Warming to the Inconvenient Facts

Washington feels the heat: A Bolivian tourist cools off in a spray mister at the National Zoo last week.
Washington feels the heat: A Bolivian tourist cools off in a spray mister at the National Zoo last week. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Global warming is having its moment in the sun. The climate crisis is on "60 Minutes" and in Tom Brokaw's new documentary, on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and in Al Gore's new movie and best-selling book. But while polls show that most Americans now believe that global warming is real and significantly manmade -- in 100-degree Washington last week, it felt more real than ever -- they are much less concerned about the issue than non-Americans, and much less willing to support dramatic action to address it.

The problem is, most scientists now believe dramatic action is necessary to prevent a climate catastrophe. They warn that unless humans can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent, global warming could threaten the habitability of the earth. That's the inconvenient part of "An Inconvenient Truth." And when Gore's critics complain that such drastic reductions would require an assault on our way of life, they're telling the truth, too.

But what if Americans decided that such changes truly were necessary?

If our get-serious rhetoric on climate change were to be more than a new form of low-carbon emissions, we would have to change not only the way we live and the way we drive, but the way we think about political issues. And not only the politics of energy and the environment. If the scientists are right about an apocalyptic future of floods, droughts, dead coral reefs, rising sea levels and advancing deserts, global warming is an existential threat that should affect our approach to just about every issue. To take it seriously, we would have to change the way we think about transportation, agriculture, development, water resources, natural disasters, foreign relations and more.

It is possible to imagine a climate-conscious politics that would stretch far beyond the modest carbon reductions we rejected in the Kyoto Protocol, a politics where a policy's atmospheric costs would be evaluated along with its fiscal costs, a politics of inconvenient truths. In fact, the path to that politics is already starting to emerge, with talk inside the Beltway and action outside it.

President Bush recently decided to overturn decades of bipartisan U.S. policy by cooperating with Russia on nuclear energy issues. "We need alternatives to hydrocarbons," his assistant energy secretary explained.

Bush is no climate convert; he's more concerned with enlisting Russia's support against Iran and promoting America's nuclear industry. But it's notable how his administration made its case. Nuclear power is problematic in many ways, but it doesn't contribute to the greenhouse effect, so its supporters now make greenhouse arguments. Similarly, the sugar industry now defends its controversial price supports from the government by noting that its cane can be converted into ethanol. And the Army Corps of Engineers defends questionable navigation projects that ravage rivers to ease the way for a few barges by bragging about how many gas-guzzling trucks each barge takes off the road. Come 2008, when presidential candidates start pandering about corn ethanol in Iowa, they'll surely say they're trying to save the Earth.

Climate change may not always elevate the debate in Washington, but it is changing the debate, even on seemingly tangential issues. For if we take climate change seriously, there aren't many tangential issues. We emit greenhouse gases whenever we use fuel or electricity -- when we drive or fly, heat or cool our homes, grow or manufacture or transport our products. And government policies can encourage more or less of those activities in more or less greenhouse-friendly ways.

The obvious place to start is energy: The U.S. government provides about $25 billion in annual subsidies to fossil-fuel industries; environmentalists hope to eliminate them, or shift them into wind and solar power, energy-efficient appliances and other clean technologies. The United States also has lax fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which produce nearly one-third of our emissions; Japan's requirements are twice as stringent, and even China's are tougher. And the United States has yet to regulate carbon, or even make a commitment to cut emissions; by contrast, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have pledged reductions of 50 percent, 60 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

But the debate is gradually starting to shift. Kyoto is still a bad word on Capitol Hill, but momentum is slowly building for modest carbon regulations pushed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) introduced a bill Thursday that envisions 80 percent reductions by 2050. Few U.S. politicians are willing even to think about higher fuel taxes in a time of soaring gas prices, but there is talk of higher fuel-efficiency standards.

In the future, though, the climate debate will be much more than an energy debate. We would need cleaner power and fuel to cut emissions, but we would also need to use less power and fuel. That would require changes to our energy-gorging routines -- more biking, walking, carpooling, telecommuting and mass transit; smarter growth patterns; less energy-intensive agriculture; more recycling; less waste. We would need an ecologically sustainable economy, not the current cheap-oil-based one that Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown calls the "throwaway economy."

This is where climate consciousness really gets inconvenient. For example, a climate-conscious transportation policy might target the 2.3 billion gallons of oil that Americans waste idling in traffic every year by funding commuter rail, bike paths and other alternatives to cars. A climate-conscious development policy might discourage sprawling subdivisions, instead promoting high-density neighborhoods that would reduce distances for commutes, as well as smaller homes that would require less energy to heat and cool. A climate-conscious agriculture policy might encourage organic farms, local produce and other efforts to reduce energy-intense irrigation, tilling, fertilizer and pesticide use, and long-distance shipping. A climate-conscious forestry policy might reward landowners who plant carbon-absorbing trees. A climate-conscious foreign policy -- if we ever got a handle on our own emissions -- could encourage other nations, especially fast-growing countries such as India and China, to act responsibly. And a climate-conscious campaign finance policy might seek to blunt the power of fossil-fuel industries.


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