In its business-as-usual approach to climate change, the Bush administration is increasingly out of step not only with other industrialized powers, but also with the growing support in this country for action to prevent global warming. The administration’s oddly two-sided report last week to the United Nations brings the White House into the scientific mainstream on the subject — acknowledging that human activity is probably the cause of global warming and that America itself faces serious consequences — but at the same time lays out a strategy ensuring that American emissions of greenhouse gases will continue rising sharply for at least a decade.
Last week the European Union and its 15 member states completed en masse their ratification of the emissions-limiting treaty that President Bush has rejected, the Kyoto Protocol. This week Japan followed suit. Russia expects to ratify by the end of the year, meaning only one or two smaller countries would be needed to put the treaty into effect. (Ratifying countries must account for at least 55 percent of developed country emissions in 1990.)
The administration is also ignoring a growing domestic recognition of the need to act. Persuaded that the risks of climate change are real and that restraints on emissions are inevitable, many American companies are working on carbon reduction. To be sure, many others, especially in the energy and oil businesses, are strongly resistant. But dozens of major corporations like Alcoa, DuPont and Intel are among those setting their own targets for lower emissions. For many, there are financial payoffs, too — improved efficiencies, lower costs and increased sales of energy-saving products.
State governments are also moving ahead. New Hampshire recently became the third state to adopt mandatory controls on carbon emissions from power plants. New Jersey is aiming to reduce statewide emissions by 3.5 percent from 1990 levels in the years before 2005. All six New England states, in a compact with five Eastern Canadian provinces, have pledged to reduce their emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
Even in Congress, the tide is beginning to turn. Twice as many climate change measures were introduced in the past year as in the previous four years combined, many with strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Scientists project that a century’s worth of greenhouse gas releases, mostly from burning fossil fuels, have already bought us a few degrees of warming in the decades ahead. The challenge is heading off further warming by gradually weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. This transition to a low-carbon economy will require a new industrial revolution.
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We must look to the marketplace to carry it out. Only the market can mobilize the ingenuity, investment and productive capacity needed to develop and disperse new technologies on such a large scale. But the marketplace will deliver only if it perceives a demand, and providing that demand is a role for government.
A modest but logical first step in the U.S. is a measure passed unanimously by the Senate in April encouraging companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions voluntarily. If after five years less than 60 percent of emissions are being reported to the public, the measure would change this voluntary reporting system to a mandatory one. A similar approach helped dramatically reduce toxic air and water pollution nationwide. This legislation should be accepted by the House and signed by the president.
Ultimately, though, the market must be driven by policies that set realistic, binding targets for reducing emissions and give companies the flexibility to achieve them as affordably as possible. The Bush administration’s own report shows the danger in its remaining stubbornly out of step. The longer the United States waits, the graver the risks — and the cost of averting them.