WASHINGTON - 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, 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.
"There's no way we can solve all these problems as long as the oil-and-coal monopoly calls the shots in Washington," says Ross Gelbspan, the author of "Boiling Point."
Sooner or later, and probably sooner, politics will also have to face the predicted effects of climate change, such as more frequent hurricanes and wildfires, rising sea levels and persistent water shortages. That may require rethinking federal flood insurance, lax wetlands protections and other policies that promote development in vulnerable areas. The irrigation-friendly water laws of the West may not survive a new era of drought. The Homeland Security Department could be forced to shift its focus from terrorism to natural disasters and disease outbreaks, and taxpayers would have to decide how much they want to pay for skyrocketing disaster costs here and abroad.
The climate emergency is not yet driving these debates; it is only offering "now more than ever" ammunition for supporters of various policies. Last year, Congress passed a "comprehensive" energy bill that did nothing to cure our oil addiction and a $286 billion transportation bill that will mostly fund new sprawl roads. Corn ethanol - arguably the least efficient biofuel - has gained new support from would-be presidential candidates such as Sen. George Allen, R-Va., but it has always had plenty of backers.
Washington is finally talking about climate. But for action, try Bentonville, Ark., where Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. announced this month that his company would double the energy efficiency of its 7,000-truck fleet in a decade, reduce waste from its U.S. stores by 25 percent in three years and design a new prototype store that will reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent. "Have you ever known Wal-Mart not to follow through on a commitment of this kind?" one speaker asked. "I have not."
The speaker was Al Gore.
Indeed, Wal-Mart is already cutting emissions, which is a big deal, because the company is the largest private consumer of electricity on the planet. Wal-Mart has reduced its fuel use 8 percent by preventing its trucks from idling, saving $25 million over the past year while cutting 100,000 metric tons of emissions. It recently began buying organic cotton, and all 3,700 of its U.S. stores are using energy-efficient light bulbs. Wal-Mart is so big that a slight reduction in the packaging of one of its toy lines saved the company $2.4 million last year by cutting trucking costs, while saving 1,000 barrels of oil and 3,800 trees.
Scott thinks waste reduction and energy efficiency are good for business as well as the Earth; he eventually wants his company to generate zero waste and use only renewable energy, and he wants his 60,000 suppliers to follow suit. That could drive the climate debate faster than years of congressional bloviation.
And other sectors of corporate America are paying attention to climate as well. The storm-battered insurance and reinsurance industries are redlining vulnerable coastal areas. U.S. farmers are embracing no-till agriculture in growing numbers. Even some energy firms are trying to move "Beyond Petroleum," as the BP Global ads say; Entergy Corp. recently joined 12 states in suing the Bush administration over its refusal to regulate carbon emissions.
States are leading the battle against greenhouse gases, filing lawsuits against the Bush administration's fuel-efficiency and clean-air efforts as well. California, for example, has proposed strict fuel-efficiency standards for cars sold in the state, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to reduce the state's greenhouse emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Ultimately, conservation will have to play a big role in any emissions cuts; Vice President Cheney has mocked it as a virtuous but ludicrous energy strategy, yet the collective impact of individual actions could be huge. The question is whether Americans are capable of changing their way of life without a World War II-style emergency. So far, they don't seem to think global warming qualifies; a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll last month found that only 19 percent of Americans care about it "a great deal," compared with 66 percent of Japanese and 65 percent of Indians.
But we care about soaring energy prices. We may not buy energy-efficient bulbs just because Wal-Mart gives them nice shelf space, but we might if they'll reduce our rising electricity bills. We may not buy hybrid cars to save the planet, but we might buy them to save at the pump. Global warming hasn't forced us to get serious about conservation, but the energy crisis that our runaway consumption has helped to create just might.
Money, after all, talks even louder than Al Gore.
Michael Grunwald is a Washington Post staff writer who bikes to work.