Americans don't like to lose warswhich makes sense, since we have so little practice with it. Of course, a lot depends on how you define just what a war is. There are shooting warsthe kind that test our mettle and our patriotism and our resourcefulness and our courageand those are the kind at which we excel. But other struggles test those qualities too. What else was the Great Depression or the space race or the construction of the railroads or the eradication of polio but a massive, often frightening challenge that we decided as a culture we ought to rise up and face? If we indulge in a bit of chest-thumping and flag-waving when the job is done, well, we earned it.
We are now faced with a similarly momentous challenge: global warming. The steady deterioration of the very climate of our very planet is becoming a war of the first order, and by any measure, the U.S. is losing. Indeed, if we're fighting at alland by most accounts, we're notwe're fighting on the wrong side. The U.S. produces nearly a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases each year and has stubbornly made it clear that it doesn't intend to do a whole lot about it. Although 174 nations ratified the admittedly flawed Kyoto accords to reduce carbon levels, the U.S. walked away from them. While even developing China has boosted its mileage standards to 35 m.p.g., the U.S. remains the land of the Hummer. Oh, there are vague promises of manufacturing fuel from switchgrass or powering cars with hydrogensomeday. But for a country that rightly cites patriotism as one of its core values, we're taking a pass on what might be the most patriotic struggle of all. It's hard to imagine a bigger fight than one for the survival of the country's coasts and farms, the health of its people and the stability of its economyand for those of the world at large as well.
The rub is, if the vast majority of people increasingly agree that climate change is a global emergency, there's far less consensus on how to fix it. Industry offers its plans, which too often would fix little. Environmentalists offer theirs, which too often amount to naive wish lists that could cripple America's growth. But let's assume that those interested parties and others will always be at the table and will alwayssensiblydemand that their voices be heard and that their needs be addressed. What would an aggressive, ambitious, effective plan look likeone that would leave us both environmentally safe and economically sound?
Forget precedents like the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, or the Apollo program that put men on the moonsingle-focus programs both, however hard they were to pull off. Think instead of the overnight conversion of the World War II-era industrial sector into a vast machine capable of churning out 60,000 tanks and 300,000 planes, an effort that not only didn't bankrupt the nation but instead made it rich and powerful beyond its imagining andoh, yeswon the war in the process.
Halting climate change will be far harder than even that. One of the more conservative plans for addressing the problem, by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University, calls for a reduction of 25 billion tons of carbon emissions over the next 50 yearsthe equivalent of erasing nearly four years of global emissions at today's rates. And yet by devising a coherent strategy that mixes short-term solutions with farsighted goals, combines government activism with private-sector enterprise and blends pragmatism with ambition, the U.S. can, without major damage to the economy, help halt the worst effects of climate change and ensure the survival of our way of life for future generations. Money will get us part of the way there, but what's needed most is will. "I'm not saying the challenge isn't almost overwhelming," says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund and co-author of the new book Earth: The Sequel. "But this is America, and America has risen to these challenges before."
No one yet has a comprehensive plan for how we could do so again, but everyone agrees on what the biggest parts of the plan would be. Here's our blueprint for how America can fightand winthe war on global warming.
First, Price the Sky
The most important part of a blueprint to contain climate change is to put a charge on carbon emissions. As long as the sky is free, renewable energy will never beat fossil fuels. But put a price on carbon, and suddenly the alternatives look a lot better. The most feasible way to do this is through a cap-and-trade system that sets ceilings for carbon output and lets companies that come in under the limit sell credits to those that don't, allowing them to keep pollutinga little. The effect is that overall carbon levels fall, and there is even money to be made by being greener than the next guy. That drives investment and research dollars into renewable energy and efficiency. "Cap and trade changes everything," says Krupp.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was an early attempt at such a system, with the aim of having developed nations reduce their carbon emissions an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. The accords were meant to drive cuts in greenhouse gases and promote investment in clean tech in developing nations through carbon trading. What probably doomed Kyoto was the absence of some key players. Large developing nations like China, India and Indonesia were excused from the treaty, since limiting their emissions was seen as likely to limit their burgeoning economies. The U.S., whose participation was necessary if the treaty was going to succeed, cited this perceived favoritism when it abandoned Kyoto altogether in 2001.
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