Our most neglected problem—global warming

posted Saturday, December 2, 2006        

Our most neglected problem—global warming
by Stewart L. Udall

November 19, 2006

“We are all riders on the Earth together.”
— Archibald MacLeish (1969)

The aftermath of a discordant election is a good time to focus on our biggest, most neglected problem — global warming.
Two powerful energy trends are converging to define the parameters of a changing world. The first involves the approaching peak of world oil production and the impacts it will have on the lives of people everywhere.
The second relates to the warming of the atmosphere by the incessant combustion of coal, oil and natural gas. The burning of those finite fossil fuels is producing carbon that is damaging the climates of all continents.
For more than a decade the world has been waiting for our nation to step forward and help organize a wholistic strategy to deal with this issue.
There is no dispute about the central facts. The United States, by itself, is burning fossil fuels that emit 25 percent of the heat-trapping carbon that is altering climates. It is also beyond dispute that the problem is truly global and will take unprecedented global cooperation to solve.
A good place to start a national dialogue about controlling the carbon buildup is to look at emissions of U.S. coal plants. To date leaders in Washington have excused inaction by arguing that any campaign to curb carbon would be so costly that it would “wreck” America’s economy and plunge the world into another Great Depression.
This is a weird argument for any informed American to make. U.S. prowess as the world leader in perfecting pollution-control technologies is legendary. Since the struggle to check urban smog 50 years ago, American specialists have repeatedly confounded their critics by quickly devising solutions that were surprisingly cheap. A can-do spirit (remember the Manhattan Project and the space program?) has long expressed American optimism when “impossible” ideas were proposed.
Today scientists are telling Americans that technologies already exist to sequester carbon before it is released into the air. Capturing the carbon at the site of coal plants and transporting it to safe depositories would be another triumph for those experts. Moreover, the logical region to carry out this work is the American West. For more than a century, in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, petroleum companies created huge geological caverns where carbon can be safely stored.
Any positive technological initiative by the United States would surely stir excitement and hope. But bold, robust leadership must come from the wealthy nations that have created the problem. I present, herewith, one concept that might provoke serious thought.
A Concept for Planetary Action:
I ask you to envision what might be done if the world’s richest countries created a research and development entity to serve the energy needs of the whole world.
Imagine that the 20 most advanced nations — whose energy programs put three-fourths of the carbon into the atmosphere — formed a consortium to develop solutions to future energy problems. If these countries pooled their financial resources on an equitable basis, they could create a powerhouse that could change the course of history.
Assume, for example, that those countries agreed that each member nation would initially contribute to the annual budget in proportion to the heat-trapping carbon it released into the atmosphere the previous year. Such a sharing would vouchsafe budgets needed to grapple with the most urgent energy problems.
Such an entity could assemble teams of superlative scientists, engineers and design specialists.
Any such effort would obviously flounder unless China (which recently passed the United States as the leading producer of coal carbon) were a full-fledged partner.
There are compelling reasons to anticipate that China would eagerly join such a consortium. As the home of the world’s fastest growing economy and the locale of some of the most polluted cities in the world, self-interest would dictate participation.
Author Thomas L. Friedman, whose columns frequently appear in the Star, recently reminded that for two decades China has graduated more scientists and engineers than any other country. This could be a huge reservoir of brainpower to help build a new and better world.
Humankind is at an energy crossroad. The world’s road right now involves fierce competition, potential shortages, high prices, frantic searches for undiscovered petroleum and growing environmental disasters. The new path, envisioned by energy planners, features vigorous international cooperation, bold technological advances, sharing, rapid development of renewable resources, and environmental stability.

Stewart L. Udall was elected four times to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in District 2 and was the first Arizonan named to a Cabinet position. His 1963 book “The Quiet Crisis,”a history of the attitudes and practices of conservationist movement in America, was an impetus for present environmentalism. His brother, Rep. Morris K. Udall, represented Tucson in Congress for 30 years.

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