War theorists often say democracies can't fight long-term wars. The same might be said about the fight against global warming. Congress is now in the throes of setting new energy policies, with 535 "generals" in the House and Senate issuing battle commands. Does anyone dare now speak of a single benchmark for victory?
The simple task of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by a set amount is being lost in side skirmishes on the Hill. These have more to do with powerful lobbies, regional preferences, and presidential ambitions than the national interest. For many in Congress, reelection to office is beating out renewal of the atmosphere.
Granted, a democracy of 300 million that extends from the Pacific to the Atlantic and that contains diverse and local energy sources from coal to tidal power, may not be able to reach national consensus on how to curb climate change in the same way that a smaller, more unified nation can.
No wonder many American states, cities, companies, and individuals are cutting carbon outputs on their own. They prefer solutions tailored to local conditions. At the global level, President Bush proposed this month that each nation set its own emissions target. His idea reflects a lesson learned from the Kyoto treaty: Big schemes can get hung up on local details, such as how to enforce "carbon credits."
California, with its emissions targets, has done more than Congress in the past 15 years to push automakers to improve fuel efficiency. Now that Congress appears ready to require 35 miles per gallon by 2020, even that idea is stuck on a proposal for taxpayers to pay the health benefits for retired US automakers if Detroit uses the savings to build more efficient cars.
Congress is also poised to quadruple use of ethanol by 2022. But that move really reflects farm interests and not the fact that corn-based ethanol usually uses more fossil fuel than it saves, or that efficient technology for other types of biofuels doesn't exist.
And lawmakers may demand that utilities produce 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources. But that's hung up on defining renewables. Is the nuclear-power cycle a renewable? And not all regions are equal in renewable energies, such as wind, hydro, and solar power.
Senators from coal-rich states are demanding subsidies for coal-to-liquid-fuel production, even though that process would increase carbon emissions. And the technology to capture that fuel's carbon output and bury it is far from developed. Meanwhile, many lawmakers want to force oil firms to lower gasoline prices, a move that would result in more emissions.
Some ideas being floated on Capitol Hill do make sense, such as block grants to states and localities to improve energy efficiency or giving multimillion-dollar awards to anyone who invents a more efficient light bulb. One measure would educate schools about pollution from idling buses. (The bill doesn't address idling trucks.)
Public will to tackle global warming through federal mandates on energy use may still be too weak to overcome the usual political pressures in Washington. At the least, lawmakers should do no harm by passing the wrong measures.