Photo Gallery: Is America Ready to Act to Save the Planet?
The Green Dream Can Obama Stop America's Gas-Guzzling Ways?
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?
One of these quintessentially American conflicts is in full view today. Thomas Donohue, a man wearing a gray suit, his tie tied in a thin knot, his hair parted on the right, is one of those somewhat loud men suffering from no apparent self-doubt who set the tone in Washington before Obama was elected to the Oval Office. America is a chosen place, America doesn't owe the world anything, and it certainly has no reason to feel guilty about anything. This is Donohue's view.
Once, when he was still president of the American Trucking Association, someone complained about his private plane during a meeting. "How many seats does my plane have?" Donohue asked an aide.
"Well eight, sir," the aide replied.
"Let's order one with 12 seats tomorrow," Donohue said.
Times have changed, but not for Donohue, who still travels by private jet. Today, at 71, he is the chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce, a federation of 3 million companies. Although Donohue insists that he doesn't seek conflict with the Obama administration and that he wants to find joint solutions, he spends about $100 million a year to represent special interests. The US Chamber of Commerce employs 18 lobbyists in Washington, as well as having a staff of 188 volunteers -- a network not to be underestimated. The group, Donohue's army, is intent on preventing the US government from enacting climate protection legislation.
"Because our economy can't afford a law that destroys jobs," says Donohue.
The economy isn't so sure about that. Apple, Levi Strauss and many others have left the Chamber because of Donohue's views on climate change. The Chamber, they say, not only harms its members, but also America.
'A Floodgate Has Opened'
But the economy is much further along than political America, says Allen Hershkovitz. "Many reforms are happening right now," he says, "because the market doesn't have to wait for political rules. It's always been that way in America: The market sets the tone, while the political world follows behind, enacting the legislation."
Hershkovitz has black, curly hair and is sitting in his office on 20th Street in New York, surrounded by books, magazines, photos and posters. Scattered around his office are items designed to change the world one day, such as a CD that can be produced with 40 percent fewer CO2 emissions than a conventional CD. "Will it catch on?" he asks. "I have no idea. But things are in motion."
Hershkovitz is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the country's most powerful environmental organizations. He says he senses more than just interest among American companies. In fact, he says, he feels enthusiasm building at places like Disney, Sony and the National Basketball Association, where people have realized that America has to act. They come to him for advice on what they can do to help solve the problem. That's one reason, he says, why Major League Baseball recycles its garbage -- vast amounts of trash, granted, but at least it recycles. And why 25 of the 39 Broadway theaters now use LED lights for their marquees to save electricity. Wal-Mart sells solar panels, and now Home Depot has followed suit. When the NBA develops basketball arenas in China in the future, they will be energy-efficient buildings.
"A floodgate has opened," says Hershkovitz, and he's right, to a degree. Mayors are talking about green houses and local public transportation, people are buying smaller cars, magazines are using the color green on their covers, New York is building bike paths and California has adopted voluntary standards to reduce CO2 emissions. But there is something naïve about all this. Anyone who has ever been to Los Angeles, an eternal traffic jam of a city covered by a vast cloud of smog, will find it difficult to imagine that this country can ever change.
Anyone driving away from Los Angeles in a northwesterly direction, toward Santa Barbara, will encounter detours around forest fires. And anyone driving east from LA will cross rivers like the Rio Grande, little more than a trickle today, and the Colorado, now barely recognizable as a river.
It's Too Late for Baby Steps
There are giant trucks in America. This country produces 100 billion plastic bags a year, and hardly anyone even notices when their groceries, sometimes as little as two bananas and a stick of butter, are double or even triple-bagged at the supermarket checkout. There are windows that don't close properly, millions of air-conditioners that run constantly, and absurdly dilapidated systems for conducting water, electricity and gas. In 2009, all of this makes the United States seem like a country that has just discovered, with childlike joy, that it can actually be a little more frugal, and is immensely proud of this realization. But what Americans don't seem to realize is that it's a little late now for their country to be taking baby steps.
The image campaigns, of course, are enormous. The entire country may be talking about change, but hybrid vehicles still make up only 2.5 percent of all cars sold. And only 10 percent of incandescent light bulbs have been replaced with compact fluorescent bulbs. Is it all just a passing fad?
