Where there’s a will …

The US public is finally waking up to the notion that climate change is a real danger, and the media and markets are reacting, reports Polly Ghazi. But what about the country’s biggest global warming sceptic?

The year is 2010. One in every 10 cars on American roads is a hybrid, thanks to big incentives for manufacturers and buyers. By law, every home and garden in California is lit only by low-energy light bulbs. The president has declared climate-change mitigation a national-security priority, equal in urgency to the “war on terror”. And a federal carbon-cap-and-trade system has set the United States on course to meet new greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets.

A naive environmentalist's fantasy? Perhaps. But the signs are that America is ready for a major shift on climate change, one driven by the media, the public, state governments, big business and, most recently, the new Democratic Congress.

After years of being a non-issue, GHGs are becoming "the new tobacco", a public menace that Americans have woken up to in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and January temperatures of 75°F [24°C] in New York and Washington, DC. A poll last month found that seven in 10 people wanted mandatory action from the federal government to deal with climate change. The same percentage claimed they were cutting home energy use.

This being America, the market has responded. Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, now sells organic cotton clothes. In April, Home Depot – another retail giant — launched a new Eco Options range of 2,500 products, while Costco offers residential wind turbines. Toyota sold 61,635 hybrid vehicles in the US in January to March this year, up 68% on the same period in 2006.

The media have played a key role in this turnaround in public attitudes. Coverage has migrated to the front pages of newspapers and climate sceptics no longer command equal billing. Last month saw climate cover stories in both Vanity Fair and Newsweek magazines.

America's corporations, including major emitters such as the electric power and oil and gas sectors, have seen the writing on the wall and would prefer national regulations to a piecemeal, state-by-state approach. Du Pont, General Electric, Duke Energy and, more recently, General Motors are among the giants now advocating a national GHG reduction policy and regulatory framework.

“Wal-Mart and General Electric are providing game-changing leadership," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "Wal-Mart because of its huge reach in terms of customers and suppliers, and General Electric because it has developed a new portfolio for a carbon-constrained world."

Carmakers have bucked this trend, fiercely opposing efforts by 14 US states, led by California, to set carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction targets for new vehicles by 2009. But the ground was cut out from under them by the US Supreme Court's groundbreaking ruling last month that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could, and should, regulate CO2 emissions.

None of this shifting ground has been lost on members of Congress, where a staggering 73 climate-related bills have been introduced since January. Democrats in the House of Representatives have pledged to approve legislation by July 4, 2007 to set a mandatory cap on national emissions. In the Senate, presidential contenders from both parties are proposing climate legislation. The Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, co-sponsored by John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton (among others), would cap national emissions at 2000 levels from 2010. Barack Obama wants tax incentives to equip car assembly plants with fuel efficient technology and bigger tax credits for hybrid vehicles.

But this is not to say that federal climate legislation is imminent. Within the year, a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill, most likely mirroring California's state law to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, may pass both houses of Congress and reach the president's desk. But there it will hit a roadblock — the climate sceptic in the White House.

"It has become obvious that the US will take action federally to cap GHG emissions either before or after President Bush leaves office," says Hans Verolme, director of WWF's global climate change programme. "I am sceptical, though, that this president will sign an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill. That may only happen if Republicans decide this issue is a bee in their bonnet they want to get rid of."

One other powerful lobby that might persuade the president to change his mind is the military. On April 16, the president's Military Advisory Board issued a stark report entitled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. Its authors, 11 retired US admirals and generals, described global warming as a serious national security issue and a "threat multiplier" for breeding terrorism in poor regions. They urged the US government to "commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilise climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability."

Most commentators now agree that a mandatory cap-and-trade system will be in place by 2010, and that the market for hybrid vehicles and other green-lifestyle products will increase exponentially. But the US green bandwagon has its limits. Hefty subsidies to plant crops for ethanol manufacture have created a steady rise in biofuel use. But debate is growing as to whether converting too much of America's cropland will raise food prices and even create food shortages. And the emphasis on "cool" technology — hybrid vehicles, solar panels — to solve the climate threat has enabled politicians and the public to avoid the inconvenient truth that Americans must consume much less if the world is to begin to reduce emissions.

Key questions remain. Will the US act unilaterally or take a lead in implementing a global post-Kyoto accord? "If you compare where the US was two years ago on climate policy and where it is today, it is hard to believe that the government will not act on an exponential basis," says Verolme. "But current US emissions are very high. Mandatory reductions that the public will accept may not be stringent enough to keep temperature increases at manageable levels."

"I think the real objective of the US negotiators is not just to keep the lid on and have nothing happen while President Bush is in office," Philip Clapp, president of the Washington-based National Environmental Trust (NET), told the BBC in Bonn. "They are trying to lay landmines under a post-Kyoto agreement after they leave office."

In other words, California apart, the US will most likely still be playing catch-up with Europe as a warming world enters the next decade.


· Polly Ghazi is co-author, with Rachel Lewis, of The Low Carbon Diet.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007