January 25, 2007

Kissing the Inhofe Doctrine Good-Bye

It took the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, as well as the need to both bargain with a legislature held by the opposition and soften the focus on failures in Iraq, but George W. Bush passed a milestone in Tuesday's State of the Union address. For the first time since he took office, he acknowledged both climate change and the growing certainty of humanity's role in it, saying:
And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.
Whether the reasons behind this change of direction are purely political or represent a genuine change in viewpoint matters not; the cat is out of the bag, and there is little cover left for Republican opposition to mitigating the production of greenhouse gases. While fools like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe may now be forced to give ground, the next battle will be in implementing viable plans with which to move forward. Although Mr. Bush's speech finally acknowledged climate change, his proposed solutions remain in the realm of the voluntary and the theoretical, calling only for more ethanol usage and a reduction in gasoline consumption, and avoiding any discussion of cap-and-trade measures.

Fortunately - if pathetically - the situation has reached critical mass; local governments and private groups, fed up with federal procrastination and pandering to the scientific fringe, are leading the way. With California and several other states in the Northeast devising their own environmental requirements and even suing the federal government over carbon dioxide emissions, the potential for a morass of varied and even conflicting regulatory environments has pushed a number of large firms to partner with environmental groups and form the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). USCAP's intent is to pressure the federal government to enact laws that will severely curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and one of its central recommendations for doing so - one it terms "essential" - is a cap-and-trade system.

Congress appears ready to listen - and perhaps even to override any threatened presidential veto of a cap-and-trade schema. There are currently four versions of legislation to establish such a system in the Senate alone, each with a different balance between pollution reduction and economic safeguards, and hearings to permit additional introductions are scheduled for the end of this month. Wading through this sudden surfeit of forward thinking will be arduous, and it will almost certainly leave some quarters unhappy, but the mere fact of the opportunity - almost six years after President Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol - is cause for optimism.

While the businesses within USCAP are hardly operating out of pure altruism, the kind of partnership they have created with green groups is no less laudable. There is no reason to condemn their enlightened self-interest, as they move to influence what they see as inevitable change, and it is difficult to make the case that finding ways to stabilize the world's climate must perforce come at the expense of America's economy. Further, there will almost assuredly be new sectors that benefit from a cap-and-trade system, whether it be the architects and administrators of the market that results, or the inventors and producers of anti-pollution equipment. This is not - as industry's involvement indicates - a death knell for the American economy; done correctly, it's a way to both reach emissions goals and maintain robust growth that's good for everybody.

Nonetheless, at this point, this promise of progress is only just that, and it will be important to tease out the effective measures from what will very likely be a raft of cosmetic efforts designed to maintain the status quo for special interests. As we do so, it will be crucial to remember that compromise is important, but that with following truths, the consequences are too great for further inaction:
  • Rank of 2006 as hottest year on record in the continental United States: 1
  • Rank of America as top global warming polluter in the world: 1
  • Increase of America's carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels since 1990: 20%
  • Increase of America's carbon dioxide emissions forecasted by 2020 if we do not cap pollution: 15%
  • Decrease in U.S. global warming pollution required by 2050 to prevent the worst consequences of global warming: 80%
  • Number of days by which the U.S. fire season has increased over the past 20 years - tied closely to increased temperatures and earlier snowmelt: 78
  • Number of people around the world who could be displaced by more intense droughts, sea level rise and flooding by 2080: 200,000,000
  • Number of U.S. mayors (representing 55 million Americans) who have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement pledging to meet or beat Kyoto goals in their communities: 358
  • Number of federal bills passed to cap America's global warming pollution: 0
  • Number of times President Bush has mentioned "climate change" or "global warming" in his State of the Union speeches: 1 (January 23, 2007)
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