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Climate Change Decision in 11 Days: Ostrich or Hawk

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A simple truth about climate change: We have the technology, legal framework and economic incentive to act now to alter our wasteful, global-warming ways. In transportation, energy, land use and sprawl - all the pieces are there, right now, except the will to act decisively.

In the next 11 days, President Obama must make a decision that will say a great deal about how America addresses -- or fails to address -- the threat of global warming in the years to come. He can either sever a last remaining tie to the Bush Administration's environmental legacy, or he will accept a parting shot from our nation's worst environmental president by silently letting the clock run out and doing nothing.

First, the backstory: Those who are arguing (as Newt Gingrich just did before Congress) that action against global warming will be too expensive can get away with this argument only because we - the media, our leaders, the public -- let proponents of this view conceal the true cost of our current system. (Also some of them make up their "facts.")

The hidden costs of, for example, gasoline powered cars are enormous: those costs include the proven health effects of smog and toxic auto emissions; the elevated heart disease, lung disease, premature births and cancer rates near our freeways; the spiraling childhood asthma rates and other lung ailments in our urban areas; the damage to our infrastructure, buildings, even house paint that pollutants associated with transportation cause. Now, who bears that cost? Is it reflected in the current price of gasoline? No. But why is that? If an ordinary citizen does something to make his neighbor sick, and does it knowingly, and doesn't stop doing it even after the harm is revealed, that person can be held legally liable. He can be compelled to pay, and rightly so. Do carmakers pay for the damage done to health and environment by their cars and the fuel they burn? Do the oil companies? No.

And so, we are subsidizing the apparent low cost of gas and cars. We are paying for it in our sky-high health care and insurance costs, in our tax dollars, and in our lives and the lives of our children. That is the true cost of our current love affair with the internal combustion engine, coming out of consumers' pockets, so that the hidden but very real cost of gas, right now, ranges from $5 a gallon to $15 a gallon, depending on who's doing the estimating. Former Cal EPA Chief Terry Tamminen, who is profiled in Eco Barons, puts the cost at about $10 a gallon. We ignore this because "the argument of hidden costs" has so far prevailed in our discourse, skewing the debate, focusing on the price at the pump, which is only a fraction of the cost of the pump. A reality based cost-analysis shows that we will save money, not to mention lives, as we shift to renewable energy and clean cars.

The debate has been skewed in another way: There is a bedrock assumption -- a false assumption -- that Congress must create new laws to deal with climate change, and so we must wait for the compromised piece of legislation to emerge. The result inevitably will be far too little, far too late. Jim Hansen of NASA calls current legislative proposals little more than greenwash. The truth is that, while the right new laws would be very helpful, we have no need to stand still while we wait. There are powerful laws already in place -- dating back 30 years or more -- that give us most of the tools we need to act decisively on climate change right now. Indeed, we could have done so many years ago, and it is a scandal and a national shame that we have not.

First there is the Clean Air Act of 1970, which gives the federal government the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The US Supreme Court decided this in April 2007 in Massachusetts v. EPA. The court ordered the Bush Administration to put this sweeping power to use, but the president refused to act. Now it's up to President Obama, who has taken the first steps to comply with the law. But more must be done, and soon -- which brings us not so much to a question of policy or economy or technology, but to a question of values. By this I mean not only the values of our leaders, but the rest of us as well. Do we want a forceful regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, which will have a good chance of saving our world for our children and grandchildren -- but which inevitably will require fundamental changes in how we obtain and use energy? Will we back such efforts, or well we side with the opposition, once again succumbing to the argument of hidden costs?

The second legal tool against climate change -- and here is the looming challenge for the Obama Administration -- is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Bush Administration reluctantly extended endangered species protections to the polar bear, with a finding that global warming was the extinction threat. This was a pivotal finding, because it gives the government the power and responsibility to limit the damage to endangered animals and their habitats caused by global warming. Bush issued a rule at the end of his term intended to serve as a poison pill against using endangered species protections to regulate climate change; Obama has hinted he would repeal that "midnight rule," but he has yet to do so, despite congressional authority to revoke the Bush rules with the stroke of a pen. This poses a major test of our new president's commitment to environmentalism. And he must decide this in the next 11 days, when the congressional permission expires.

Truly following the intent of the Endangered Species Act would, once again, require a fundamental shift away from oil and coal, and toward renewable energy, electric cars, smart buildings and development. But coupled with the Clean Air Act, it is potentially a powerful tool for bringing about that change.

Such change can't happen all at once, of course, but it is now incumbent on the government to help put a gradual shift in motion by providing incentives and rewards for the clean and green, and penalties for the dirty and wasteful. We have the laws to begin this process. We have the technologies to make it a reality. Obama has the authority, should he choose to exert it. And so we have a decision to make, as a people, as a country, about how we want to proceed.

We have made changes in the past: we responded to the anti-littering campaign of the sixties and seventies by changing how we behave, cleaning up the litter from streets and roads and rivers seemingly overnight. We woke up and changed on smoking, and drinking and driving, too. Climate is the biggest challenge we have faced since World War II, but America has a history of rising to such challenges. We just need to figure out if we want to be the climate ostrich, or the climate hawk.

Let's see what the next 11 days bring.

Edward Humes is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers & Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet.

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