind global warming.

Giant corporations such as General Electric and Citigroup have concluded that global warming is real, and they are beginning to mobilize their resources to do something about it. This business activism may offer the best hope of moving government off its duff. I asked Tom Donohue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and one of Washington's savviest political operators, when he might commit his organization's considerable clout to taking action on this issue. He's still in the "needs more study" mode, but he added, "When the time is right, we'll be as helpful as we can." Hey, Tom, the time is right.

Every week brings new evidence that global climate change is real and that it's advancing more rapidly than scientists had expected. This past week brought a report in Science that the Antarctic is losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year. Last month researchers reported that glaciers in Greenland are melting twice as fast as previously estimated. One normally cautious scientist, Richard Alley, told The Post's Juliet Eilperin he was concerned about the Antarctic findings, since just five years ago scientists had been expecting more ice. "That's a wake-up call," he said. "We better figure out what's going on."

Animals don't have the luxury of ordering up more studies of global warming. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reported in January that colorful harlequin frogs found in Latin America are dying at alarming rates because of a fungus that seems to be linked to global warming. Doug Struck explained last week in The Post that climate change is helping the ravenous mountain pine beetle devour forests in British Columbia, killing more trees than wildfires or logging. Similar findings are stacked in a depressing pile in my study that keeps getting taller.

And now we come to the Bush administration -- the folks who once warned that it would be folly to wait so long for evidence that the "smoking gun" might be a mushroom cloud. Their spirit of vigilance was applied to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist -- but not to climate change, which does. In a meeting in Montreal last December, the chief American delegate, Harlan L. Watson, got so peeved about a proposal for new global "mechanisms" to carry out the 1992 Kyoto Protocol that he walked out. The American side relented after the wording was softened to "opportunities," and there's now at least a hope for future talks about talks about global warming.

But woe unto any administration official who becomes so concerned about global warming that he actually tries to sound the alarm. James E. Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA, found that political minders at NASA headquarters had ordered a review of his lectures, papers, interviews and Internet postings after he called for quick reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to ease global warming. A 24-year-old former Bush campaign worker who allegedly had been involved in efforts to muzzle Hansen later resigned -- after reports surfaced that he had fudged his résumé.

Usually, America's political antics are forgivable, but not on this issue. As evidence grows that human activity is accelerating dangerous changes in the world's climate, the Bush administration's excuses for inaction are running out. History will not forgive political leaders who failed to act on this issue, and neither should voters.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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