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We're Getting Warmer

I've been fortunate enough to devote most of my career -- more than 30 years now -- to getting laws passed to protect our environment. NRDC and its remarkable staff of lawyers, scientists, and legislative experts were there in the early 1970s, when we pushed Congress to enact some of the earliest and most important environmental legislation, such as the Clean Water Act. We were there in the 1980s, building upon that success to secure passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act and legislation that held industries more accountable for the pollution they left behind. And in the 1990s, when Gingrich Republicans stormed Congress and started hacking away at these laws, we stood firm and fought to defend them.

In that time I've learned that in politics big change doesn't happen overnight. That doesn't make the incremental -- sometimes glacial -- pace of Washington any less frustrating, especially with an issue as urgent as climate change: We continue to debate facts that have already been scientifically established, and we dither instead of reducing the pollution that we know is causing our planet to warm.

As those of us in the Northeast emerge from a bitter winter, a warmer planet can sound perversely appealing. But nearly every day, it seems, researchers are giving us evidence that global warming is no joke. An international group of scientists published a study in the journal Nature in January that concluded global warming could surpass the destruction of habitat as the leading cause of species extinction by the middle of the century. The World Meteorological Organization announced in December that 2003 was the third-hottest year on record since 1861, following 1998 and 2002.

But if the ice is shifting in the Arctic, at least it is also beginning to crack in Washington. Last October, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) brought their Climate Stewardship Act before the full Senate, and it came just seven votes shy of passing. The bill would have created a market-based program to reduce global-warming pollution similar to the one that has proved successful in reducing the pollution that causes acid rain. Passage of the McCain-Lieberman bill would have put our country at the forefront of international efforts to develop the clean technologies of tomorrow.

But in the strange way Washington works, the failure of the bill to make it out of the Senate wasn't a failure at all, but a remarkable success. There is a pattern in American politics that truly progressive legislation often dies many times in Congress before garnering the support it needs to pass. Already, 43 senators from both parties have rejected the president's do-nothing approach to climate change and have gone on record in support of the McCain-Lieberman bill. All we have to do to win in the Senate is to change the minds of seven senators, and I believe we can. The fight against global warming is gaining momentum -- in statehouses, corporate boardrooms, and on the street -- and those who deny it are already starting to look like the 21st-century equivalent of the Flat Earth Society. Science is on our side. Public opinion is on our side. And we're starting to move in the right direction.

John H. Adams

Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council