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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2005
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Ways & Means: Global Thawing
Guess who's warming up to clean energy?
by Carl Pope

Polemicists should know that it's a bad sign when they have to look for support for their positions in science-fiction novels. But there at the end of last year was the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal puffing Michael Crichton's State of Fear, in which global warming is exposed as a plot by greedy environmental wackos to raise money.

The congressional leadership seems to share this paranoid view. Oklahoma senator James Inhofe (R) insists that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) dismissed a 1,200-page report by 300 leading scientists showing the profound impacts of climate change on the Arctic, declaring his opinion was "as sound as any scientist's."

If you only paid attention to Crichton, the carbon lobby, and these congressmen, you might think that America was still deeply polarized about global warming. You might also assume that strong countermeasures were advocated only by Democrats and liberals and environmentalists, while conservatives and Republicans and businessmen still harbored grave reservations about the science. You'd be wrong.

As the ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctic melt away (NASA glaciologists are leading airplane tours of the collapsing Antarctic ice shelves), there is also a definite thaw on the subject of energy policy and climate change — even in the Journal. Early this year the paper cleared its opinion pages of the usual fabulists and deniers and made way for prominent conservatives, each of whom announced, for varying reasons and in different ways, that the fossil-fuel game was up, and that it was time for America to change.

First came Robert McFarlane, Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, with a glowing endorsement of Amory Lovins's new book, Winning the Oil Endgame, which shows how we can eliminate three-quarters of today's oil use by 2030. Next came John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the United States' biggest nuclear operator, with a column called "The Time to Address Climate Change Is Now." In addition to a predictable call for more nukes, Rowe also advocated more renewables, more efficiency, and a limit on how much carbon industrial plants could put into the atmosphere.

Then Richard Posner, a right-wing appeals-court judge and lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, argued that our society does a bad job of taking preventive action against unlikely but devastating catastrophes like tsunamis, meteorites — or abrupt global warming. "The fact that a disaster of a particular type has not occurred," Posner wrote, "is a bad reason to ignore it."

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks was endorsing a notion from the even more conservative Weekly Standard: that Social Security could be funded not via private accounts, but through a replacement of the "regressive and job-crushing" payroll tax with a new tax on pollution and imported oil.

Energy policy is back in play — and that means we have a new chance to curb pollution and slow global warming. With the Kyoto Accords going into effect without U.S. participation, growing numbers of senators and representatives are demanding action on climate change. To buttress their position, new studies suggest that by 2025, one-quarter of America's energy supplies could come from renewable and agricultural energy sources — wind, solar, biofuels. So suddenly rural America wants a piece of the energy action.

Labor, too, has moved beyond the status quo to a view that a new energy policy means millions of new industrial jobs for American workers. Churches are saying that the earth is the Lord's, not big oil's. Waiting lists for hybrid cars suggest that if Detroit would just build more efficient vehicles, it might recapture the market share it's been losing since it abandoned innovative technology to the Japanese and started relying on bulk alone.

Bitter experience in Iraq adds urgency to the drive for a new energy order. Neoconservatives have realized that the flow of U.S. dollars to petro-states like Saudi Arabia is a major source of national insecurity. James Woolsey, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, now drives a Toyota Prius. Frank Gaffney, another prominent neocon, has become a big fan of fuel efficiency and biofuels.

Former secretary of state James Baker told a meeting of Texas business leaders that the country needed an "orderly" transition to alternative energy. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is calling for "geo-greens" to unite to drive down the demand for, and hence the price of, oil. And Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), and John Kerry (D-Mass.) — the three heaviest lifters on energy and global warming — have all stated that national security and environmental safety both demand a radical change in U.S. energy policy.

Two years ago the president's polling guru, Frank Luntz, warned Republican lawmakers that if the public ever decided that the science was settled, "their views about global warming will change accordingly." Whatever one may think of his policy advice, Luntz is an astute pollster. The moment he feared has arrived. Even the president's allies are telling him that aside from global warming, there are many good reasons for a new energy policy — jobs and profits among them. Global warming is finally being viewed not as a partisan issue, but as a challenge we all must — and can — confront.


Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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