Ways & Means: Riding the Big One An outpouring of initiatives to cool the climate By Carl Pope
BEING AN ENVIRONMENTALIST these days is like surfing the monster waves that periodically pound the California coast. The power behind us is beyond our control. The risks are enormous, as are the opportunities--so long as we can keep our balance.
Today's torrent of environmental progress rivals that in the heady years around the first Earth Day in 1970. It's particularly welcome given the long drought of George W. Bush's presidency. It took Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 elections, and increasingly terrifying scientific evidence on global warming to unleash a wave of action in every sphere of society. Businesses that used to sit on the sidelines are now calling for national action. The oil company ConocoPhillips, for example, says we need mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas pollution. The biggest industrial union in the country, the United Steelworkers, has formed an alliance with the Sierra Club (see "Profile") to make clean energy the foundation of a new U.S. industrial revolution. More than 500 "cool cities" have committed to comply with the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and California, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Washington have joined them at the state level. Half of U.S. states have adopted clean-electricity mandates, and half of U.S. auto buyers now live in states that will require new cars, trucks, and SUVs to meet tough standards for carbon dioxide emissions.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case filed by the Sierra Club, has ruled that greenhouse gases are pollution and that the EPA has a legal obligation to regulate them. And while the agency still refuses to safeguard citizens from toxic mercury, about 25 states have adopted strict regulations to do so.
On Wall Street, dirty coal-fired power plants are falling from favor. TXU Energy killed 8 of 11 planned coal plants in Texas, and Kansas City Power & Light has entered an agreement with the Sierra Club to order no new coal facilities and to reduce its plants' overall CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020 (see "Sierra Club Bulletin"). The number of proposed coal plants is declining, while California and Idaho have banned them altogether. Meanwhile, venture capitalists are rushing to invest in new energy solutions.
On Main Street, evangelicals have joined Catholics, Jews, and more-liberal Protestants in making environmental stewardship a crucial issue. Americans say global warming is the most important environmental issue facing the country and, after healthcare, the most important domestic policy issue.
In Congress, clean-energy schemes have proliferated ever since environmental hero Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) replaced climate crank James Inhofe (R-Okla.) as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) established a new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, chaired by Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the strongest environmentalists in Congress. When I testified at the committee's opening hearing on the national security implications of global warming, my fellow panelists were a former head of the CIA, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a four-star general, and a vice admiral.
You'd have a hard time telling their testimony from mine, or their solutions from those outlined in the Sierra Club's Smart Energy Solutions road map, prepared with the American Solar Energy Association. That plan shows how aggressive innovation in efficiency and renewables could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2 percent a year, getting us to the needed 70 to 80 percent reduction by 2050. (For details, visit sierraclub.org/roadmap.)
By the time you read this column, events will likely have swept past these examples. Congress may have set a national renewable energy standard, tougher fuel-efficiency rules for cars, or even an economy-wide carbon cap. And more states will certainly have joined the clean-energy parade.
Environmental waves of this sort don't come along very often. They can be cleansing forces, sweeping out old habits--and old politicians. They can also be exhilarating, especially for activist organizations like the Sierra Club, which knew the wave was coming and now stand ready to ride it.