If international confabs held last week in New York and Pittsburgh produced anything worth noting in the area of climate change, it is this: Don't expect the world to reach a new agreement over controlling greenhouse gases in time for the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in December. Consensus is not around the corner, and the U.S. is not the only nation struggling with this important but difficult issue.
Still, while the prospect of a blown deadline isn't ordinarily an especially good reason to cheer, there are too many positive signs of movement here and abroad to embrace a gloom and doom outlook. Momentum for change is building. It may not reach critical mass in a mere two months, but with all due respect to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, protecting the world's melting glaciers is no longer moving at a glacial pace.
At the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, world leaders agreed to phase out fossil fuels over time but were a little vague on details. In New York at the UN climate conference, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed to take action soon. China, once seen as an impediment, may outpace the U.S. with plans to improve energy efficiency, invest in renewable energy and plant enough trees to reforest 150,000 square miles.
Health care has obviously bogged down efforts to pass a clean energy bill through Congress, but the legislation approved by the House last June was a good first step. The Senate is expected to take action once the health care debate is resolved; whether the chamber's efforts will be adequate or not remains to be seen.
Yet even in this regard, the signs are promising. Last week's announcement by Pacific Gas and Electric that the California utility is withdrawing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the organization's knuckle-dragging attitude toward global warming shows just how much the times are changing.
That's hardly the only indication that climate change deniers and their misinformation and hysteria are losing traction. Companies like Alcoa, a major energy consumer, are actively lobbying for increased global regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. That includes cap and trade of carbon emissions.
It's really a matter of self-interest. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's effort to regulate greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act is just the kind of blunt instrument that corporations fear - and apparently what's needed to spur Congress into action. Kudos to the Democratic leaders on the Hill for resisting recent efforts to delay EPA action.
Of course, there are still many difficult issues to resolve, among them just how far to reduce heat-trapping emissions and how much aid industrialized countries can provide to developing nations.
But what a change from two years ago, when the U.S., under President George W. Bush, was largely ignoring the issue. Even in this historic economic recession, countries are pouring money into clean energy technology, conservation and other techniques for limiting carbon emissions.
Now that the recession appears to have bottomed out, the last excuses are falling away as well. Two hundred years of burning fossil fuels and clear-cutting forests have helped raise temperatures to a degree that has put the planet in peril of rising sea levels and flooding, disease, crop and forest losses, and serious damage to ecosystems and biological diversity.
The world may not emerge from Copenhagen with a firm destination, but it looks increasingly like a road map for getting there is within reach. That may be the most hopeful sign of all.