The Green Dream: Can Obama Stop America's Gas-Guzzling Ways?

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Never before has a US government been as serious in its warnings against the dangers of climate change as the Obama administration. But Americans are divided: Half of them regard climate protection policies as socialist, and half want to save the world. Can Obama make America go green?

Photo Gallery: Is America Ready to Act to Save the Planet? Photos
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There are parts of the United States where there is no real evidence of social discord, of the loathing and aggressiveness with which different groups view one another, and where no one seems to question the prevailing view.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, they build artificial waterfalls and big roads for big cars because opulence and wastefulness are part of the city's raison d'etre. Las Vegas residents have no moral qualms about their lifestyle and the excesses they see around them. Oil and water have always come from somewhere, they reason, so why should that stop? It makes perfect sense that, in Washington, Nevada's senators and lobbyists would champion the causes important to their voters: growth, employment and progress -- all without taxes or regulation. From their perspective, there is no good reason why rivers in the desert should ever run dry.

Berkeley, California, is a similar kind of place, a city where everyone has more or the less the same convictions -- the only difference being that Berkeley's residents have very different ideas than the people in Las Vegas.

They believe that it's their duty to save the world. They ride bikes, even though they're Americans. They separate plastic from paper in their recycling bins. In fact, Berkeley's hippies were the first Americans to sort and recycle their garbage. Even though they are Americans, the people of Berkeley insulate their windows, install solar panels on their roofs and think about ways to harness wind power in San Francisco Bay. And because they're Americans, they, like Amy Kiser, think about how to take their message to the rest of the country and the world.

Kiser, the program director at the Ecology Center, a sort of adult education center for the climate age, grew up in Wyoming, a coal state. Unable to convince her own parents that climate change is real, she knows all too well what America's problem is.

The country has forgotten how to engage in dialogue.

A Country Paralyzed by Self-Loathing

There are two Americas that don't talk to each other. In fact, these two Americas -- Las Vegas on the one side, Berkeley on the other -- despise and ridicule each other.

"We have always been a sprawling country full of contradictions, but nowadays an issue like climate change has turned into something of a sport," says Kiser. "The one team is for climate protection and the other team is for industry. The fans root for their respective teams and hate the others."

In other words, when one side says that the Earth is getting warmer, the other side disagrees, purely out of principle. The same dynamic applies to all major issues in the United States. If one side seeks to promote healthcare reform and legislation to protect the climate, the other side equates both goals with socialism and characterizes a president who advocates both as a new Hitler. America has become a country paralyzed by self-loathing. The United States is now a republic of bloggers and talk radio, a country of shouting citizens and an eternal presidential election campaign, full of paranoid, spoiled and self-righteous people. They tend to become entrenched in their issues because the legislative branch is so complicated, with its two houses of Congress, in which it takes clear majorities to pass any legislation -- majorities that rarely materialize. Deep divisions within society have led to an American sluggishness in the last decade and are increasingly limiting the country's ability to act.

The question is: How can this be changed? Assuming that one side is indeed right this time -- not just because the existence of climate change has been proven without a doubt, but also because it is abundantly clear that the United States has played a bigger role in bringing about climate change than any other country -- how can politics and the way American society thinks and acts be changed? And how quickly?

Anyone in the country who pays attention to the issues surrounding climate change is familiar with the data. The average North American is responsible for more than 19 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, more than twice as much as the average European and four times as much as the average Chinese. If the global community intends to limit the warming of the planet to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2050, "America must lead," says President Barack Obama. "If we do nothing, the efforts of the rest of the world will never be sufficient," says environmental activist and former US Vice President Al Gore.

A Hybrid Country

Gore is practically worshipped in Northern California, where people live their lives the way he envisions. There are many people here like Dan Flanagan, who earned his fortune on Wall Street and now heads the organization Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco. He is a quick-witted, clever man in tennis shoes, Levis and a green shirt, whose group -- with its 10 employees, 8,500 members and $1.4-million (€950,000) budget -- has already planted 43,000 trees in San Francisco. "It's a changed city," says Flanagan.

Amy Kiser and her team offer courses in Berkeley and build model houses with graywater recycling systems, and they founded the local farmers' markets where farmers sell their goods to city residents three times a week. "We have no choice," says Kiser. "We can't wait for ideas from the White House to trickle down to the bottom. We have to be visionary at the local level, and make being visionary part of the mainstream." But how? Flanagan and Kiser know that they are dealing with like-minded people in their cities and along the heavily Democratic coasts, but the way people think along the coasts has nothing to do with the people living in Las Vegas or Missouri. The United States is a hybrid society, with parts of it fast-paced and progressive and other parts conservative and even reactionary, a country of scientists and thinkers, with few constraints on creativity, but also a country of preservers and obstructionists.

A journey through America in the climate age can lead from politicians to scientists to authors, from East to West, from Washington and New York through coal regions, national parks and dry riverbeds to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Berkeley. But what such a journey doesn't reveal is whether the United States will end up destroying or saving the world. For now, its two opposing camps are still facing off against each other, and it isn't yet clear which one will prevail.

Or perhaps it is. It is possible that the second half of the country will recognize that climate change is real and that the world is waiting for the United States to do something about it, and it is possible that when that realization hits home, the county will enact new laws heralding a new economic and climate policy. But will it happen soon enough?

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