"Well, you do have a point," says NRDC scientist Hershkovitz. But then he asks, rhetorically: "Are we moving fast enough?" His response: "No, we're not. We still emit 17 million tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere every day, and we still contribute to global warming." But Hershkovitz is right when he says that a country that's been missing the boat for eight years or more simply has to wake up and start somewhere. "Every small step is better than no step at all," says Hershkovitz. "In times like these, I can't discourage anyone."
He sees a movement in the works, and he has a vision of an America grown static finding its "groove" again, of a country that will experience an "explosion of creative and entrepreneurial energy." Of course Hershkovitz, like so many other experts, hopes that someone somewhere in America will soon invent the green Google, the Microsoft of the climate age, and will save the world in the process. For that reason, he says, Washington must capitalize on the tidal wave that has developed within the population. "Congress has to level the playing field," says Hershkovitz.
'A Core National and Economic Interest'
Indeed, government is part of the problem in the United States. Practices like over-fishing, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels are subsidized in America, and lobbyists are making sure that it stays that way. Their jobs are made easier by the fact that in a country that is constantly in campaign mode, it's become almost impossible to get rid of subsidies once they are on the books. "Would it be beneficial to eliminate coal subsidies? Of course. Will it happen? Ha, ha," says Hershkovitz. "In other words, what we have to achieve is that wind and solar get the same subsidies ."
There was a time -- long ago -- when the United States had a climate policy that most people could agree with. When Arab countries curbed oil shipments to United States and other countries in 1973, the US -- initially under Republican President Gerald Ford and then under his Democratic successor, Jimmy Carter -- imposed tougher fuel economy standards for new vehicles: 27.5 miles per gallon, which represented a doubling in 10 years. The industry met the new standards, and the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act was not even politically contentious.
Then came Reagan. President Ronald Reagan reduced fuel economy standards again, slashed budgets for projects to promote alternative forms of energy and ordered the 32 solar panels Carter had had installed on the White House roof in 1979 removed.
For Reagan, it was all about American strength. His message was clear: We won't let them stop us. And we will not allow limits to be imposed on our actions.
Protecting the American Way of Life
Politically, Reagan's message was that any government intervention was diabolical and all regulation was fundamentally wrong. This Reagan doctrine was applied to the environment, in particular, and its effects can still be felt today, among Republicans in any case, and among Democrats in the coal-producing and car-making states. It has turned into a fundamental approach that is pursued with religious fervor. Ari Fleischer, a press secretary for former President George W. Bush, was once asked whether the president believed that Americans, in light of their grotesquely high levels of energy use, should change their ways. Fleischer replied: "That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life."
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, one of the people whose words have an impact on Obama, calls this attitude " dumb as we wanna be ." As David Rothkopf, the former Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade during the administration of former President Bill Clinton, said: "Making America the world's greenest country is not a selfless act of charity or naïve moral indulgence. It is now a core national security and economic interest."
Even before it came into power, the Obama administration began to tackle the issue. It seemed, at the time, as if the new president wanted to undo everything the Bush administration had done in eight years. The first conversations -- unofficial, secret and therefore risky -- took place between the election and the inauguration at the offices of the German Marshall Fund in Washington. The Americans insisted that they wanted to learn so that they could get started right away.
The first conflicts soon emerged. The Americans proudly proclaimed that they wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but that wasn't enough for the Europeans, who insisted that the Americans set a target of 20 percent below 1990 levels. The Americans replied that they had experienced a higher rate of economic growth than Europe. This translated into higher energy consumption, which in turn meant that America's reductions, in absolute terms, were greater than Europe's.
And so it went, back and forth, a slightly caustic but nevertheless witty dialogue between the Americans and the Germans, between Obama's environmental expert Todd Stern and Matthias Machnig, a state secretary in the German environment ministry. The American said that the EU, while touting its excellent environmental numbers, had a tendency to forget about its environmental goals whenever even a minor economic crisis rolled around. Machnig, for his part, praised Obama for having achieved -- by the mere fact that he was elected -- something brilliant after "eight wasted years in which the Bush people brought everything to a halt." He established a connection between climate and the economy and turned the green revolution into the foundation for bringing the economy back on track. Then, on Jan. 20, 2009, came the change of government in Washington.
