05/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Resolving the Global Warming Paradox

A giant meteor capable of extinguishing human life is believed to be
hurtling toward Earth. Will the US unite to figure out the threat or
will we cleave along partisan political lines? Most likely the former.
Then what makes a menace of equivalent magnitude, the one potentially
posed by global warming, so divisive?

Proponents of emissions-induced climate change argue that doomsday is
well nigh unless carbon emissions are curbed dramatically and
urgently. Naysayers question the very notion of global warming, and
even those among them who concede it is occurring reject the
carbon-as-cause theory. High-profile adherents bolster each argument.
Lost in the almost daily sally of disinformation and rancor are
everyday Americans, who do not know where to obtain the facts on
global warming. Americans need to know once and for all how real is
the threat posed by global warming, and what its true causes and
remedies are. This essay propounds that climate change has not really
hit home to Joe Blow as yet and examines why this is so and how to
rectify the situation.

In 2007, with the UN's Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the case for man-made climate
change appeared to reach a crescendo. Earlier that year, this body
representing more than 2000 scientists had published a voluminous
3000-page report widely considered as definitive. Even the
long-skeptical George W. Bush administration changed tack and warned
the nation to kick its oil addiction. With both presidential nominees,
Barack Obama and John McCain, promising to combat climate change as a
top priority, national consensus seemed to have emerged. If their
respective approaches differed at all, it was only in style, not
substance. Certainly neither questioned carbon's culpability. With the
new president taking up with great gusto the task of curbing carbon
pollution, the tide of public opinion seemed to have turned in favor
of prompt mitigative action.

In 2008, national gas prices peaked around $4 a gallon, forcing many
to throttle back on hitherto-unbridled consumption. Cheap gas no
longer seemed to last forever. Pockets of the country saw a serious
uptake of hybrid electric vehicles, with gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks
getting dumped. Solar and wind energy utilization too started growing.
Many famous personalities in the country espoused the merits of clean
energy. A green makeover for the US was just in the offing.

Alas, it was not meant to be. The global economy sagged, gas prices
dropped to affordable levels, and rapidly diminishing household
incomes made expensive clean energy systems out of reach. Public
support for reducing carbon still remained strong until a steady
stream of events cast a pall over the green movement.

Labeling cap-and-trade as cap-and-tax was the first shot across the
bow. A simple but clever change in moniker led many to believe that
energy legislation circulating through Congress would pinch their
wallets. The humongous, almost-incomprehensible energy bills did
themselves no favor by making it hard for the average person to make
an informed judgment. Powerful personalities on opposite ends of the
political spectrum adopted rigid stances, with liberals in general
rooting to curb emissions and conservatives coalescing vehemently
against for the most part. Very few were able to articulate what was
really at stake. If anyone tried, no one listened. People let their
political persuasions guide them on this issue. A matter of life and
death became another red vs. blue debate.

Overzeal on the part of some members of the carbon-as-cause scientific
community helped erode its credibility. First came the revelations out
of England that peers holding contrarian views had been pressured to
conform. Then the IPCC itself stood accused of exaggerating the
threat to the Himalayan glaciers and the Amazonian rain forest.
Climate change skeptics saw in all this vindication of their earlier
warnings that the environmentalist movement had run amok. The general
populace, reeling to cope with the economic crisis, started tuning out
climate change. A shivering winter across the country added further
grist to the skeptics' mill.

2010, and perhaps even 2011, then promise winters of discontent. An
Einstein-like figure, with impeccable credentials and touchstone
appeal, would surely have resonated with most Americans. In the
absence of such a talisman, President Obama and Congress should
consider setting up a bipartisan commission that will assemble and
oversee a small team of credible scientists tasked to examine if the
planet is heating, and if so, what the causes are and how harmful the
effects. The scientists should complete their inquiry in a few months
and publicize their findings widely in layman terms. Some would
counter that there is no need to tread down beaten paths, but previous
scientific attempts, howsoever thorough and well-intentioned, have
clearly not engaged the general public sufficiently.

Were a meteor to approach the Earth, humankind will look toward the US
to save it. No one else has the requisite prowess. With global warming
too, the world is asking America to take charge. But riven by
division, we seem intent on making an utter mockery of ourselves.
Whether future generations are imperiled or whether we are all just
blowing hot smoke, is it not high time that passion subside and this
matter be laid to rest?