In the '60s and '70s, America woke up to widespread pollution and took serious steps to curb it. Again, the nation is rubbing its eyes – this time over the specific issues of climate change and dependence on fossil fuels. But will it hit the snooze alarm, or jump out of bed?
For the past year or so, awareness in the US of global warming has been going mainstream. It's the same with a renewed concern about foreign oil. It's not just the liberal, close-knit environmental community that's on the alert, but many businesses and investors, mayors and governors, Republicans and evangelicals.
Though their solutions differ, there's at least uniformity in their growing concern – and an opportunity for US innovation and leadership in these related issues.
Hurricane Katrina sounded a coast-to-coast alarm last year, even though no one can prove a link between the hurricane and Earth's warming trend. High energy prices have also driven public awareness. And now it looks as if Al Gore may become the Rachel Carson of global warming. His movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," is the third highest-grossing documentary ever.
According to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology poll, nearly half of Americans now consider global warming the nation's top environmental problem – up from 20 percent in 2003.
But the challenge is in converting widespread concern into widespread action. US hybrid vehicle sales doubled last year, but Americans still preferred SUVs by a ratio of 23 to 1 and highway speeding is up.
One has to admire the can-do spirit of more than 300 mayors, including big-city ones, who have pledged to reduce greenhouse gases. But they're succeeding on a very small scale. Last year, 70 cities reported total reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions of 23 million tons – yet the US would have to cut such emissions by more than 1.6 billion tons if it were to meet Kyoto treaty targets, which it never ratified.
Some governors, too, are paying attention, and they can magnify the efforts of mayors. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has mandated carbon reductions in California. And in Texas, GOP Gov. Rick Perry is working with utilities to create a 7,000-megawatt wind farm – equal to about a dozen coal-fired power plants.
Most encouraging is that some businesses sense a moneymaking, profile-raising opportunity in going green. Venture capital is beginning to flow into alternative energy. Big-foot Wal-Mart aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 percent in seven years. In 2004, Home Depot rolled out its "Eco Options" label to identify 2,000 lower enviro-impact items – a recognition that consumers will respond to "sustainable" products if they're available.
Whether this activity will influence Washington is an open question. Some argue that its hands-off energy and global-warming stance has been beneficial, spurring the states and the private sector. Others say that no large-scale change can occur without Washington. Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, is sure to rekindle this debate with her plan to eliminate tax breaks for Big Oil.
The debate will help determine the degree to which America has truly awakened to these twin issues.