In his recent State of the Union Address, President Bush described “the serious challenge of global climate change” and proposed a few measures intended to help deal with it. The development is largely unsurprising. Whether rightly or wrongly, Hurricane Katrina and unusual weather in the last few years have started to convince many Americans that climate change is real. Businesses expect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be regulated eventually, and want the rules set early so they can start investing properly. Also, some groups (those who make biofuels or solar panels, for instance) see the chance to cash in on this opportunity.
The specific changes proposed – efforts to reduce gasoline consumption through ethanol substitution and better fuel economy standards – are not going to amount to much, in terms of reducing GHG emissions. Producing ethanol from corn grown with intensely mechanized and fertilizer dependent farming just shifts emissions around, rather than reducing them a great deal. Likewise, while fuel standards are a good idea, they will hardly be a comprehensive solution either to dependence on foreign oil or climate change.
All that skepticism aside, this may represent the start of a massive political change. Clinton, McCain, and Obama have all expressed support for federal controls on emissions (albeit ones less rigorous than even the lax targets of Kyoto). Business and religious groups, as well as farmers, are starting to weigh in on the side of doing something about the problem. Actually doing so would ultimately require either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system for emissions. In either case, the United States and over developed countries would need to lead the charge towards stabilizing and reducing emissions, before poor states like India and China can be expected to make sacrifices to those ends. When that does begin to happen, the rich world retains an obligation to help out, through mechanisms like aid and technology transfer.
Naturally, there is an enormously long way to go and no reason to believe that what looks like momentum today will be sustained. That said, if even an administration that has proven expert at believing what it wants to about the state of the world is expressing concern about climate change, perhaps a genuine consensus behind action is starting to develop.