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State of the Planet Address?


The annual winter deep freeze has set in here on the east coast, and not before time. As of Sunday morning, January 21, the temperature for the month in New York City was running an astonishing 11 degrees Farenheit above normal. If you think that’s an anomaly that won’t last the month, my electricity bill in Phoenicia suggests otherwise: the average temperature here in December ’05 was a typically cold 25 degrees. It December 06, it was 37 degrees.

Does this kind of eminently noticeable climate change make the people that set policy actually sit up and take notice? Perhaps it does. The last few months may have brought both abnormally warm and wet weather and cataclysmic storms, but they’ve also been marked by a string of encouraging proposals. Last year, the State of California mandated a 25% cut in its greenhouse emissions by 2020. In September, Richard Branson pledged to commit all profits from his Virgin transportation businesses over 10 years to combat global warming — and begged other airlines to join him in exploring technology to reduce emissions. Just two weeks ago, the EU called for and offered methods to achieve a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

And then last Thursday, a coalition of predominantly American businesses

banded together with leading environmental groups,”

I quote,

“to call for a firm nationwide limit on carbon dioxide emissions that would lead to reductions of 10 to 30 percent over the next 15 years.”

Allowing that this group includes amongst its ranks such behemoths of fossil fuel industry as DuPont, BP, Caterpillar and GE, its announcement should not be taken lightly.

Of course, it wouldn’t be big business without loop holes and incentives. The newly-named United States Climate Action Partnership, just like the four Democratic energy proposals currently working their way through the Senate,

“calls for creating a market-based system, under which the government gives or sells permits to businesses, allowing them a certain level of emissions. Once established, such a system would allow better-performing companies to sell or trade unneeded credits, and all companies involved would be able to determine whether it would be more efficient for them to clean up their own emissions or buy credits from others.”

This sounds suspiciously like the system we already have. As Jeff Golden writes in the January issue of Upstate House,

“Right now, a lot of factories are limited in how much carbon dioxide they can emit. If they produce more than their limit, they can be heavily fined by the federal government. But if a factory produces less than its limit, it can sell the difference as a “credit” to another company that exceeds its limit.”

Logic suggests that this does not serve to reduce carbon dioxide in the air, it just allows the heavier polluting businesses to buy their way out of trouble.

(Fortunately, at least one Carbon Offset company, ebluehorizons.com, has found a way for the average citizen to permanently “retire” these emissions, making sure the Government credit does not find its way back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This seems a more immediately productive way to assuage your carbon guilt than paying someone else to plant trees in the hope that the planet will last long enough for them to grow.)

Still, the very fact that big business is volunteering to police itself suggests a tidal shift in corporate American responsibility. In the States, as perhaps in most countries, cultural change works its way up from the grass roots, and the last few years have seen a steady growth in green personal politics in the USA: consumers buying more organic, whole food and especially fair trade products; customers asking that the businesses they support themselves support the environment; adults studying properly the ways to increase energy efficiency at home and in the office; home-owners building new houses “green” from the grass up; drivers even trading in their SUVs for more fuel efficient cars.

Such a grass roots groundswell has not gone unnoticed: Newsweek’s cover feature “The Greening Of America” last year may yet be seen as a watershed moment. And, inspired further perhaps by the impact of An Inconvenient Truth, we have clearly reached the point where big business and politicians feel the need to act: whether it’s Governor Schwarzanegger mandating that 25 percent cut in California’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, the 369 Mayors across America who have passed local ordinances by which they “Strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities,” or the United States Climate Action Partnership figuring out ways to police itself, it should be clear that Americans, who have collectively (if occasionally unconsciously) caused more damage to the environment than any other nation, are as keen to reverse climate change as any other nation.

All they need, really, is a President who truly shares their concerns and shows a genuine capacity for leadership out of such a crisis. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush is not that man. And the fact that he is, as the Times headline puts it, Expected to Make Call for Improved Fuel Economy in Tuesday’s State of The Union address should not be taken as any sign of a change in his heart. As sfar back as 2003, Bush announced in his State of the Union address that “America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.” The world is still waiting. Just last year, he astounded people by admitting that “America is addicted to oil,” an addiction he promised to counter with vague assurances about research in “better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.” Both these observations were countered, it should be noted, by a promise only to reduce America’s dependency on “foreign oil,” not to reduce dependency on oil itself.

As you may remember hearing from your teachers and parents, Action Speaks Louder Than Words. Don’t expect anything other than more cheap talk from the President Tuesday night. But you can anticipate further action from your local politicians and even, so it now seems, your CEOs of Big Business. And though it won’t get me inside one of their stores that have done so much to harm working class America, you know the tide of consumerism has turned green when none other than Wal Mart starts promoting the unattractive but highly efficient Compact Fluorescent Bulb over that most common of energy deficient household objects: the Incandescent Light Bulb.

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