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Whatever happened to global warming?

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A funny thing happened to the national debate over global warming: Since the international treaty on global warming was signed 14 months ago in Kyoto, Japan, the issue has virtually disappeared from the political radar. The vanishing act is taking place just when real climate solutions are, for the first time, within reach.

Lack of effort is not to blame. Environmentalists and academics have thrown themselves at the problem as never before, while financial resources from the federal government and major foundations have increased dramatically.

Instead, we've simply lost sight of what it is we're asking for. The sharp focus that helped produce the Kyoto deal has dissolved into a sea of complex legal and accounting questions.

This is particularly ironic in light of the dramatic retreat by the treaty opposition. Blustery speeches still occasionally emanate from Capitol Hill, but the corporate adversaries who once denied the very existence of global warming have largely ceded the debate in favor of more conciliatory postures.

The problem for US environmentalists isn't too few solutions; it's too many, all at once. As the issue unfolds, it spawns one subsidiary concern after another. In dealing with each new detail, our concentration on an overarching goal has lapsed. For all the small solutions, there is no single, clear national plan for meeting the Kyoto targets.

Under the pact, the US has until 2012 to cut greenhouse emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels, eliminating about 500 million metric tons of carbon pollution each year.

Whether the Senate ratifies the treaty soon or not, that target marks at best the bare minimum of what scientists say is necessary to avert the most severe climate change. In fact, it's not hard to sketch a clear-cut, cost-effective path to that goal.


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