If Bush Really Wants a Legacy

By Stewart L. Udall
Stewart L. Udall represented Arizona in the House from 1954 to 1961 and was secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969.

Los Angeles Times

December 9, 2004

Scientists tell us that global warming is an omnipresent reality, that in this century it will change the lives of all of us and alter our relationship to the physical world. Only a comprehensive, global strategy will enable humanity to gradually cope with its implications.

Robust, immediate action is needed. Forget wrangling about ratification of the modest Kyoto treaty. Instead, the 20 industrialized countries (let's call them the Power Bloc) that produce most of the world's destructive carbon dioxide emissions must join together to take action.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stripped of its military trappings, might be a model, and the United States, responsible for 25% of those emissions, must lead the way. President Bush has the power and the prestige to convene such an entity and galvanize such an effort. It could be his most important legacy.

For the last two centuries the burning of fossil fuel — coal, natural gas and crude oil — has been propelling human civilization. But fossil resources are finite — they really will run out — and their use has altered Earth's atmosphere. On both fronts, Americans are in denial.

Why are we so blind? We have been conditioned to believe that catastrophe will not occur, that humankind is perpetually on the threshold of discoveries that will magically solve our dilemmas.

As a freshman congressman in 1955, I sat spellbound as physicist John Von Newman claimed that by 1980 nuclear power plants would produce electricity so cheap it wouldn't have to be metered. Such promises have fostered a belief that the U.S. will achieve "energy independence" and that science will produce easy panaceas (remember fusion and breeder reactors?). They have even spawned skepticism that the phenomenon called global warming is real.

Organizing an international effort and a NATO-style group to combat real energy and environmental problems would be a big step toward ending our belief in magic. What would such an organization look like?

Each country would bear the expense of sending its best scientists, entrepreneurs, energy specialists, architects and planners to serve on policymaking panels. Each nation could help pay for necessary research and development; logic would suggest that each should ante up based on the carbon dioxide its energy installations produced the previous year.

Fast action must be the goal: establishing priorities, agreeing on what is possible, spreading and inventing strategies that curb fossil fuel use and increase renewable resource use.

There are four sectors in which dramatic gains could be made. First: electric power use and production. Generating electricity also generates 40% of greenhouse gases. A study by the Electric Power Research Institute has concluded that this industry can be fundamentally transformed through serious investment in clean, efficient new means of production and transmission and such simple expedients as sensors that would turn off the lights when people left a room.

The second sector in which change is achievable involves the built environment. Already architects such as Arizona's Edward Mazria are proving that buildings can be operated with "green" efficiency at little extra cost. Using existing renewable energy technologies (solar, thermal, wind and biomass), buildings can be made "carbon-neutral," requiring no fossil-fuel energy to operate. This alone would eliminate nearly half of current global carbon dioxide emissions.

Next come cars and our extravagant automotive transportation system. The Power Bloc must coordinate and agree on ways to encourage — even mandate — the spread of fuel-efficient cars (including hybrids and lighter vehicles) and new fuels.

In the U.S., we have finally begun to consider encouraging fuel saving in the way highway systems are designed (allowing hybrids into the carpool lane, for example) or through the carrot and the stick of taxation. We must do more and we must do it in concert with the rest of the world.

Finally, the fourth sector: exploiting renewable energy sources. Money and research are required to perfect new ways of generating and delivering solar, wind and geothermal power. The small actions of individual governments — like Colorado's vote to require its electric companies to generate 10% of their power via renewables in the next 10 years — must be multiplied nationally and internationally.

Could Bush bring together representatives from China, Russia, India and the other members in the Power Bloc to address such issues? Could he jump-start a fresh global effort to contain and roll back what his administration calls "climate change"? Of course he could.

But will he? As was the case when President Nixon went to China and President Reagan made overtures to the Soviet Union, when modern U.S. presidents have acted boldly — and often against expectations — they have changed the world. We can only hope that Bush has the same lofty ambition.