Officially, and in contrast to many other countries, the United States remains unconvinced about global warming, reluctant to force steps that would reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse cases suspected of impacting Earth's climate.
Despite Bush administration skepticism, however, climate change is emerging as a major political issue.
Prominent Republicans are among those lawmakers pushing legislation that would start US reduction of greenhouse gases in line with the international Kyoto treaty. In federal court, a dozen states seek to force the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Shareholder groups are pressuring corporations to consider the implications of climate change. And from coast to coast, states and communities - on their own and in groups - are implementing plans to "think globally, act locally" on climate change by regulating transportation, power generation, and energy use.
As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush promised that he would deal with carbon dioxide as a pollutant related to climate change. Once elected, and after hearing complaints from industry sources involved with crafting the administration's energy policy, he reversed that position and ordered the EPA to interpret the Clean Air Act as if it didn't apply to carbon dioxide.
Mr. Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal, designed to reduce the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emitted by coal-burning power plants and other industries, does not include carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas (GHG).
In the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last week, 12 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington), along with the cities of Baltimore, New York, and Washington, argued for reducing GHGs under current law.
"The Clean Air Act specifically requires EPA to reduce emissions of pollutants that threaten public health and welfare, and names impacts on climate as one of the threats," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, one of the private groups supporting the states' lawsuit. "We expect the court will determine that EPA not only has the authority to reduce global-warming pollution, but has a duty to do so."
Acting on behalf of the administration, Justice Department lawyers assert that the EPA does not have that authority since it would involve fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks - the province of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"For CO2, there's no catalytic converter," said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark. "There's no catch mechanism. The only way to reduce them is through fuel economy. The point is it would usurp NHTSA's authority." Siding with the administration here are many industry groups as well as 11 other states, including ones that produce oil and gas, automobiles, and coal-powered energy.
Meanwhile, nine Eastern states (the six New England states plus Delaware, New Jersey, and New York) have formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative requiring large power plants to reduce carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade system. Officials in Maine, for example, worry that unchecked climate change could raise sea levels there 16 inches by the end of the century.
California is battling the auto industry in its effort to limit emissions from cars and trucks. Washington State is considering similar legislation. Oregon and the other two West Coast states have joined together to measure and report GHG emissions, reduce the use of diesel generators on ships in port, and combine purchasing power to buy fuel-efficient vehicles for official use.
Around the country, cities and towns are taking steps to reduce global warming as well. Worcester, Mass., for example, has committed to getting 20 percent of its energy from nonpolluting sources by the end of the decade.
Under pressure from investor groups, automakers, oil and gas companies, and electric utilities have begun to consider the financial risks of global warming. Faced with a shareholder resolution, Ford last week agreed to do so. Industry trade journals report that General Motors, ExxonMobil, and other major energy-related companies are likely to do this as well.
Some automakers are taking actual steps to reduce such emissions. For one, Detroit firms doing business in Canada may find their future north of the US border. Canadian automakers - including Ford - last week signed an agreement with Ottawa to develop and market vehicles with fuel-saving technology.
Among those congressional leaders publicly advocating more government action to reduce the threat of global warming are several prominent Republicans.
Thursday, the Senate Energy Committee considers climate-change legislation by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, which would provide loans and other incentives for businesses investing in advanced technology that reduces GHGs.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is cosponsor (with Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut) of the Climate Stewardship Act of 2005, which would require reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions through a market-based cap-and-trade approach.
"For argument's sake, let's say ... that the science that we are relying on is wrong - yet we enact legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says Senator McCain. "What harm will that action cause? Clean air and a more competitive industrial base."
This "precautionary principle" is essentially the same thing that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) noted in introducing his state's "Climate Protection Plan," which includes reducing GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2010.
"If climate change is happening, the actions we take will help," Governor Romney said. "If climate change is largely caused by human actions, this will really help. If we learn decades from now that climate change isn't happening, these actions will still help our economy, our quality of life, and the quality of our environment."