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Going Green: Talk or Action?

Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman on what the U.S. needs to do about energy and the environment.

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

Surely the most glaring contrast in American political life today is the number of words, speeches, and magazine covers devoted to "going green," "combating climate change," and gaining "energy security"—and the solutions being offered by our leaders to actually do any of these things.

You could drive a Hummer through the gap between our words and deeds. We are playing pretend, which is really troubling.

Here are the facts: Our worst enemies, like Iran, have been emboldened by all their oil money. The vast majority of scientists tell us that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is a real danger. And with 3 billion new consumers from India, Russia, and China joining the world economy, it is inevitable that manufacturing clean, green power systems, appliances, homes, and cars will be the next great global industry. It has to be, or we will not survive as a species.

And yet our President and our Congress still won't give us energy policies that would create the legal and economic framework to address these issues at the speed and scale required.

It is helpful that President Bush recently expressed a desire to work with other nations to limit greenhouse gases. But no one will, or should, take him seriously unless his government first leads by example.

It has to start with clear, long-term signals about energy prices: A carbon tax or gasoline tax, or a "cap and trade" system for carbon dioxide emissions, all of which would set a price for dumping carbon into the atmosphere or driving gas-guzzling cars.

Washington should signal that gas is never going to be cheaper than $3.50 or $4 a gallon, to encourage people to buy energy-efficient cars, and to encourage Detroit to build them. It should also signal that subsidies for wind and solar power will be there for a decade, not start and stop as they have before, to promote investment in these areas.

We need to get our energy prices right. Only that will guarantee green innovation and commercialization at the scale required.

Washington should also commit to buying solar and wind power for government buildings for 10 years; set an average of 35 miles per gallon for Detroit's cars within a decade, with no loopholes; offer loan guarantees to companies that build nuclear power plants; and build a national transmission grid—a superhighway for green power—so that solar energy from Arizona or wind from Wyoming can power homes in Chicago.

Do all that and our private sector will make the investments necessary to take America from green laggard to green leader.