Climate change optimism

Our view: U.N. talks may not have produced binding accords, but there's still a chance to save polar bears — and human lives

December 22, 2010

The best news to be found on the climate change front this month was a report that the polar bear, a threatened species that has come to symbolize the dangers of global warming, may yet be saved — if greenhouse emissions are reduced over the next two decades.

Unfortunately, that's a big "if." International climate talks that ended early this month in Cancun produced no legally binding agreement. They weren't expected to — nor is the stalemate expected to break in the near future. Negotiators are keeping expectations low for next year's United Nations-sponsored conference in South Africa.

Between the failures of diplomacy and the post-midterm-election rightward shift in the U.S. Congress, where Republican denial of climate change science appears to be at an all-time high, a person might be tempted to head to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore this winter to bid the species a fond farewell. (How fortunate that for the first time in five years, the zoo will have January and February hours. Tickets are still available.)

But there are reasons not to be disheartened. On any number of fronts, this country is moving ahead with efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. From federal investments in renewable energy to tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, the U.S. may not be a leader in the battle against climate change, but it's not a total straggler either.

Most critical is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must move ahead with new rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under existing Clean Air Act authority — as the U.S. Supreme Court (hardly a liberal bastion) has already ruled it has the authority to do. The next Congress will no doubt take another crack at rewriting the country's energy policies, but the chances of compromise over such a contentious issue seem remote.

Expect a lot of fear-mongering from political conservatives who are already talking about how new regulations could kill jobs and industrial competitiveness — while ignoring the fast-growing green economy. Like the debt crisis, inaction from Washington will only make matters worse for the next generation if forecasts of drastic sea-level rise, coastal flooding, intensive heat waves and storms and other ill effects of climate change in the coming decades prove correct.

For most scientists, the only uncertainty is the timing and severity of climate change. The most prudent course for government is to voluntarily take action to cap greenhouse gases now — and to assist other countries that can't afford to do so.

One important development to emerge from Cancun is a framework for that aid. The goal is to create $100 billion in assistance for developing countries in 10 years. House Republicans will likely react coolly to U.S. participation when plans for initial aid are announced in late spring.

But it's no exaggeration to suggest that further policy delays could prove life-threatening. The U.S. is not only responsible for about one-sixth of the greenhouse gases (more than half from cars and power plants), but the nation's failure to take more serious action is a major reason why there isn't a stronger international accord in place already.

How much human life could be lost through flooding, disease, crop failures, political upheaval and other challenges wrought by climate change can only be speculated, but it could easily run into the millions. That's a risk that should alarm everyone, not just progressives or environmentalists.

Like the polar bear, those lives can be saved. But it will require Washington to take the next step and commit to significant emissions reductions — if not by consensus on Capitol Hill, then at least by politicians giving regulatory solutions a chance.

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