When the Clinton administration agreed to reduce U.S. fossil fuel emissions at a summit on global warming in Kyoto, Japan, last December, there was a lot of lofty talk about the need to save the planet from future floods, hurricanes and other calamities. Now even the last smidgen of reform is unraveling.
Congressional Republicans, suspecting among other things that Vice President Al Gore would use a treaty to advantage in his expected presidential campaign, are trying to prohibit the Clinton administration from even studying global warming reduction until developing nations like China and India commit to binding reductions. The cynicism of this position lies in lawmakers' full knowledge that developing nations won't make such a commitment until the United States does: Why should they be required to buy expensive low-polluting energy technology from developed countries like the United States, they ask, to correct a problem the developed countries created in the first place?
Right now, prospects for reducing global warming look bleaker than they did before the Kyoto treaty. But a glimmer of compromise has come from a very pragmatic group--the CEOs of Boeing, Toyota, Enron and other large companies, under the umbrella of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The business leaders, made believers by the mounting weight of science on global warming, are also motivated by enlightened self-interest. They want some assurance from Washington that if they choose to spend billions of dollars investing in low-polluting technologies, they will be rewarded with incentives like tax breaks or credits toward emissions reductions required in a future global warming treaty.
Many skeptics of global warming had based their argument largely on data from U.S. satellites showing that parts of the upper atmosphere were not warming but cooling. Last month, however, that argument was invalidated when it was found that the "cooling" was a distortion caused by the gradual slippage of the satellites from their orbits over time. And this week the journal Geophysical Research Letters published a study offering more evidence that El Nino phenomena like droughts and wet spells result "partly from the greenhouse gas-induced climate changes."
The Pew Center group is starting a small lobbying effort to defeat House and Senate appropriations bills that would terminate funding for federal research into low-polluting energy sources, research begun during the Bush administration. The Pew group also rightly urges Congress to approve $ 6.3 billion in tax credits that the Clinton administration has proposed to reward businesses and individuals that invest in renewable energy. It's true that the $ 6.3 billion would at best only slightly slow the rise in global warming. But Congress' failure to even acknowledge the problem is no solution either.
Congress should recall the success of other landmark environmental legislation--the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. Like the Kyoto treaty, they proposed unrealistic goals, many of which have still not been met. But they did usher in a more enlightened national attitude, an environmentally responsible spirit that Congress should be working to renew, not squelch.
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