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Global Warming: What The Next President Should Do

The candidates haven't focused on one of the biggest challenges of this century

By Nicholas D. Kristof

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.

Imagine that the United States instituted a much higher gas tax (like those in Europe) that reduced our auto emissions by 25 percent.

That would be a stunning achievement. The problem is, it would do very little to alleviate global warming. In fact, just the increase in emissions from China would match any savings from the U.S. within nine months.

The increased use of coal to power new factories in booming Asian countries like China and India is raising concerns that the climate problem is actually much bigger than anticipated.

China and the U.S. each produce more than one fifth of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. And while China's emissions per capita are smaller, they are soaring as China's economy continues to grow at such a fast pace.

As a result, some experts are starting to say that reducing emissions is fine as far as it goes, but that more powerful remedies must also be investigated. "We've gotten this hopelessly wrong," says Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "If we approach this from reducing emissions we get nowhere. Driving Priuses may be good, but it's not going to accomplish what we need."

It will be enormously difficult to persuade China and India to rely less on coal-fired power plants, and it will be utterly impossible unless we take serious steps ourselves.

"The message is, let's change light bulbs and let's be more efficient," Pielke says. "But let's do more than that. The solution lies in transformational technologies."

Solar power is one of the most promising technologies but still produces only 0.01 percent of U.S. electricity. The U.S. allocates just $159 million for solar research per year—about what we spend in Iraq every nine hours. Other renewable technologies, including wind power, also merit far more investment. Another possibility is geo-engineering—tinkering with our planet to overcome our past tinkering. One proposal is to fertilize the sea with iron particles to encourage the growth of plants that would suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. More bizarre proposals include giant sunshades to orbit the Earth, or space-based solar panels.

The next President should start a $20 billion-a-year program to develop new energy technologies, backed by a carbon tax (on gas at the pump and other fossil fuels) and a cap-and-trade program* [which McCain and Obama have supported in some form].

But the candidates still haven't focused adequately on climate change. This will be one of humanity's great tests in the coming decades—and so far we're failing.

*In a cap-and-trade system, factories and other pollution sources are given a pollution "allowance." Those that use less than their allotment can sell the remainder to other sources that are polluting more than their allowance.