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Global Warming column

We Want to Call our Own Shots,
but We Should Do So Responsibly

Printed in the Kansas City Star on November 6, 2009.

The global warming debate has become an ideological battle of dueling facts and Web sites. Lost in all the noise is the real reason to care about the environment. Whether you believe global warming is real or not, what matters most is handing off a better world to our children.

We Americans don't like being preached to. What I drive is my business, what I eat is mine to decide, and so on. At heart we're a libertarian nation when it comes to personal choices.

That attitude is helping create deeper skepticism about global warming. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, only 57% of respondents now believe there's solid evidence of global warming, down from a high of 77%, and only 36% agree human activity is behind any temperature change.

Opponents of climate change legislation have been successful, with media campaigns that use a lot of dubious science to supposedly debunk real science. For example, one of their talking points is that there is no scientific consensus about global warming. In reality, 97% of climatologists — real scientists, with peer-reviewed published papers, not someone running a Web site — agree that human activity is changing our planet's climate for the worse. Our own National Academy of Science, along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), agrees with this scientific consensus.

Yet the "debate" continues. A popular book, "SuperFreakonomics," helped spout a theory that temperatures have actually cooled over the last 10 years. The science behind this claim is to compare 1998, one of the hottest years on record, with subsequent years. Back to real science: the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration debunked the new theory, pointing out 1998 was an anomaly.

Another popular theory, that it's all part of normal temperature change over thousands of years, has also been debunked by real scientists at NASA, who have shown the current trend is outside the normal cycles. That real trend, in the last 10 years, and over the last 30 years, continues to be temperatures rising, arctic ice melting, polar bears dying.

I'm a firm believer in this real science, and the need for concrete action. I understand the urge to say "leave me alone." But no one lives in a bubble, except that big bubble called Earth. Our choices affect each other. It"s a matter of personal responsibility, because there's a social cost attached to everything we buy and do. That social cost includes the energy resources, effect on global warming, and pollution caused by what we use.

Why not let the free market solve the problem? Because the free market doesn't take social costs into account, so it needs some help there. This is nothing new. Our whole history has been about making reasonable adjustments to free market forces. We leaven raw capitalism with our humanity. It's why the elderly aren't left to fend for themselves, or very few starve in this country.

Cap-and-trade systems allow everyone to help pay for their choices, by building in a social cost price tag. If there are legitimate reasons for certain uses, there can be tax credits. It's the responsible and patriotic thing to do, to think beyond yourself and accept your impact on the world.

There are tough political issues to be debated. What can our economy handle, will there be a negative or positive effect on jobs, who should pay what? The harder choices are the personal ones. No one likes to be told what to do, what to buy, what to eat.

It should be your choice. But if it's no big skin off your nose, why not make a positive choice to hand off a better planet to your children? Why not use that reusable bag, skip beef once a week, change that shower head, use those funny light bulbs? The next time you go to buy a car, why not take a good look at the gas mileage?

Don't do it because Al Gore or some environmentalist told you to. Do it because it's the right thing to do for your kids.