Saturday, August 20, 2005

Congress goes glacial on a red-hot problem

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "Who are you going to believe: Congress or your own eyes?" If you believe Congress, which passed an irresponsible energy bill just before taking August off, you will also believe fossil fuels can be burned with impunity, the skies are sparkling and climate change is just something that happens with the seasons.

If you are Sen. Susan Collins, and you've just seen receding glaciers, bark beetles devouring spruce and ancient ice patches melting in Alaska, your own eyes tell you something very different. Your eyes, in fact, tell you what native people along the Alaskan coast will tell you: that they've never seen it so warm, that the permafrost is not only melting but melting to a deeper level than before, that their coastal lands are eroding.

This will confirm what a broad range of scientists are telling you: Human-induced climate change can be measured; its effects are felt most severely toward the poles. Though climate change is hugely complex and presents some benefits such as longer growing seasons and lower heating bills for some places, the negatives of flooding and, elsewhere, drought, wild swings in the weather, spreading infestations and disease, the added costs of going about daily life disastrously outstrip them.

To back up a little: You want the greenhouse-gas effect, which is what scientists called global warming before they called it climate change. Those gases are mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide, with some methane and nitrous oxide, that trap the heat from the sun and surround the earth in temperatures that humans like. Without this effect, average temperatures here would be a little below zero - great for the snowmobiling industry; not so great for the rest of us. When you hear about the greenhouse-gas effect these days, what's being talked about is the increased concentration of these gases. Since the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide in the air has increased 30 percent. Methane levels have more than doubled. Think of these gases in the atmosphere as blankets. No blanket and you're too cold; one provides the right amount of warmth; add another and sleep gets a little uncomfortable; a third, and you can't sleep at all. A surfeit of blankets is keeping scientists up at night and will soon awaken you, me and the 6.5 billion others reading this column.

Collins went to the Arctic this week with Sens. John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lindsey Graham to see the kinds of destruction that slight changes in temperature can bring. Last fall, they had seen similar effects in Norway. Too bad they couldn't persuade more of their colleagues to join them. "It becomes so much more striking when you see the retreating glaciers and the melting permafrost and changing wildlife," Collins said.

Seeing is believing, yet doubts remain, both from reputable sources who observe the difficulty of saying anything definitive about so complicated an idea as climate change and from those who just don't want to hear that society, collectively and cooperatively, must change its ways. "The nonbelievers have gone from denying there's a problem," Collins observed, "to saying the problem is just part of natural variation. But science has been able to plot natural variation for centuries and what we're experiencing is an outlier - it doesn't fit the pattern."

Congress' chance to do something about this came and went with the energy bill last month. The Senate had managed to include legislation that would have required market-based reductions in greenhouse gases. House Republicans got rid of that provision, leaving some funding for alternative energy, a small hybrid-car rebate and a voluntary measure to fund technologies that reduce greenhouse gas intensity: emissions as a fraction of gross domestic product. But that number is already expected to decline without the subsidies. Feeble action in the face of serious problems.

Collins, who has an exemplary environmental record, supported the bill anyway. "The bill does take some [conservation] steps," she said by phone on her way to Glacier Bay National Park the other day, "but the climate change title is really quite weak." She voted for the bill, she said, because of its new standards for the national electric grid system and some useful local provisions for wind and biomass power. Thankfully the bill does not have, after years of fighting, liability protection for the producers of the toxic gasoline additive MTBE, which is in Maine groundwater. But passing the bill (it passed 76-24) also means largely forgetting about any substantial climate change legislation for another year. With a Republican White House and Congress, perhaps three years.

That's the unreality of Congress: a delegation can travel north to see - touch, if they feel like it - the devastation of a global problem, a problem Congress has the power to address through conservative and careful legislation, that must be addressed for the health of the planet, but the most it can accomplish is to prevent a toxic chemical from being given special legal protection that it never deserved in the first place.

Later this year, the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. James Inhofe, is expected to hold yet more hearings on climate change, where it will be argued that the extensive evidence pointing to its occurrence and its serious effects are part of a worldwide hoax. The hearings will be widely condemned by outraged environmentalists, but they will have served their purpose - to obfuscate and delay. Glaciers will continue to melt, flora and fauna will encounter more virulent pests and succumb, the weather will become more damaging, and Congress will move on to its next topic.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.


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