THE official United States position on global warming is symbolized by the wide open spaces of the American West: vast freeway distances between places where humans congregate to work, live, and have fun, and not many choices in how to cover those distances. Out here, it's pretty much car or pickup.
That's the kind of thing President Bush is referring to when he says the greenhouse effect must be tackled with "specific, comprehensive environmental commitments that fit each nation's particular circumstances," as he did recently in his annual environmental message. And it's what has gotten him in trouble with other countries and environmental groups headed for the Earth Summit in Brazil this June who want an international agreement on global climate that includes specific "targets and timetables" for reducing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
There is still plenty of debate over whether global warming is a certainty or only a theory.
But the evidence is mounting, like that taken from tree rings and gas trapped for thousands of years in glaciers showing recent patterns of high temperatures. Or anecdotal evidence like the owner of the Lamplighter Motel in Astoria, Ore., who says the summers have gotten so hot he's had to buy fans for all the rooms because the sea breezes don't keep them cool enough. There was no reason to put in air conditioning when the place was built. Even Bush now agrees that climate change could have "profound lon g-term implications."
The US has 6 percent of the world's population, yet Americans are responsible for 25 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions - as much as all the developing countries (there are more than 100 of them) combined. Americans are independent-minded and have these wide-open spaces not easily linked with affordable public transport.
The key word in finding a solution to global warming is "affordable," the same word that gets in the way of the US government signing on to specific international goals and schedules for reducing the main greenhouse gas.
The Departments of Energy and Commerce, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Electric Power Research Institute all conclude that reducing carbon-dioxide emissions would harm economic productivity because the US uses so much coal and oil to fuel the American standard of living.
Imposing stiff "carbon taxes" to reduce CO2 emissions, as some have suggested, and then using those taxes to reduce the federal deficit or offset personal income taxes can hurt the gross national product (GNP) in the short term. At least that's what some economic modeling shows. And if you're a politician who accepts that conclusion and wants to get reelected, you're not likely to advocate bitter medicine in the name of future generations.
But what if it could be persuasively demonstrated that reducing CO2 emissions could actually boost the economy?
It can, according to Florentin Krause, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. As part of a two-year study commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Environment and Housing, Dr. Krause concluded that "with proper carbon-tax recycling, the effects of carbon-reduction targets on GNP will be neutral in the worst case, and could be strongly positive."
Krause's approach to economically beneficial carbon reduction includes: targets and timetables with market mechanisms for carbon-emission trading; stricter energy-efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, and vehicles; programs to help businesses and consumers buy energy-efficient products; financial incentives to help manufacturers increase energy efficiency; and financial help for industries and communities that bear the brunt of the shift away from carbon-dioxide-emitting activities. Energy taxe s would be "recycled" to pay for the carbon-conversion program.
According to this study and its economic model, Western Europe by the year 2000 would be saving as much as $70 billion a year and would have reduced its carbon emissions 60 percent.
Yes, the United States is not Europe. The country does have these wide open spaces. But the evidence is still there that on global warming, as President Bush says, "We can have both economic growth and a cleaner, safer environment."