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Global Warming: Through a Glass Darkly

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The Washington DC Sierra Club Symposium on Climate Recovery brought more alarming news about global warming. More carbon is being consumed and increasing amounts of CO2 are being emitted. Temperatures are rising, as is the sea level. Plant and animal species are dying. The pace of deforestation and desertification is increasing. Humans are threatened with extinction. The question that vexed the symposium participants was how best to convey this horrendous information to the Obama administration; how to get them to take action when they are consumed by other problems. Recent polls indicate that while Americans are concerned about the environment and global climate change, it's not their primary focus. The latest Pew Research poll shows environmental concerns ranked 16th after "Strengthening the nation's economy," "Improving the job situation," "Defending the country from future terrorist attacks," and other issues. Human life is in peril but we aren't paying attention. Given current public sentiment, it might be argued that environmentalists should wait their turn until the Obama Administration works its way down its list of priorities and eventually gets to number 16. The problem with this passive approach is that by the time global warming's number comes up, irreparable damage will have been done. For example, once the artic ice cap is gone, devastating climate changes will be unleashed: vast areas of the US will be rendered uninhabitable and horrific storms will be far more frequent. As the Sierra Club Symposium participants wrestled with this grim reality, they recognized two important synergies. The first is that the issue of global warming is tightly coupled with national energy policy. In all the polls, energy is one of the top ten problems, often one of the top five. One of President Obama's top priorities is moving America away from its oil addiction to clean energy. And, the speed with which Americans move away from fossil fuel has a dramatic impact on our reduction of CO2 emissions. When NEW YORK TIMES columnist Tom Friedman spoke at the symposium, he observed that the age of information technology has morphed into the age of energy technology. He recommended the Sierra Club define what it means to be "green" as the convergence of clean fuels usage, emphasis on energy efficiency, population control, and a shared ethic of sustainability. Friedman views generation of clean fuels and adoption of an ethic of energy efficiency as more than laudable goals; he believes they are fundamental issues of national competitiveness. We have to reduce our energy consumption to keep down the cost of our goods and services. And we have to foster new clean energy innovations in order to grow our economy. If we don't take the lead in energy technology, China or Europe will, and the US will become a second tier economic power. That's the second area of synergy. Global warming is directly tied to U.S. economic strength. Tom Friedman called for President Obama to "get tough" and make improved energy efficiency and production of clean fuels vital components of his plan to revitalize the US economy. Friedman believes America's new President should take advantage of his high approval ratings and make major policy changes that will benefit both the economy and the environment. While this sounds like sage advice, the question is how to get such an aggressive program - for example, one that includes a carbon tax and additional funds for production of alternative fuels - through Congress. Would Democrats have sufficient strength - sixty Senate votes - to pass this legislation? While it's likely that it would pass - but certainly not inevitable - such an action would accentuate the deep differences between Democrats and Republicans. Dems believe climate change is an imminent threat, a danger to national security. Republicans ignore overwhelming scientific evidence and portray global warming as a non-problem. Consequently, Dems view Obama's energy-environment initiatives as an opportunity, while Republicans see them as an attempt to ladle additional costs on Americans. Democrats want government to fix the economy and respond to climate change. Republicans believe the "free market" will take of these concerns; they don't trust government and abhor the prospect of an expanded Federal bureaucracy. Furthermore, Dems view global warming as a national problem that has different impacts throughout the country. Republicans see it as a regional issue that should be dealt with at the state level; for example, they argue that because West Virginia has lots of coal the state should be able to burn as much as it needs to generate electricity. For those of us who regard global climate change as a horrifying problem that is rapidly getting worse, Tom Friedman's suggestions make sense: approach it via the necessity for clean fuel and energy efficiency and make these key components of "phase two" of Obama's economic recovery plan. The political message is clear: America's new President has accumulated a lot of political capital. Now he must spend some of it to address global warming.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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