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.
For starters, even the more modest proposals for federal deregulation of the electric utilities could reduce carbon emissions by almost 70 million metric tons while saving $38 billion. Doubling cogeneration - reclaiming energy now thrown away as waste heat - saves 43 million metric tons, and $50 billion.
Modernizing just a third of obsolete coal-fired power plants currently exempted from clean-air laws would cut 200 million metric tons of carbon pollution. The one-time cost would boost the national electric bill by just 2 percent for a decade or so, but even this would be offset by health and economic benefits from the corresponding elimination of nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and other pollution.
Raising fuel economy of sport-utility vehicles, minivans, and pickups from 20 to 38 miles per gallon saves 58 million metric tons by 2010, plus $40 billion in consumer spending. Boosting automobile efficiency to 45 miles per gallon brings another 50 million tons, and $30 billion in savings. At home, pending appliance efficiency standards will cut 25 million tons of carbon by 2010, saving consumers $15 billion.
Together these measures would eliminate 546 million metric tons of carbon by 2010 - more than enough to meet the goal - and free up billions of dollars. And this is just one scenario. Many others exist. Presented as an action plan, it suddenly becomes clear the Kyoto targets are achievable, both politically and technologically.
Slimming down the agenda creates a much needed political focal point for the debate, and undercuts the alarmists who say it's too expensive to act. The environmental community would do well to refocus on such a plan quickly, before the window in which we can comfortably reach our Kyoto treaty obligation closes.
*Michael Northrop is a program officer with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a New York-based foundation providing support for global environmental issues.