Heat is on, for long haul

October 12, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Call it a moment of enlightenment. You can almost envision a cartoon light bulb going on over the White House.

Searching for a down-home example in the midst of the dire graphs and numbers being bandied about by scientists, the president brought up the subject of the high-tech light bulb at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It's a bulb that costs more in the beginning, but lasts longer in the end.

Sometimes, the man of the house told the assembled, he wonders why they haven't installed more. Or for that matter why the public hasn't bought more.

This electric analogy came at the White House conference on climate change. The weather cooperated beautifully for the event. Washington was in full air-conditioned mode at 90 degrees.

Up and down the East Coast, TV weathermen, with their usual joviality, reported it as Indian summer. But by now, that benign pre-industrial label is challenged in our own minds. What should we call it? Greenhouse summer? Carbon emissions summer?

The good news is that most Americans at last believe in the reality of global warming. For a long time, doubts were fueled, if you will excuse the expression, by a coal and oil industry campaign to undermine public belief.

But the American public has learned something from its encounters with the tobacco folks. It's a bit of post-industrial skepticism about industry-financed science and corporate disinfomercials. So most of us have now signed on to the belief honed in the title of Ross Gelbspan's important book -- "The Heat is On."

But the mixed news -- or at least the more complicated news -- from the conference is that the argument has shifted from science to economics. From computer models of climate disaster to models of political disaster.

This is the light bulb analogy: How do you get Americans to buy a policy for tomorrow when it may cost more today?

The difficulty of dealing with global warming rests uneasily on one of the toughest questions in American life. Can a country with a short attention span focus on the long run? What do you do when all politics are local and warming is global?

In less than two months, our country is due to ante up to the international table in Kyoto, Japan, where the world's communities will try to wrestle down an international agreement to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we all pump into the air.

The United States, which contributes 20 percent of the world's emissions with 4 percent of the world's population, has yet to decide its policy.

Prevailing wind

At issue is how quickly we'll reduce our emissions below 1990 levels. If this is an environmentalist's baby step, it looks like a politician's paralysis. In Washington, where the most important weather pattern is the prevailing wind of public opinion, the uncertainties have delayed decisions.

Some of the uncertainties are economic, a venture into unknown territory. While most experts figure we can conserve energy and even improve the economy, there is no certainty about the costs and benefits in making larger technological changes.

But some of the uncertainties are political, a venture into a much too familiar terrain. In what is the most important issue of our time, politicians are being asked to make policy just the way they don't like to. If the policy helps the environment, they won't get credit for weather disasters that didn't happen. If it harms the economy, they'll be duly blamed.

Meanwhile, in a two-page ad in the Washington Post on the day of the conference, hundreds of energy companies -- listed state by state -- warned the government not to "rush in" to a United Nations agreement. And the same industry that told us that climate change was bunk is now shelling out $13 million in ads to convince the public that, even if it isn't bunk, it'll cost us too much. It's Harry and Louise again, this time in the greenhouse.

So this is where we stand. The heat is on Washington. The public believes we're changing the climate, but people are not yet sweating it. The president believes, "it would be a grave mistake to bury our heads in the sand," but isn't willing to take the heat of leadership.

Here is the puzzle: How many weather disasters will it take to finally change a light bulb?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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