Arctic warming

1. Massive melting

2. Warm, warmer, warmest

3. Plants, animals, people

4. Is help on the way?

Eskimo mother and child in furs, Nome, Alaska. Photographed by H. G. Kaiser, ca. 1915 NARA

Each year, wind generators supply a growing percentage of electricity to Europe. By 2020, they could supply half of the houses. Big turbines stand on tall towers to catch faster, steadier wind. Photo: EPA

Do we have any special responsibility to clean up our act?

What to do?
Eskimo mother carrying bundled, sleeping child on her back.The obvious solution to global warming is to put less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. But that's hard: energy consumption is soaring in virtually every sector of the U.S. and world economy.

Russia, where carbon emissions have dropped since the fall of the Soviet Union, has just signed on to the Kyoto protocol. Now, the treaty is "in force," requiring a roll-back of carbon emissions in those countries that signed Kyoto.

The United States, source of one-quarter of greenhouse gases, refuses to sign, arguing that it would be unfair to restrict U.S. emissions, but not those from booming new sources like India and China. As Pres. Bush noted in Feb. 2002, "As we advance science and develop technology to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the long term, we do not want to risk harming the economy in the short term. ... While new technologies promise to break this emission-economy link, a rapid reduction in emissions would be costly and threaten economic growth."

Maybe. But some observers counter that the industrialized world got rich while polluting the planet. Should those who created this problem be responsible for starting the cleanup?

The answer is blowing in the wind
Wind turbines churn above grassy plain with rainbow in sky. So what is the solution? Although some altruistic folks favor reducing the level of consumer junk in the developed world, and perhaps driving cars that are smaller than tanks, there is no widespread trend toward sacrifice -- among the rich, who can afford it, or the poor, who can't. Anyway, most of the world is poor, and poor people are already short of food, transportation, and essential consumer goods.

The best solution is the most obvious: generate energy without generating carbon dioxide, using nuclear power, or the renewable technologies: solar, wind and biomass.

Already, windmills are becoming the electricity source of choice in Europe, according to Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute. By 2020, an estimated 195 million households -- half of Europe's total -- will be powered by wind, he writes. In 2003, wind electricity was growing worldwide at about 30 percent per year, meaning production will double in less than three years.

Electric credit
But despite the improving economics of wind energy, uncertain federal support has hobbled it, according to Steve Clemmer, research director in the clean energy program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Wind farms pay high property taxes because most of their costs are in their capital investment. To compensate, in 1992, the federal government passed a renewable energy tax credit.

But the credit must continually be renewed, and that complicates utility planning, Clemmer says. When the credit is about to expire, "there is a big rush to meet the deadline, and then there's a calm after the storm. 2004 was a perfect example. The credit expired at the end of 2003, and very little got built this year" while utilities wait for a renewed tax credit.

Help does seem to be coming at the state level. Eighteen states, Clemmer says, now require utilities to produce or buy a certain percentage of renewable electricity. In some areas, including Madison, Wis., home of the Why Files, customers are on a waiting list for the right to pay extra for wind-generated electricity. This month, Colorado passed a ballot initiative requiring utilities to buy 10 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2011. Two days later, the giant Xcel Energy announced that it was looking at bids for 17 more wind-power projects.
Map of how Florida coast will change if sea rises 1 meter.
A 1-meter rise in sea level would flood parts of coastal Florida. Courtesy Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

States: Warming to the task
Graph of projected 7 degree range of rising global tempThe states are the place, agrees Nancy Greenwald, of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, who notes that California is enacting a new law that will limit greenhouse-gas pollution from new vehicles. If the law survives legal challenges, it will also be adopted in seven East-Coast states.

The whole globe is going to get a lot warmer. The only question is how much. Different levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere lead to different predictions. Courtesy Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

All these piecemeal measures would benefit from national backing, Greenwald admits, but they do prove the a growing concern about global warming, and the growing determination to act rather than just worry about global warming. "It's a national, even an international problem, and the fact that the U.S. is not engaged internationally on things that a lot of other countries are moving forward on makes it much harder," she says. "It would be more efficient, more effective if we could move forward as a country, and as a world. We are one-quarter of the world [greenhouse-gas] problem..."

Read 'n roast with our global warming bibliography.

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