Is this Baltimore's future?

Global warming may flood parts of Maryland and spawn violent storms. Now legislators will debate what we can or should do about it

February 04, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun staff

If Marylanders want to fight global warming, they're going to have to sweat. They may have to pay more for electricity, throw out their inefficient air conditioners, drive smaller cars and accept new nuclear reactors.

Such an unprecedented shift might seem almost un-American, in its rejection of SUV's and embrace of a long-feared power source. And it could end up more of a political statement than an action that could actually save Baltimore's waterfront from flooding.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently launched his state on an unprecedented program to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and Maryland lawmakers are debating whether to follow.

Meanwhile, Texas is racing to build 17 new coal-fired power plants before the Democrats who now control Congress can impose limits on carbon dioxide. The new Lone Star smokestacks would churn out 2.6 times more CO2 than the California plan would eliminate, according to the Sierra Club. Not to mention the bad air rising from China and India - which have joined the U.S., the world's biggest polluter, in refusing to cut global warming gases.

So why should Maryland politicians sweat? Why should they step out on a limb and inflict discomfort on local voters that people in Shanghai and San Antonio don't feel?

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George's County, said the only way to force the federal government to act is for a growing number of states, including Maryland, to follow California instead of Texas.

"The rest of the world isn't going to act on climate change until the major perpetrators - including us - start walking the walk, instead of just talking the talk," said Pinsky, chairman of the Maryland Senate environmental matters subcommittee. "Then some of the less developed countries will start being responsible. Remember, Shanghai is on the coast, too. So they also will be under pressure to act" on global warming and the rising sea levels caused by climate change, he said.

Pinsky and House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced a bill last week called "The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006." The law would require Maryland to follow California's mandate that all industries cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by a quarter over 13 years, bringing them back to 1990 levels.

The enforcement mechanism would be determined by an Office of Climate Change to be created within the Maryland Department of the Environment. Most likely it would be a cap-and-trade system that would impose pollution limits on all businesses, but make carbon dioxide credits a commodity that could be sold or swapped. The result would be that industries that want to exceed the pollution limits would have to pay penalties to cleaner businesses, such as firms that build wind turbines.

Pinsky admits that the bill is a long shot this year, with less support than another measure to limit greenhouse gases, the so-called "clean cars" legislation that has been endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and leaders of the Senate and House. This law is more limited, focusing only on cars and light trucks, which produce about a quarter of the gases that scientists have concluded cause global warming.

But Pinsky said momentum is growing for more sweeping action, with new scientific evidence of climate change and Congress debating federal legislation.

Pinsky has a track record of success, as a lead sponsor of Maryland's Healthy Air Act, which passed by a wide margin last spring after failing twice in previous years. This law aims to cut pollution from coal-fired power plants by more than two-thirds, including a 10 percent reduction in global warming gases by 2018. Power plants generate about a third of greenhouse gases, with the rest coming from other businesses, homes, farms and other sources.

"We want to create incentives for clean energy, because dirty energy is going to kill all of us - particularly all of us who live in Maryland, where we have many areas that will be under water in 30, 40 or 50 years," said Pinsky.

The passage of both the clean cars bill and the Global Warming Solutions Act might be a step in the right direction, but they would not come close to stopping climate change. If the whole world followed Maryland and California in approving similar legislation, it would only provide a fraction of the more than 70 percent reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050 that many scientists say would be necessary to stabilize the Earth's atmosphere.

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, assistant administrator for air programs at the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2005, said following California's model would hurt the economy without helping the environment.

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