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Published: Sunday, 5/24/2009

Climate rhetoric heating up

With everyone hootin' and hollerin' about what the proposed Waxman-Markey climate legislation could do to us or for us, I feel like borrowing a line from Wayne's World by saying: "Yeah, as if.•.•."

As if we didn't see this coming.

This isn't your Grandfather's America.

The reality of 2009 is that the 6.7 billion humans who inhabit the Earth - twice as many as in 1965 - are not just part of an emerging global economy. We're also part of a global ecosystem. We always were. It just took a little longer for that to become painfully obvious.

Another reality is that America has lost some of its luster in the eyes of other countries.

That's one legacy of the past we can regain. I know many scientists who see climate change as an issue America will tackle head on simply because we pride ourselves on innovation - and not waiting for someone else to take the lead.

So, OK. Politicians disagree on how to get there. That's democracy. Hey, even Greenpeace isn't doing cartwheels over the Waxman-Markey bill, which seeks to control greenhouse gases through a cap-and-trade system on utilities and other polluting industries.

The approach undertaken in the U.S. House by Democrats Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts isn't novel; a similar penalty on polluters has been used since 1990 to cut back on emissions of sulfur dioxide that form acid rain. North America's rivers, lakes, streams, and forests, especially those in the Great Lakes region, have reaped benefits from the latter.

Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican John Warner of Virginia unsuccessfully pushed for a similar, albeit softer, program for greenhouse gases in the Senate last year. That effort was a follow-up to what Mr. Lieberman and Republican John McCain of Arizona failed to get through the Senate in 2007.

The impact of climate change was one of the resounding themes of last week's International Association of Great Lakes Research conference at the University of Toledo.

Great Lakes scientists agree climate change is not some futuristic scenario. It's here and it's now. They said it's why we haven't had ice forming as early and staying around as late in recent winters. Ice keeps the lakes from evaporating as fast.

Do nothing and we may find less water for shipping and industry, along with more outbreaks of infectious diseases, deaths from heat waves, higher food prices, smog, invasive species, toxic algae, water shortages, droughts, a greater frequency of violent weather, and less tourism.

You think mitigation is costly? Wait to see what inaction costs 30 years from now.

This is how government usually works: First, there's a problem. Then, there's oodles of research generated to justify action, which often doesn't occur or comes 30-plus years late. Case in point: Many coal-fired power plants today aren't even fitted with a complete suite of 1970s-era pollution-control technology, let alone anything to curb greenhouse gases.

It seems we not only have to fix past problems but also adjust for a changing landscape on this issue. After all, Earth's population keeps expanding and some degree of warming is indeed natural.

"Governments are not good at doing that because it means making policy decisions in the face of uncertainty," Gail Krantzberg of McMaster University in Ontario told me at the conference.

Uh huh. Like showing leadership.

Last week, a panel of retired admirals and generals said that business-as-usual is a threat to national security.

"The current recession is no excuse for inaction," retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald said. "We are already paying a penalty for not looking into the future."

Retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, former Army chief of staff, agreed that energy, security, economics, and climate change are all connected.

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