Signs of Progress

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Although the U.S. government has been dragging its feet on addressing climate change, there have been some shifts in U.S. policy in recent months. As one U.S. climate expert put it, "The United States is lacing up its running shoes and preparing to join the race."20 Scientific evidence, support from businesses and industry, the promotion of climate-friendly policies as an element of faith, state and local initiatives, and the Democratic majority in Congress are enabling progress on this contentious issue.

First, the science has become both stronger and more visible. The IPCC's Third Assessment Report, published in 2001, provided the media, policymakers, the general public, and academics with much stronger evidence of a warming Earth (even though parts of the report were strongly contested). It also highlighted the role of greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps most striking was the observable evidence, often via satellite imaging, that the report provided on the impacts of warming on the biosphere and on human societies. The Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 had an even greater impact, confirming with near certainty that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activity are the main cause of global warming. Various extreme climate incidents, ranging from the European heat wave of 2003 to destructive storms such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to severe droughts and dwindling water resources in eastern Australia, have also provided skeptics in the United States and elsewhere with troubling firsthand accounts of the impact of warming on their societies.21

Second, increasing numbers of business leaders have gradually come to consider action on global warming as imperative in order to maintain energy security, economic growth and trade, and U.S. global leadership. Industry has also discovered that "going green," however vaguely defined, has considerable appeal among the public. Furthermore, businesses now see economic opportunities in new "green" technologies. Therefore, as the science of climate change advanced and grew in scope in the 1990s, and both the indirect and direct benefits of becoming environmentally friendly became more apparent, corporations began pulling out of the Global Climate Coalition, reducing the threat of the business veto on U.S. government action. In fact, many U.S. corporations are now serving as agents of change on this issue through efforts such as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which is a joint endeavor among large corporations such as Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, and GE and environmental groups to press for urgent action.

Third, many evangelical Christian groups have come to view combating climate change to be an obligation of faith. At first, these groups promoted individual responsibility to conserve. But some prominent church leaders have recently taken their cause to Washington, urging the federal government to take a more aggressive stance in confronting the issue. In early 2006, for example, a coalition of evangelical leaders issued "An Evangelical Call to Action," asking Congress and the Bush administration to restrict carbondioxide emissions.22 That call triggered some fierce debates inside the evangelical community. But the increased attention on this issue among both evangelicals and a wide array of other religious groups, including Roman Catholics and Jews, has heightened awareness among the general public and caught the ears of Republican leaders in Congress and the administration.

Fourth, absent federal-level participation in Kyoto, the United States has witnessed a number of innovative approaches at the local and state levels. The best-known model is California, which has established a state Climate Action Team to devise greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies based on both technology and regulation. Numerous businesses with operations in California, including DuPont and IBM, have voluntarily agreed to state emissions reduction targets. The state's motor vehicle plan aims to reduce car emissions, the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions, by 30 percent by 2016. If the entire United States reduced its per capita emissions to California's level, U.S. pollution would be significantly lower than that called for by Kyoto.23

California is not the only state in the union showing muscle on this issue. Twelve other states have adopted caps on auto emissions, and 435 U.S. mayors, both Republicans and Democrats, have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, whereby they commit their cities to meeting the Kyoto emissions targets.24 In another sign that climate change is no longer associated with those on the left, Jon Huntsman Jr., the Republican governor of conservative Utah, has become a cap-and-trade advocate and committed himself to working with California on reducing carbon emissions. Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst, called that shift "the energy equivalent of Nixon going to China."25

Finally, the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 has also advanced climate change debates in Washington. According to a recent Zogby International postelection survey, one-half of Americans who voted in the 2006 midterm elections said concern about global warming made a difference in their vote.26 A handful of global warming skeptics lost influential posts in that political transition, including the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.); Inhofe has called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."27 He was replaced as committee chair by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an outspoken critic of the administration, particularly on climate-related issues.

Democrats achieved one of their major climate and energy goals with the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act in December 2007. Among its major provisions, the act sets higher fuel economy standards for vehicles in the United States for the first time in twenty-two years, requires a fivefold increase in production of renewable fuels by 2022, and establishes new efficiency requirements for household appliances and government buildings, seeking to phase out the incandescent light bulb within the next decade. Nevertheless, in order to pass in the Senate and avoid a presidential veto, the bill was watered down, losing its initial $13 billion tax increase on oil companies—designed to subsidize solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects—as well as requirements for greater use of renewable resources in national power generation.

Many Democrats and some Republicans, including Senators John Warner of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona, now support a cap-and-trade system that would allow industries that fall under a mandated emissions cap to trade credits to those that do not.28 Some hope that as Bush looks to build a legacy that reaches beyond Iraq and the war on terrorism, he will become increasingly accommodating on adopting mandatory controls. Environmentalists are also hopeful that the 2008 presidential election will bring increased attention to climate issues, and that the presidential candidates will make climate a more central part of their political platforms and of their presidency.

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