In March 2009, Stern, now the US Special Envoy for Climate Change, flew to the climate conference in Bonn, Germany, where he said the kinds of things the world had been waiting for: Yes, climate change exists, he said. Yes, it is happening right now. And yes, we must all act together now. The Obama administration, Stern insisted, would do the right thing. Today, nine months later, Stern and Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing are still seen among their EU colleagues as being "well-versed on the facts." But, as someone who is qualified to evaluate the issue says, Stern and Pershing "unfortunately never had a strategy."
Obama Eschews Clinton Approach
It's a long way from Washington to Erfurt in the eastern German state of Thuringia, where Matthias Machnig is now that eastern German state's economics minister.
Nevertheless, it's a worthwhile trip, because Machnig, as state secretary under former German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, prepared and repeatedly conducted negotiations with the Americans. Machnig takes off his jacket, pulls out a pack of Gauloises cigarettes and starts talking -- more openly, now that he no longer works for the federal government.
According to Machnig, the Obama team was not interested in taking the Clinton approach. "In 1997, Bill Clinton agreed with the Kyoto Protocol, went home and couldn't get a majority in both houses of Congress. Now Obama wants to make the kinds of promises he can push through the Senate and the House of Representatives," says Machnig. And what exactly does that entail?
The answer? No one really knows yet.
A bill drafted by Congressman Henry Waxman, which was approved by the House but still has to clear the Senate, calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 of 17 percent compared with 2005 levels. It isn't a very ambitious goal, nor is it even adequate, but the reality is that coal is mined in 20 of the 50 US states. The so-called Dirty Democrats, senators from industrial states like Ohio and Michigan, will be instrumental in determining whether the law succeeds or fails.
"One hundred and ninety countries of the world know that it won't work without the Americans, but the Americans themselves don't even know what they'll be able to decide, and when," says Machnig. Four issues, an advisor to Energy Secretary Steven Chu said over a cup of tea a few weeks ago, are the core of all negotiations: "One, the medium-term goal, perhaps a 25-to-40 percent reduction of all emissions by 2030, to keep global warming from exceeding two degrees; two, a long-term goal, let's say an 80 percent reduction by 2050; three, funding for the technology needed in developing countries; and, four, the governance issue, that is, the question of who distributes and administers the money -- the World Bank, governments? -- who handles the money?"
Since everything is interconnected, no one is willing to take the first steps, and the Copenhagen process is deadlocked. "It's the same as it is in life," says Machnig, "people keep tossing the hot potatoes back and forth."
In these tense weeks, no one at the White House or at the Department of Energy has been willing to clearly outline the American position, although conversations off the record are possible. One government official who is in the know says: "It's been clear for months that a legally unambiguous treaty will not emerge in Copenhagen. It's too late for that. But what will emerge is a 10-to-20-page political agreement, with clear data and key points, a clear document. The question, then, is what comes next."
The ideal scenario would be a Copenhagen II, a legal framework to follow the political document, to be signed in March and ratified in the United States in April.
The President's Reputation Is on the Line
That's the time window, as it's called in the political world, a window that will remain open for only a short time. In November, Americans will vote in midterm elections, in which, after a president has been in office for two years, the party in power usually loses. Starting in May, says Machnig, "Obama won't be able to touch the climate issue anymore."
The bargaining chips, or political leverage, are known. The president's reputation is on the line. The Europeans and the Chinese have long been negotiating climate-related issues in so-called bilateral talks, which is something Washington doesn't like. And, as Energy Secretary Chu told a speechless audience at the White House recently, energy and resource costs will be treated as a country's or region's economic pros and cons within a few years.
The president is serious about climate change and understands the issues involved, say the experts who surround him. In his economic stimulus package, Obama earmarked $80 billion for green research and building insulation. If his climate legislation fails, Obama plans to introduce new energy legislation that would impose strict guidelines for household devices and tighter emissions controls on power plants.
'Obama Is Pushing a Huge Snowball Up a Mountain'
Part of the political climate in the two Americas is the constant obligation to comment on and intensify an already hysterical debate, one in which level-headedness is a thing of the past. Two people fighting as proxies in this war between the two Americas are conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and his liberal counterpart, Thomas Friedman. The two men, waging a battle armed with their computers, live and work only a few miles apart, and yet they never meet.
Liberal America despises Krauthammer, as it does the radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Krauthammer, paralyzed since he hit his head while jumping into a pool during medical school, is wheelchair-bound today. He says: "Maybe you think that there is a consensus and that the subject of the climate has been settled, but that's not true. There is no consensus, even if I personally believe that global warming caused by human activity does exist. You can't just keep on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere without producing a reaction."
