Changing Climate on Climate

Monday, October 30, 2006

AFTER THE coming election, President Bush is likely to face a Congress more apt than the current one to take strong action on climate change. He will then face a fateful choice: Does he want to spend his final two years in office blocking action and pretending that voluntary curbs on greenhouse gases will solve the problem of global warming, or does he want to help shape solutions? At some point, conservatives will need to reconcile themselves to the problem of climate change. Some leading Republicans -- Arizona Sen. John McCain and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, most notably -- have already taken strong stands on the question. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the intransigence of Mr. Bush's administration on climate change will long survive his tenure, no matter who succeeds him. Will he take a hand in developing America's response to this global problem, or will he go down as the president who fiddled while Greenland melted?

An engaged president could do much to change the political climate on climate -- which is already changing around Mr. Bush. It will take presidential leadership to put in place the sort of regulatory infrastructure necessary, over the long run, to move away from fossil fuels. Federal policy must put a price on emitting carbon into the atmosphere so that companies have an incentive to sequester carbon emissions and to develop energy sources that don't increase atmospheric greenhouse concentrations. This probably can't happen without a president willing to put his prestige and time into the issue.

Even short of a dramatic new initiative, Mr. Bush could alleviate the country's addiction to carbon by encouraging energy efficiency. His administration has already taken constructive steps on fuel economy standards, but those standards remain insufficiently ambitious. Likewise, a huge percentage of buildings in this country will be refurbished or replaced in the coming decades; aggressively pushing design features that maximize energy savings would reduce energy use enormously without much pain.

Ultimately, strong steps have to be taken; the chances of catastrophic consequences of global warming are too high to ignore. The longer policymakers wait, the more wrenching economically and culturally the steps are likely to prove. Mr. Bush spent his first six years emphasizing the undeniable need for more research; in his final two years, he could finally embrace the need to act.

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