America (finally!) begins to embrace alternative energy

The US needs bipartisan cooperation on climate-change legislation.

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Well hallelujah!

Are we Americans at last awakening to the probability that unless we change our ways, at some uncertain time in the future, there will be an energy crisis?

Are we beginning to accept the evidence that some form of global warming is under way and it is the result of our own profligacy?

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Are our politicians ready to take some of the politically hazardous steps toward solutions that may impact the pockets of average citizens?

There are signs that in the United States the whole problem of reliance on oil to fuel our cars and other needs, and the consequences of polluting the air with the residue, is beginning to stimulate at least serious discussion, and possibly action.

Democrats who have gained control of Congress are already taking some baby steps in a positive direction. Last week they successfully piloted through the House legislation that will roll back $14 billion in tax breaks for domestic oil producers, money which would then go for the development of alternative energy systems. The Senate is expected to sign on to the bill.

This column goes to press before President Bush delivers his State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night, but White House aides have been dropping broad hints that the address would include significant moves on energy use.

If ever there was an issue on which, for the sake of future generations, Democrats and Republicans should find bipartisan cause, it is development of alternative fuels that would be less damaging to the environment.

There is disagreement over how much damage is being done and how much climate warming is actually caused by, say, the exhaust from gas-guzzling automobiles. But several years ago the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that there was strong evidence that rising temperatures were caused in part by human activity. The New York Times reported last week that a new pending report by the organization will assert that it is more than 90 percent likely that global warming in the past half century has been caused by the release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

There is documentary evidence that huge chunks of ice are dropping off arctic terrain, that land ranges for polar bears are getting smaller, and that all this over the years will result in rising ocean levels.

Scientists are like detectives, seeking clues to the meaning of unusual climate changes. For instance, it has been an unusually mild winter this year in western Russia. Temperatures have been some 13 degrees F. above normal. Last week, the Associated Press paraphrased the remarks of Sergei Gulev, a climate scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences: "[G]lobal warming appears to be affecting how storms move across the North Atlantic, determining whether an arctic blast is pulled into Russia or whether gale-force winds and warmer air push in from the Atlantic." Mr. Gulev said that in the past, warmer winters usually occurred every 10 to 15 years, but now are happening every two or three years. "We can expect ... that this winter, the type we're having now, will be more and more frequent in the future," he said.

In his 2006 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush deplored America's "addiction to oil." He has expressed interest in hybrid cars and alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles. But there has been no stomach for such drastic measures as have been called for by some, namely an additional gasoline tax of $1 or $2 a gallon, the proceeds of which would fund alternative energy research.

However, public interest has resumed, not only in alternative fuel for autos, but in wind, solar, and nuclear power for domestic purposes.

Now the Democrats have a head of steam up on the issue, and though there is no common position among Democrats and Republicans, nor even a common position within each political party itself, there is the possibility of serious discussion about moves that would start the US down the road to less reliance on oil.

Although foreign affairs, notably Iraq, have come to be a major issue in recent presidential elections, and are still likely to play a major role in the 2008 election, the issue of energy and global warming may also get attention. Two candidates, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, are backing climate-change legislation.

This is an issue of national significance which calls for cooperation and should be elevated beyond partisan politics.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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