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David Doniger
David Doniger

Global warming is back in the news. NASA photos show the Arctic ice cap melting at the alarming rate of nine percent per decade. A new report in Science last week concludes there is “no doubt” that global warming pollution is changing the atmosphere and “the likely result is more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events and related impacts (such as wildfires, heat stress, vegetation changes and sea-level rise).” Meanwhile, at global warming talks this week in Milan, the Bush administration continues to strong-arm countries into abandoning the Kyoto treaty – in a “my way or the highway” op/ed article in the Financial Times, the administration’s chief negotiator pushes an empty strategy of voluntary industry self-policing and a token research and development program. Russia, left in the driver’s seat by the U.S. rejection of Kyoto, flirts off-again/on-again with joining the pact.

The key issue, however, is not about Kyoto or what other countries may do. The key issue today is what will America do to cut the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming and to embrace the cleaner, more efficient energy technologies available now to start solving the problem. And what America will do to stop blocking, and start leading, abroad.

Americans believe in the power of technology to reduce global warming pollution, and to cut our dangerous dependence on foreign oil. They support real action – concrete pollution limits, not just voluntary strategies. Now is the time for a real commitment to reduce global warming and move America toward a secure energy future.

A Real Problem. Americans understand that global warming is a genuine and serious threat to our health, our economy and our environment. While continuing scientific research is important, we know enough now to know that further delay in limiting global warming pollution will only increase that threat. America is at a technological crossroads. We can continue investing in old, polluting technologies. Or we can embrace new technologies that prevent global warming, dramatically cut other dangerous pollution, and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

A Problem We Can Fix. The good news is that America has the know-how and the technology to cut global warming pollution and enhance our quality of life. We can make and use energy far more efficiently and cleanly. We can make electricity from clean renewable sources and low-polluting fuels like natural gas, and we can even use coal in modern plants that dispose of carbon pollution underground. We can make cars and SUVs now that go twice as far on a gallon of gas, using more efficient engines and transmissions, and hybrid gas-electric technology. All these steps would fight global warming and help break the chain of Middle East oil dependence.

Time for Real Accountability. Yet the Bush administration supports nothing but voluntary industry self-policing and token governmental R&D. No serious pollution problem has ever been solved this way. If the government had invented the catalytic converter but not passed clean air laws, it would still be sitting on a shelf and we would still be choking in smog. The trouble with voluntary programs is that there will never be enough volunteers.

The key is to hold American industry accountable – fairly but firmly – for the global warming pollution that comes from its factories and products. Mandatory standards for efficiency and limits on pollution are essential because they create the even playing field and the necessary market incentives.

With smart policies – like the successful “cap-and-trade” program that is cutting acid rain – we can meet mandatory limits on global warming pollution at reasonable cost, while creating incentives and rewards for those who develop new and cheaper technologies for compliance. We’ve done it before on countless other kinds of air and water pollution; we can do it again to stop global warming.

Now Is The Time To Act. There is growing bi-partisan support for stronger action in Congress and around the country. Senators McCain and Lieberman have pledged to keep pushing their landmark bill to put a mandatory limit on US global warming pollution. California’s new governor Schwarzenegger has pledged to enforce and defend that state’s landmark law requiring car companies to cut global warming emissions. Governors in 13 states – from both parties – are moving to curb global warming pollution from power plants and other sources.

America Must Lead, At Home and Abroad. The Bush administration’s refusal to limit our emissions and to cooperate with other nations to curb global warming has sharply damaged our credibility and standing in the world – something especially harmful at a time when we need the help of other nations to fight terrorism and meet the other challenges of the 21st century. When the president withdrew from the Kyoto process, many other countries chose to forge ahead. Many are taking real steps to limit their own emissions and adopting new technology that so far we have spurned. But global warming cannot be prevented unless America participates and leads.

As the world’s economic power, the U.S. can and should lead the coming energy technology revolution. In our country alone, hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested in new power plants and automobiles over the next twenty years. A commitment to steer these investments towards clean, efficient technologies will make the U.S. economy the engine for the global market, create jobs, allow us to use our own abundant fuel supplies with less global warming pollution, and cut our dependence on foreign oil. If we show the way, other nations will follow. And we will prosper, selling the technologies of the future.

Guest columnist David Doniger is the Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center.

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