Thomas: Global Warming Not a Big Campaign Issue

In the summer of 2006 I went to see Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who was running the Democrats' successful effort to regain control of the House of Representatives. I had been reading a great deal about global warming in the mainstream press ("Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid" warned Time). So I asked Emanuel, how are the environment and global warming playing out there in the heartland? Is it stirring voters? No, he replied. In the 2006 congressional elections global warming was virtually a nonissue, he said, a low-priority item way behind the war and the economy and old staples like education and health care. Global warming is an issue for the elites, he said, not for the average voter.

That's still true. The mainstream media continues to write urgently about global warming. Last month NEWSWEEK asked on its cover which candidate will be the most green. On Sunday the New York Times Magazine produced a special issue on how to reduce your carbon footprint-from changing your light bulbs to walking more to eating "slow food." Any reader of old-line mainstream media-the traditional news source of the upper middle class-would think that the country is rallying to a crisis.

But the disconnect persists. National polls show that the environment ranks fairly low as an issue that moves voters. In the Pennsylvania primary global warming was such a peripheral issue that exit pollsters did not even bother to measure voter attitudes toward it. Many younger voters wish the candidates would talk more about global warming. But most voters worry more about jobs and keeping fuel cheap. Aside from speaking in broad generalities and making vague promises, the candidates steer away from involved debate on global warming. (Enabled, it should be said, by political reporters. Of the more than 3,000 questions asked in the more than 20 presidential debates, fewer than 10 mentioned global warming.)

There is an enormous class divide on the subject. The chattering classes obsess about greenhouse emissions. The rest of the country, certainly the older and less well-off voters, can't be bothered. Slow food to most people means that the waitress at the local IHOP is falling behind. The politicians duck the issue, or so it seems.

It may be, though, that the politicians know something they are not saying-and that the green-conscious upper classes do not wish to confront. Making a serious dent in global warming would be hugely costly. Fueled by population growth and a growing prosperity in underdeveloped parts of the world, greenhouse emissions will more than double by 2050, according to most estimates. About three-quarters of the growth will come in developing countries like China and India that, for understandable reasons, are not about to forgo economic growth at a time when their average citizen still consumes about a fifth as much energy as the average American.

President Bush talks about cutting the rate of growth by 20 percent or so. But that won't do much to keep the temperatures down or the seas from rising. Other politicians posture. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger boasts of a plan to drastically cut his state's greenhouse emissions. But he doesn't spell out how this goal can be achieved.

The only way to get from here to there on slashing greenhouse emissions is by massively enforcing limits on consumption, which means heavy regulation, or much higher taxes. Or by developing breakthrough technologies, like a way to cheaply recapture carbon emissions or safer nuclear technology. (The technology has to be so cheap that China and India will buy it.) Higher oil prices will stimulate investment in alternative fuel sources, but every halfway believable estimate leaves us still heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

It would be nice to hope that the scientists will solve our problems, and I pray for them. But the politicians will have to get involved and put the thumb of government on the scale-and then lean hard. That means calling for sacrifice-serious wartime sacrifice.