One year after the release of Al Gores Academy Award-winning film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, and two years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Americans seem finally to have accepted the reality of climate change and the need for greener living. Indeed, while the federal government continues to drag its feet, innovative state and local initiatives, coupled with changing consumer attitudes, are generating the beginnings of a veritable renaissance in environmental practices.
No state has received more attention than California. Newsweek recently dubbed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger The Green Giant for the numerous plans he and the state legislature have undertaken to reduce carbon production and spur business innovation, including state-mandated cuts in carbon emissions, a proposed 33 percent increase in car fuel efficiency by 2009 and plans for a hydrogen fuel network along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Yet California is by no means alone. To cut the greenhouse gases emitted by buildings, for instancewhich account for a staggering 50 percent to 70 percent of the greenhouse gases produced in citiesthe city of Chicago has installed grass on two million square feet (the equivalent of 40 football fields) of roof space, including the largest green roof installation in the world, 24.5 acres at Millennium Park. The grass acts as a natural insulation, reducing air conditioning needs in summer and heat loss in winter. Meanwhile, Austin, Tex., has set itself the goal of making all of its houses zero-energy-capablethat is, able to function without drawing energy from the power gridby the year 2015. Salt Lake City, Boston and New York City all have efforts underway to hybridize their taxis.
American business has responded positively to these changes. Energy-efficient electronic devices abound, as do green product lines in everything from home cleaning supplies to clothing. Segments of the automobile and energy industries are likewise seriously engaged in the development of alternate fuels and sources of energy. The capture and use of solar and wind energy continues to improve dramatically, to the point that many houses could today be powered by a set of solar panels.
To some degree, however, the stance of the energy industry remains like that of the cigarette business before them, seeking to convince consumers that they do not need to quit, they just need the right filter. Some businesses are investigating the storage of carbon underwater or underground, solutions that demand little change on their part while creating new, unseen environmental problems. Sequestration underwater, for instance, would keep carbon out of the atmosphere but raise the acidity of the water and harm undersea life. Likewise, the effectiveness of the carbon trading market, in which businesses that produce less than their allotment of carbon are given credits they can sell to businesses that produce too much carbon, remains inconclusive.
Poverty needs attention because of the vulnerability of the poor and because of the ecological damage caused by people forced to live on the margins. As both the tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina revealed, changes in our climate disproportionately affect the poorest among us, who lack the resources to ensure their own safety. Yet poor countries are also among the most egregious polluters. To people struggling for their very survival, the needs of the present vastly outweigh concerns about long-term environmental harm or sustainability.
The greening of the West has so far done little to alter our levels of consumption. If anything, the growing consumer interest in environmentally safe products is stimulating buyer demand. Going green has become the newest fad, with rock stars for spokespersons and product lines at the Gap. The idea that the pool of resources is limited seems difficult for us to comprehend. Perhaps because we come from a culture of riches and possibilities, we believe that we can have our cake (even if it is carbon free) and eat it, too. There is a great need for Catholics and others to help bring awareness of the worlds fragile reality to our well-intentioned but overfed American population.
Still, there is already much to celebrate. For over a generation, individuals and small groups have been talking about climate change and working to develop solutions. Most of the time, their work has been relegated to the margins. Today the American public is finally beginning to catch up. We must be ready, however, to assess whether the green solutions offered us by government policy or the market will prepare a sustainable future on the planet or simply pass the problem on to the next generation.