A Change of Climate: Despite a Lack of Leaders Hip from the Federal Government, a Ground Swell of Activity to Cut Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Is Emerging throughout the United States

By Hassol, Susan Joy; Udall, Randy | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

A Change of Climate: Despite a Lack of Leaders Hip from the Federal Government, a Ground Swell of Activity to Cut Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Is Emerging throughout the United States


Hassol, Susan Joy, Udall, Randy, Issues in Science and Technology


Although the signs of global warming are becoming ever more prominent, casual observers of the media in the United States or Europe might easily conclude that U.S. citizens are in denial about climate change, refusing to take responsibility for controlling their emissions of carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) and the other greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause global warming. Although it is true that the federal government remains stalemated on how to deal with climate change, the notion that no climate action is taking place in this country is erroneous. The most intriguing story is what has been happening in state legislatures, at city council meetings, and in corporate boardrooms, as well as on college campuses, in community groups, and in a range of other local settings. Across the nation, numerous climate action programs are moving aggressively to reduce emissions of GHGs.

It is rare that a week goes by without the announcement of a new initiative. Among recent clippings, New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican, announced that his state aims to get 25 percent of its electricity from carbon-free renewable energy resources within a decade. Ford and General Motors declared their intent to follow Toyota's lead and manufacture hybrid electric cars and trucks that are more fuel-efficient and less polluting. New Hampshire adopted emissions controls for three aging power plants. American Electric Power, the largest single source of GHGs in the western world, launched an effort to reduce its emissions by 4 percent by 2006. Students at Zach Elementary School in Ft. Collins, Colorado, choose to purchase wind energy instead of coal power, thus keeping 420,000 pounds of C02, the leading GHG, out of the atmosphere. How many millions of tons of [CO.sub.2]ac have been saved by the activities of states, cities, corporations, and citizens has not yet been calculated, but the number is gro wing rapidly.

What is the significance of this nascent grassroots movement? In the past, major shifts in societal values have originated at the local level. Popular movements to abolish slavery, allow women to vote, extend civil rights to African Americans, and curb secondhand smoke started small and then spread nationally. The nation now seems to be witnessing a similar snowball effect, where one successful climate action program inspires two or three more. These early efforts are demonstrating that climate protection is possible, affordable, and increasingly viewed as desirable by many political, corporate, and civic leaders. Widespread activities to reduce emissions of GHGs demonstrate that despite the partisan wrangling in Washington, ordinary citizens can begin addressing climate change now. The challenge will be for federal "leaders" to catch up.

Temperatures rising

Although Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first suggested in 1896 that [CO.sub.2] emitted from the burning of fossil fuel would lead to global warming, the issue did not receive sustained political attention until the 1980s. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change set a goal of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of GHGs at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. In 1997, the world's nations gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate how to accomplish this goal. The resulting agreement--the Kyoto Protocol--has now been signed by 100 nations and, if ratified by Russia, will go into effect later in 2003.

The protocol, which would require the United States to reduce its GHG emissions to a level that is 7 percent below 1990 levels, met a frosty reception in Washington. One senator pronounced it "dead on arrival." During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush pledged to reduce [CO.sub.2] emissions, but shortly after taking office reneged on this pledge. All rhetoric aside, it will be nearly impossible to stabilize global [CO.sub.2] concentrations without the full and active cooperation of the United States. …

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