Time for big (and small) thinking on global warming (Burlington Free Press, Op-Ed)

By Drew Hudson, VPIRG

It's about the world our grandkids - and theirs - will inherit.

We face an enormous challenge: Our planet is heating up, and the effects will be devastating unless we take serious action. It is our responsibility to act now, while we still have the ability to avoid the worst effects of global warming, such as major increases in sea level that would displace millions of people worldwide and mass species extinctions.

This fall, for the first time in history, Congress is getting serious about global warming. The choice they make - whether to take the bold action we need or to try to pass off half-measures as progress - will have long-lasting effects.

The science is clear: the world faces dramatic consequences if we fail to rein in our emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other global warming pollutants. Vermont faces particular dangers. The sugar maples, which provide the iconic fall foliage and Vermont's beloved maple syrup, are moving north. The sugaring season is getting shorter and shorter. The ski industry is already affected, as warmer winter temperatures mean less snow and less ability to make snow. Shorter ski and sugaring seasons and the loss of fall foliage tourism will have irreparable cultural and economic effects on Vermont.

But the science is also clear that what we do now can make a real difference - not in stopping global warming entirely, but in avoiding the worst consequences of a warming world. It will require that the United States halt increases in global warming emissions now, reduce emissions by at least 15 to 20 percent by 2020, and slash emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050.

We can do a lot to reduce emissions with tools at our disposal right now. We can make cars that go farther on a gallon of gas; we can design buildings that use much less energy; and we can get that energy from the sun, wind, and other natural, renewable resources. Europe and Japan are beating us to the punch, generating more of their electricity from renewable power each year. As a result, the average European uses 50 percent less energy than the average American.

By putting real muscle behind energy efficiency and renewable energy, we can achieve the needed reductions in global warming pollution while addressing many of the biggest problems facing our economy and our national security. Building more efficient cars and driving them less reduces our dependence on foreign oil. Using less electricity saves billions that would be spent on new power plants. Moving to an efficient and clean energy economy will create more jobs than continuing to burn polluting fossil fuels.

Curbing global warming pollution, breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, and moving to a clean energy economy won't be easy. Indeed, it is a challenge of historic scale. Meeting this challenge will require a collective effort. Individual choices such as replacing light bulbs, buying a hybrid car, or turning down the air conditioning are crucial - but not enough. We need a new Apollo Project, one that will direct our enormous stores of intellectual and political energy toward stopping global warming. As a nation, we have shown time after time that we are capable of seemingly impossible achievements when we combine gutsy political decisions, broad public support, and wise investment of public and private resources. We can do it again.

So what's standing in our way? Powerful and backwards-thinking companies in the oil, auto, and power industries are trying to chart a different course. They are pushing for weak legislation delivered to a president who has yet to make a serious effort on one of the most pressing issues we face.

The right choice is unmistakable: When Congress acts, it must act to pass a strong bill with the reductions in global warming pollution that science tells us are necessary to prevent catastrophic effects of global warming.

Luckily, Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders is at the table right now developing the legislation that the Senate is expected to consider this fall. Sen. Sanders has been a leading advocate for meeting the challenge of global warming with a strong, science-based response. Now more than ever we're counting on Sen. Sanders to ensure that the United States takes bold action, starting now.

We owe no less to future generations - or to ourselves.

Drew Hudson is VPIRG director of field and communications.