On the Rise: Political Climate Change

What a difference three years makes. In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published their essay called "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World". In their article, the two authors boldly surmised that leaders in the environmental movement were myopically obsessed with policy and out of touch with real-world politics. Discussing the issue of global warming, the authors concluded,

"Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 1990s is that, in the end, the environmental community had still not come up with an inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal, that a majority of Americans could get excited about. … Environmental advocacy has been dramatically less effective dealing with global warming than with clean air, clean water, wilderness or wildlife. … The problems such as global warming that environmentalism has failed to get a grasp on, or develop a deep public commitment and attention to, by contrast, are intangible, global and future-oriented."

Since Shellenberger and Nordhaus issued their obituary for green initiatives focused on fighting climate change, we’re finding that the reports of the death of the U.S. environmental movement are greatly exaggerated. In the past three years, we’ve seen a big shift in the views of many U.S. citizens and politicians concerning the issue of global warming. Nowadays there is a growing

Many see the launch in January 2007 of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which includes 10 of the largest U.S. corporations, as one of the major turning points. This group, which includes General Electric, Alcoa, Dupont, PG&E Corp., and a number of other large corporations, urged Congress to pass a market-based cap on greenhouse gases (GHGs) that would reduce emissions by 10 percent to 30 percent over the next 15 years.

"The sooner we act, the more options we have for solutions and the less costly they will be," Peter Darbee, PG&E's chief executive officer, said in January.

Another pivotal event this year was the issuance on February 2 of the report prepared by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that temperatures and sea levels will continues to rise even if GHGs are kept at current levels. The report, "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis," is intended to serve as a "summary for policymakers." According to many experts, the IPCC report offers the strongest evidence to date that human activity, in particular the emission of carbon dioxide linked to the burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for the warming of the Earth's atmosphere.

Yet another important development happened earlier this year that increased the momentum for Americans to take action regarding climate change. On April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case

awareness of climate change issues both within the Beltway in Washington, D.C., and beyond. A number of developments have contributed to this change. Massachusetts et al v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate GHGs from new motor vehicles. The court said it has jurisdiction to decide whether EPA has a duty to reduce global warming. It also dismissed EPA's argument that any domestic reduction in GHGs will be offset by increases in emissions from other countries, such as China and India.

"A reduction in domestic emissions would slow the pace of global emission increases, no matter what happens elsewhere," the opinion said.

In a change of tack that was probably prodded by the Supreme Court's recent Massachusetts decision and new advances in scientific understanding of how GHGs contribute to climate change, President George Bush proposed on May 31 to set "a long-term global goal" for cutting GHGs. He also called on other industrial nations to join the United States in negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement by the end of 2008. This proposed agreement is a major change for President Bush, who in the past has rejected such absolute goals, such as those set out in the Kyoto Protocol, in part for economic reasons. Such a shift is a definite sign of a new political climate in Washington concerning global warming.

In his New York Times column published on April 15, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Friedman commented "Eisenhower rallied us with the red menace. The next president will have to rally us with a green patriotism. Hence my motto: 'Green is the new red, white and blue.' "

Today it's clear that Americans’ concern for the environment -- far from being dead -- is very alive and kicking.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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