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The New Politics of Global Warming

By Peter Brown

A political issue has reached critical mass when its natural adversaries throw in the towel.

That is what is happening in the United States on global warming, with President Bush and much of corporate America signaling they are through disputing whether temperatures are rising enough to portend future woes.

Of course, even if the disputes about the existence or potential ills of climate change are abating, that doesn't mean the global warming believers will now get the laws they want, or even find that candidates espousing their views win more elections.

In fact, the developing consensus that it is time to deal with the global warming problem rather than argue about its existence is likely to make it less, not more, of a salient domestic political issue.

It is worth remembering that when the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold Warriors claimed victory in the early 1990s, Americans elected a president, Bill Clinton, who was not one of them, and was short on national security credentials to boot.

That's because with the Soviet Union imploding at the time, voters figured they could move on to other matters. They then turned to the party they had been unwilling to trust with the White House when they were more worried about external threats.

So, while the new political environment -- no pun intended -- doesn't necessarily mean that Al Gore is going to be elected president just because he has been out front on the issue, it puts the politics of global warming in new perspective

The acknowledgment by Bush of the problem and the need to deal with it is just one sign that the tide has turned on the climate change issue. Recently, a number of major corporations that had been skeptical of the global warming threat have signaled they too want to move on to dealing with the problem.

And with Democrats -- who for years have campaigned against Bush and the Republicans as ignoring the global warming threat -- in control of Congress, it is obvious that something is likely to be done.

But the real question is exactly what that will be. It doesn't mean that Bush and corporate America are going to blithely agree to the ideas of the environmentalists on how to solve the problem.

Don't look for Bush to endorse the principal international treaty on global warming, the Kyoto Protocol. It doesn't require the same steps of China and India, which have the fastest growing and most polluting economies, as it does of Western industrialized nations.

The political argument now will be about the best way to combat the problem and its effects - in other words disputes about tactics and efficacy -- rather than larger, more fundamental disputes.

The environment has never been a huge issue to begin with, despite claims to the contrary by various interest groups. Yes, voters care about the environment, but they generally vote, especially for president, on other issues they consider more important i.e. -- national security and the economy.

With the existence of global warming no longer an issue, it is likely the political debate will shift to what steps and what resulting economic costs are reasonable. For instance, reducing emissions invariably increases the cost of energy, at least in the short run.

The current focus of debate will be the proposal advanced by many congressional Democrats and some Republicans for a "carbon tax" and an accompanying system that will allow companies to trade emissions credits.

Supporters call it a free-market solution without massive government interference, but the White House has not signed on to the idea despite some pre-State of the Union speculation that would be the case.

It is not hard to see the political debate over the existence of global warming translating into the age-old dispute between the parties about the wisdom of taxes and regulation.

That is a much more complicated political discussion than whether the global climate is getting warmer, and how unless checked, the world could face rising oceans, melting glaciers, more violent storms, and droughts.

And, it is one on which the political edge is not nearly as clear.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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