A Climate Of Despair

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Not everyone in Congress--including some Republicans--feels the same way. Three Republican Representatives had been planning to join with Democrats to introduce a bill in the House mandating precisely the CO2 power-plant caps Bush no longer wants. The gesture, however, is mostly symbolic. Even if the bill should pass the House, it could be torn apart in the ferociously partisan Senate. Whatever scraps of it that reached the President's desk would face a near certain veto.

Nonetheless the Administration continues to insist that the President will produce a coherent--if unspecified--global-warming policy soon. Environmentalists are fearing the worst. Before Bush's CO2 reversal, the White House created a so-called carbon rump group to reassess the U.S. position on emissions. An Administration official insists that the work the panel is doing is "a high-level, intense review," and while that may be true, it's also a fact that in-house study teams such as this are often simply places where orphan ideas are sent to die. More substantively, Vice President Cheney has been heading up an energy task force that is due to issue recommendations in May. Along with calling for increased oil exploration in Alaska and new oil and gas pipelines, the panel's recommendations may include research into cleaner ways to burn coal. Significantly, the team is also expected to suggest renewed construction of nuclear power plants, which put out no carbon but generate extremely radioactive waste.

While all this might be good news to what environmentalists see as the iron triangle of the coal, oil and nuclear industry, it falls far short of the comprehensive vision for emission controls that Kyoto once seemed to offer. "I'm very pessimistic that our government can do anything about [greenhouse gases]," says William Merrell, president of the Heinz Center, which provides funding to environment projects.

But an effective program to fight climate change need not involve huge increases in energy prices or draconian rules that choke industries at the smokestacks. The emphasis could be on introducing new technologies that would make conservation not only easier but also economical, if not profitable. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends a range of new devices, including hybrid gas-electric cars that run half the time on a traditional internal-combustion engine and the rest of the time on batteries, boosting gas mileage considerably. (This technology could even be put into SUVs.) Also promising is the combined cycle gas turbine that can be used in place of traditional turbines to generate electricity. The new hardware operates at up to 60% efficiency, nearly twice that of any other turbine. Add a device that captures escaping heat and use that to warm buildings, and the efficiency jumps to 90%.

The IPCC was particularly keen on wind power. In the U.S., wind turbines have generally been limited to the environmental fringes. In Europe, however, they mean business. The E.U. produces 70% of the world's wind-generated energy, with Germany, Spain and Denmark leading the way. Worldwide, wind turbines account for about 15 gigawatts of energy, which is the equivalent of 15 coal-fired power plants. The Netherlands will soon be getting into the game in a big way, building one of the world's largest wind farms five miles offshore, a remote location that can take advantage of brisk sea breezes while keeping the sometimes noisy mills out of human earshot. Similar wind farms built in a place like North Dakota could generate not just energy but profits. Farmers earn $50 an acre from wheat, but could reap $2,000 an acre selling wind-generated power.

Outside the E.U., other countries are unexpectedly taking a leadership role in curbing global warming. Mexico, which for decades has been choking on its own exhaust, is planning to double its output of geothermal power--energy generated by natural underground heating--which would place it third in the world in geothermal production, behind the U.S. and the Philippines. President Vicente Fox is also promising a bill that would open the national power grid to electricity produced by all manner of alternative sources.

China, with 11% of the world's CO2 output--second to the U.S.--has cracked down on emissions and reduced its greenhouse output 17% between 1997 and 1999, eliminating more than the entire CO2 production of Southeast Asia. Beijing's goal was less to curb global warming than to clean the air and protect the health of its population. But whatever its motivations, the policy is paying environmental dividends. "When China takes action," says climate expert Kevin Baumert of World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank, "it has global implications."

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