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?