He pauses for a moment, moving around his office in his wheelchair. The problem, he says finally, is that good, credible scientists are still questioning climate change and that, more importantly, the costs of intervention are staggering. "It would signify a complete transformation of the industrial society," says Krauthammer. "It's highly impractical."
It's stiflingly hot in Krauthammer's corner office in Washington, DC -- overheated, like many American offices and homes. There are several chessboards with martial pieces and photos of former President George W. Bush hanging on the walls. Nuclear power is the only conceivable solution, says Krauthammer, "not the ultimate response, because there's also the question of nuclear waste, but right now it's our only choice. There's no such thing as a free lunch. If we want an industrial society, we need energy. If we want energy, we get pollution. We can have our poison in two ways: Either we pump it into the atmosphere, where we can't get rid of it and are presumably destroying the planet, or we produce nuclear waste which we can at least bury inside mountains."
What about wind energy? Krauthammer chuckles. "At the same price as coal? That's absurd. This entire apocalyptic discussion has to stop. We need some objectivity." And a climate protection law? "It won't happen. Obama will use up his political capital on healthcare reform. That one he will achieve, but then there won't be any latitude or time left over for climate protection legislation."
Krauthammer, as a Republican, is opposed to such legislation. Why? Because that's the Republican position, and because a climate protection law would lead to emissions trading. Krauthammer characterizes such legislation as "dishonest," because emissions trading "is really just a giant energy tax. But this is America. We don't want taxes."
Of course, an energy tax is needed. The political world needs to exert control, a cultural shift needs to take place and America needs to change. This is the view held by the other team, the enemies, the adversaries, the team represented by Thomas Friedman, a self-confident man with a moustache, dressed in a T-shirt and sports coat. Friedman is sitting in his office on 17th Street in Washington, in between trips around the world, trips to all the countries that are more vigorous, creative and determined than the United States.
The 'Energy Climate Era'
If Krauthammer represents an America à la Las Vegas, then Friedman is Berkeley. The changes in America are reflected by the company these two men keep. Krauthammer was invited to dinners in the Bush White House, while Friedman plays golf with Obama.
According to Friedman, America doesn't take advantage of its opportunities. It doesn't understand that the post-World War II era and the post-Cold War era have ended and that "we're pre-something. And what we're pre- ... is the energy climate era."
Five central problems are threatening a hot, interconnected and overpopulated world, says Friedman: the growing demand for scarce energy, the extreme transfer of wealth to oil-producing nations, devastating climate change, a new poverty of the energy have-nots and the mass extinction of species.
Friedman sees engineers and intellectuals hard at work on these problems throughout the country, and yet the political leadership can't manage to generate enthusiasm for and develop the grassroots of change. Ideas and stimulation "without laws and standards," says Friedman, would mean that environmental protection would remain a social movement without real momentum and power -- in other words, nothing but a big party. For Friedman, the only solution is to make clean energy, with what he calls "fuels from heaven" -- wind, solar and hydroelectric -- which are cheaper than the dirty "fuels from hell" -- coal, gas and oil.
It takes political power and courage to reach these goals. As Amy Kiser said in Berkeley, "Obama is pushing a huge snowball up a mountain."
Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, intends to explain his calculations in Copenhagen. He argues that the United States can no longer achieve the 25-to-40 percent reduction over 1990 emissions levels that the Europeans are calling for because the country's current emissions are already 17 percent higher than in 1990.
So what can the Americans do? One option, which is what Obama intends to propose, calls for moderate emissions cuts by 2020, followed by more substantial reductions. Under his plan, the high levels of 2005 would be set as the American benchmark, against which emissions would be reduced by 17 percent by 2020 and by 83 percent by 2050.
No other subject that affects the entire world is as thoroughly studied and documented -- or as urgent -- as climate change. If Obama's climate policy fails, the world, under the US's and Obama's leadership, will also have failed, says a White House official. "It would be the fundamental crisis of the international community."
Matthias Machnig, the German official, is weary of the many conferences and the flowery rhetoric of the elegant Americans and their opponents and of "all these stylistic considerations and lyrical corrections" at conferences, in which "every sentence is placed in brackets, because no one has a real mandate."
The world, Machnig concludes, is still waiting for Obama and his big, greedy and self-indulgent country "because as long as even the man in charge doesn't know what he really wants, everyone else will remain at a loss."