Befuddlement within the Bush administration over whether to curb carbon dioxide emissions has helped clear the air over one certainty: Americans are a long way from consensus on how or whether to curb global warming.
President Bush himself represents that division. On the one hand, he gave a campaign speech last fall that mentioned the need to reduce CO2. And two of his cabinet officials have come out in favor of such action.
But Mr. Bush also has been clear that global warming is not a front-burner issue and that he has doubts about claims of scientific certainty that it's human-induced.
His apparent flip-flop was settled this week when he told a group of senators that limits on CO2 emissions would drive up energy costs too much. "I was responding to realities ...," he said.
That bit of honesty helped cut through the political fog. This debate isn't really about the power and profits of the energy industries, or even a struggle between natural gas companies and the coal-burning utilities. Lobbying Bush to chose sides is mere shadow-play for the reality that most Americans are not yet ready to give up their gas-guzzling SUVs, pay much higher electricity prices, and make other lifestyle-altering sacrifices. Nor have they voted in a Congress ready to tackle this issue decisively.
California is Exhibit A for the difficulties of forcing consumers to pay more for energy. The Democratic governor, Gray Davis, is jumping through narrow financial hoops to avoid raising consumer electric rates in trying to solve the state's energy crisis.
While President Clinton signed the 1997 global climate treaty that called for the US to radically reduce emissions believed to cause global warming, he likely did so knowing Congress was unlikely to ratify it. Even "Earth in the Balance" Al Gore never came out with a concrete plan on how to reduce CO2.
Reaching a consensus among climatologists on the causes of global warming has taken a decade or more, and still isn't fully finished because of some gaps in understanding the complexities of the atmosphere. Reaching a political consensus in the US could take longer.
The easy consensus, however, lies in pursuing some relatively inexpensive technological fixes to the burners and engines that use fossil fuels.
Much can be done to encourage consumers to buy "energy smart" products, cut demand for electricity, and thus the pollution involved in generating it. Government incentives can be given to develop alternative fuels and renewable energy sources.
Just seeking more fossil-fuel sources to provide more energy, as Bush plans, isn't enough.
He must become the nation's cheerleader for the whole range of solutions needed to address global warming, energy prices, and the way we manage the earth.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor