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What's Next: Emily Gertz
Emily Gertz, 30 Dec 06

Climate disruption is in the mind of the U.S. public like never before -- and it's still not enough. No matter how many photo-voltaic panels get sold and installed, how many carbon offsets bought, how many hybrid automobiles dot the roads, and however many state governors sign regional pacts, we're still trying to knit together disparate economic forces with a patchwork of sub-Federal regulation to cope with a national and trans-border problem. We need an aggressive shift in Federal political policies, followed by equally vibrant action, to make any significant dent in our nation's devastating contributions to global warming.

That's why 2006 has been an exciting year politically, and 2007 promises to be equally interesting, as this year's high points -- really interim points in longer processes -- play out in the coming 12 months. Just a couple:

In late November, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Massachusetts v. EPA. The Bay State is arguing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is legally bound under the Federal Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions as pollutants from motor vehicles and power plants that are "reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare," including impacts on weather and climate.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed just this week to list the polar bear, native to the Arctic north, as threatened on the endangered species list. Although the full listing process will take about a year, the result will be the first-ever species acknowledged as endangered by global climate disruption. And the actions required by law to preserve a threatened species could have far-reaching impact on cutting our global warming impact.

As I reported in Grist magazine almost two years ago, it's not just a few green-minded activists who want the U.S. to follow the lead of the European Union, Japan, and other global economic leaders in regulating greenhouse gasses, mandating carbon trading markets, and more; the financial and industrial leaders of the U.S. see it as both inevitable and desirable, because otherwise they'll have that much more difficulty in planning for profitability. "The suits are joining the fight," I noted -- creating an alliance that would have seemed impossible a mere decade ago.

An interesting 2007 is not necessarily one in which legal and policy decisions will be made in favor of action on climate disruption. But I'm still heartened to see it elevated to these national platforms at last. However these decisions fall, they'll bring global warming to the attention of millions more Americans -- and chart the next steps to making the U.S. a leader, instead of a lagger, in both curbing and coping with climate disruption.

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This past week, China issued a report concerning its role and responsibilities in climate change. I wonder, as China's official position on climate change becomes clear, how their stance will alter the language of western politicians. (Of course, "official position" and actual action may differ significantly.)

If China does take a strong lead and make a substantive move to green their society, I would think this, in itself, will put palpable pressure on political nay-sayers elsewhere. If industry in China goes green, what excuse will the rest of the world have?

(The question that follows is part idealistic and part hypothetical.)

Might we, hopefully, step away from a world run (or overrun) by military might and into one where personal responsibility and action are recognised as key to our survival? In that world, who will be the leading powers? Military prowess would matter little; the past ideologies of power would have less meaning for people seeking balance with the Earth. If the Dutch find ways to balance out the many intersecting vectors of politics, society, industry, and energy into a coherent and economical (in terms of money and the environment) system, will that not, in some form, make them a new world power? If China, which already has the underlying power of population, goes green, what sort of ideological clout will this give them in the coming era?

So how, as you state in the article, might the United States avoid lagging and become a "Green Power"? With the tools have in hand (and whilst it is still recognised as a superpower in other respects) how can America show itself as the great nation it proports to be? It will become quickly apparent, with the chorus of voices and evident environmental warnings, that truly great nations are green ones.

Concurrently, how might the many smaller nations (who can, in some respects, respond more quickly to these matters) find new purpose and national intent by becoming environmental innovators?

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 31 Dec 06

Hi Jason. Sorry for my delayed response.

It's worth noting that however much enviornmental regulations have been eroded in the past several years, the U.S. remains a green beacon in many ways. Our laws for protecting endangered species are among the best in the world, and we're pretty active in following international agreements like CITES regarding trade in endangered animals and goods made from them. Our regulations and legal recourses are still models for other parts of the world. The checks and balances between state and Federal laws, while perhaps not as robust as our Founders envisioned, still provide ways for states to enact strong protections when Federal agencies falter.

Don't take this as my paen to a good green U.S.; there are plenty of problems with our environmental policies, in intent and practice, at home and internationally. I just think it's worth it to note what we've got going for us rather than issue a blanket condemnation.

Your points on big nations like China, and smaller nations, taking the lead in the 21st century as innovators in sustainable energy, manufacture, and such, are where a lot of the hope really lies (in my opinion). The U.S. sure has an opportunity to remain a global leader in softer ways than throwing our military might around; will we do it? Can't tell, right now.

But waiting for a fundamental shift in the world's power politics as key to action on climate disruption is pretty unrealistic; we just don't have the time, climactically, and millennia of human history suggest it's unlikely. Right now most of the world is going around the U.S. on climate policy, like water around a rock in a river. Even if the U.S. doesn't wise up, it might not be clear for a lot longer than a century that America's dominance has waned -- our military capabilities and objective wealth give us a lot of momentum to put off that reckoning.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 15 Jan 07

(I wasn't meaning to issue a blanket condemnation; sorry if I sounded overtly negative.)

I too take heart that some things are done right and we are not absolutely overrun by stereotypical power-hungry politicians bent on destruction. My question is, if America does have this huge momentum of capital to work with, what are some ways to jump-start the nation into positive action before all that capital is spent? (I suppose that's the impetus of this site.)

I don't think national decline is inevitable (though history seems to show this cyclical process with utter clarity). Nor would I stand around wishing a nation to fall into disaster so we can say we were right all along. If America is such a well of disturbance to the environment, there is no other choice than a reformation of thought and action; we will not have opportunity to recover after that century of waning descent. Whilst America still has some manner of influence on the world stage, how can it influence other countries toward a positive future rather than pulling everything downward? How can other countries influence America to take the lead on this? Rather than speaking of rising and falling powers, how can we all work to build nations that all ascend? (I know, that may not be realistic, but Machiavelli has held sway too long.)

Thanks for the follow-up, by the way.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 18 Jan 07



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