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Warming imperils our future

January 21, 2007 12:50 am

BECAUSE WE HAVE to start somewhere, I bought my first batch of energy-saving light bulbs the other day. I admit it: Al Gore persuaded me to do this.

We recently rented "An Inconvenient Truth," his movie about the threat of global warming and the changing climate. The next day I bought a copy so I could lend it out to people.

The inconvenient truth is this: Global warming, caused by human activity, is endangering our planet and the health of future generations--and it is our responsibility to make the lifestyle changes that will help reverse it.

Climate change is undeniable and irrefutable. I don't care that those who choose to ignore the facts are endangering themselves; I care that they are putting my kids and their kids at risk.

The United States is the biggest contributor to the problem, and government at every level must do better. Take the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors, for instance. By letting the 2 percent gas tax prevent the county from joining the Virginia Railway Express, the board is being penny wise and pound stupid.

Supervisors have the opportunity to get automobiles off Interstate 95, to enhance other public transportation services, and to improve bottlenecks that cause vehicles to spew poisons into the air as they idle, and they choose not to accept it. They choose to reject progress.

It was a similar failure to lead that delayed public acceptance of the value of seat belts and the dangers of smoking. Such foot-dragging costs lives, just as it will if we fail to act--in the face of incontrovertible evidence--on the threat of global warming.

Hundreds of U.S. mayors have pledged to work toward meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The mayors are doing this because theirs is one of only two industrialized nations (Australia being the other) that have neither signed the agreement nor come up with an alternative plan.

The cost, of course, is always a hurdle--just as it was for landmark environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The economy survived these mandates despite the predictions of various corporate and political leaders to the contrary. Indeed, without such legislation our survival would be in doubt.

In Virginia, the mayors of Alexandria, Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Richmond, Virginia Beach, and Williamsburg have signed this Climate Protection Agreement. Any cities missing? Hmmm, Fredericksburg seems to be absent from that list. Now would be a good time to rectify that.

When the subject is government denial, inaction, and ignorance on environmental issues, the Bush administration comes immediately to mind. The president announced recently that warming could prompt the placement of polar bears on the endangered list. Unfortunately, President Bush was interested only because he thought his advisers were referring to Polar Bars, some sort of novelty ice cream product.

The United States remains dead last among industrialized nations in terms of vehicle miles-per-gallon and emissions requirements. We can't even sell our cars in China.

Earlier this week it was reported that the administration's spending priorities have short-circuited research on climate change. Funds have instead gone toward manned missions to the moon and Mars.

Do you see the pattern here? President Bush ignores his own planet in favor of space exploration, just as he ignores his own country in favor of military interventions overseas.

For its part, the General Assembly is looking at legislation called the Green Buildings Act that would set standards for materials and methods for Virginia's public construction and renovation projects. Reducing the state's contribution to pollution and global warming is the stated goal.

One can look at the challenge as either combating global warming or weaning ourselves from carbon-based fuels, and still pursue the goal of a healthier planet. So even if you still believe that global warming is natural, cyclical, and not our fault, maybe that's not so bad as long as you agree that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is an absolute must.

In 1975, as the leaded-gasoline era ended, the auto industry turned to catalytic converters to help reduce exhaust emissions. Without them, experts agree, we would be living under a shroud of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides, so we are certainly better off with them than without them.

The tradeoff is that they convert those noxious gasses mostly into carbon dioxide, which is not exactly the "harmless" gas--in massive quantities--that it was believed to be.

Prior to the industrial/automotive age, the atmosphere easily dispelled whatever CO2 the planet generated. Over the past 30 years, though, scientists realized that all the CO2 being generated by cars, factories, and non-nuclear power plants is collecting in the atmosphere faster than it can naturally dissipate. The overabundance of CO2 is now trapping too much of the sun's heat.

As the planet's temperature has risen, the polar ice caps, its natural cooling system, have melted and receded, reducing their cooling power.

It's easy to assume because the Earth is so big and so old in evolutionary terms that there's nothing we could do to harm it--at least nothing we have to worry about for, say, a million years. Recent extreme climate changes attributed to global warming, however, have occurred in the blink of an eye by Earth-science standards. The sooner people set aside their skepticism about climate change and its effects, the sooner positive strides can be taken.

That skepticism includes blaming global warming for the nasty hurricanes of recent years and other weather extremes that cause drought and flooding. The point here, one that Gore emphasizes, is that global warming isn't responsible for these things, but rather intensifies them. Perhaps Hurricane Katrina would have been less powerful, or the drought in Africa less severe, if it weren't for global warming.

Before the science behind this emerged, all we knew was that the industrial revolution begat American prosperity, and that the automobile enhanced our personal freedom. Few would trade the convenience and quality of life that our electric appliances and electronic equipment have brought us.

But now that we know the damage we're causing, inaction equals irresponsibility. Visit climatecrisis.net to learn the many basic things you can do, like buying new light bulbs, that will make a difference.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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