Climate Change Half-Measures Are Better Than None


Korea Times, 2nd January 2008

By John M. Crisp, Scripps Howard News Service

It's not surprising that a large, diverse, free-market democracy like ours is having trouble developing an effective and systematic response to the issue of global climate change.

 At best, we've produced only half-measures like bumping up automobile fuel efficiency standards modestly and reluctantly. At worst, as a nation we've stood in the way of, rather than led, international efforts to fashion a response to the well-established reality of climate change, whether it's man-made or not.

Nevertheless, smaller governmental units in our country have begun to implement half-measures of their own. Recently, in an effort to conserve energy, Great Barrington, Mass. (population 7,000) passed an ordinance requiring that all seasonal holiday lights be turned off by 10 p.m.

This seems reasonable. Regardless of one's attitude toward global warming, it's clear that Christmas lights consume an enormous amount of energy. Why shouldn't the constituents of a political entity agree through their elected representatives that they can get all of their holiday light viewing accomplished by 10 p.m., then extinguish the lights and thereby conserve some energy?

But ostensibly well-intentioned efforts like this one produce remarkable levels of objection from global-warming nonbelievers. Columnist and TV personality Bill O'Reilly hit the Barrington city fathers hard, accusing them of harboring hidden motives to undermine the celebration of Christmas by forcing citizens to extinguish their lights. This accusation, a classic straw-man argument, attributes to the Barrington officials a position they haven't taken, citing no real evidence, then attacks them viciously for doing so.

In fact, in a 500-word column O'Reilly devotes at least nine of them to calling the Barrington selectmen loons, pinheads, stupid, whiners, dolts, numbskulls, fascists, crazy, and insane. So much for peace on Earth and good will to men.

O'Reilly, of course, has made a career of being rudely outspoken. I suspect that all of these epithets are misapplied to the Barrington selectmen, and certainly they're uncivil. But "fascist" grates the most, since these officials were selected ― I like the traditional New English term ``selectmen" ― precisely to make decisions on behalf of the community. And if the citizens of Barrington don't like this ordinance, presumably the selectmen won't be selected next election. The people will speak on this issue, just as they should in a democracy. Nothing fascist about that.

However, if Al Gore and the many scientists connected with the International Panel on Climate Change are half-right, I'm doubtful about the effectiveness of the kinds of actions that can be taken by small governmental units like the Barrington selectmen or by individuals. But since our prospects for national consensus and real action currently look so dim, at the least such actions demonstrate some willingness on the part of the people to get out in front of the federal government on the issue.

And the Barrington selectmen aren't alone. At least 448 institutions of higher education have signed on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, asserting their intention to neutralize the impact that their campuses have on the environment. A growing number of city councils and state legislatures have passed ordinances or resolutions that attempt to grapple with global climate change. Parkland, Fla., for example, is offering its citizens cash incentives to install environment-friendly appliances. Individuals are taking actions to decrease the environmental ``footprint" of their private lives, as well.
Bill O'Reilly might call them naove or, more likely, numbskulls or dolts. And if the threat from dramatic climate change is real, it's unlikely to be forestalled merely by turning off the Christmas lights at 10 p.m. or by changing our light bulbs for a more efficient model.

But at this point, what other course is there?

Because nearly all of us have a strong physical and psychological attachment to our energy status quo, a realistic assessment and an organized response to climate change at a national level are going to be difficult, if not impossible. So Parkland, Fla., Great Barrington, Mass., and others who have taken similar actions should be commended rather than criticized.

At least they're trying to do the right thing while most of the rest of us are obliviously whistling past the graveyard.

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