Once a speculative high horse for “green” politicians rallying environmentally conscious voters, global warming has become a tangible phenomenon.
Most meteorologists believe that the 1990s was the planet’s warmest decade in the last 1,000 years, and 1998 the warmest year. The United States was struck by a record 562 tornados in May. Species around the world, from California starfish to alpine herbs, are being forced to move into new habitats in ways that are disrupting ecosystems.
The developing world is hardest hit because extremes of climate tend to be more intense at low latitudes and poorer countries are less able to cope with weather disasters.
This week, the Senate is considering more than 200 amendments to an energy bill that would help determine whether the U.S. attends to the problem or buries its head in the sand. The amendments are mostly ostrich. Some would give energy companies billions in tax breaks just for doing business as usual. U.S. fossil fuel emissions have risen 14% over the 1990 level and, according to the Bush administration itself, will increase 12% in the next decade.
At least four amendments that could spark change for the better, however, are still alive in the Senate.
The first, by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would mandate a 40-mpg average standard for all cars, including SUVs, by 2015. The current standard is 27.5 for cars and 20.7 for SUVs. Another, by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), would require companies to accurately report their greenhouse gas emissions. The bill would create more awareness and pressure than exists under the current voluntary reporting. The third, by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing a program, called “new source review,” that could weaken standards for utility emissions. Finally, a bill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) would require U.S. industries to reduce greenhouse gases to 2000 levels by 2010. McCain acknowledges that the bill has little chance of passage or even of getting to a vote.
Though the Bush administration is dead set against international treaties that would require the U.S. to reduce emissions, its officials have supported helping states and other nations mitigate the effects of global warming. On Thursday, for example, the administration will host a meeting for top-level government science advisors from 27 nations, seeking a coherent system for measuring ecological change.
One good model is a string of government-funded monitoring stations set up in the Pacific to keep track of El Nino, an intermittent ocean current that carries disruptive storms. Thanks to the warnings it got, California endured $1.1 billion less damage in 1997 and 1998 than it would have had otherwise, according to the White House.
The meeting may be a shabby substitute for the concrete reductions in fossil fuel emissions proposed by Feinstein, McCain and Lieberman, but at least it shows that the Bush administration realizes global warming and its challenges aren’t going away.