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What We Know 

The McCain-Lieberman Act is a much-needed step toward improving energy conservation, controlling air pollution, and encouraging development of alternative fuel sources.

Everybody talks about the weather," humorist Charles Warner once said, "but nobody does anything about it."

The United States Senate may soon reconsider legislation that might do something about it. The McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act all but promises to reduce Louisiana's chances over the next 100 years for violent hurricanes, heat waves and drought, as well as coastal wetlands loss from rising waters.

We support passage of the act. Environmentalists champion it for addressing "global warming," the theory that the earth's climate is increasing in temperature due to increased emissions of greenhouse gases. But even those who don't accept global warming models should be able to embrace the act as a much-needed step toward improving energy conservation, controlling air pollution, and encouraging development of alternative fuel sources through a mix of regulations and incentives.

President George W. Bush has called for voluntary pollution reductions. That's not what Louisiana needs. Self-policing by polluters doesn't work very well here or elsewhere. The Climate Stewardship Act would require power plants, factories and our petro-chemical industry to reduce their carbon dioxide levels to 2000 levels by 2010. The legislation relies on an innovative "cap and trade" system that allows companies who surpass pollution reduction goals to sell their excess reductions to other companies to help them meet their goals. The system is modeled after a successful national effort to combat acid rain. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that the program will cost each household $20 per year. That's a reasonable price for a cleaner and safer environment.

McCain-Lieberman may be the best, most workable proposal for the environment to come along since the United States withdrew from the stricter regimen of the international Kyoto Accords in 2001. Defeated in the Senate last fall, McCain-Lieberman (and the scientific debate over global warming) received a second shot at a wider audience thanks to the Hollywood disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. The film depicts, with some absurdity, the same-day destruction of New York City and Los Angeles because of radical global climate changes -- the environmental consequence of too much air pollution caused by automobile exhaust, factory smokestacks and other consumers of oil and coal. The Alliance for Affordable Energy in New Orleans and other environmental groups leafleted movie theaters, urging the public to consider the "real" problem of global warming, which they say would begin to be addressed by the McCain-Lieberman Act.

The authors of this national bipartisan plan, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., are seeking to re-introduce their legislation, which has gained more support since its defeat last October by a 55-43 vote. Louisiana Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, both Democrats, opposed the measure last time. However, Landrieu is now reconsidering her vote. She says that further research has convinced her that global warming is a real problem that must be remedied by governmental action -- not merely by voluntary compliance. However, she wants a measure that would not hurt the state's fragile economy. Both Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council support the act, as does a growing list of local environmentalists, activists and religious leaders.

Environmentalists remind us that a 1995 study by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change concluded that New Orleans is the most vulnerable city in North America to the ravages of significant climate change -- hurricanes, mosquito-borne illnesses and rising ocean tides -- because of our city's low elevation and soil subsidence. The panel's conclusions are supported by a team of 10 regional experts led by University of Louisiana-Lafayette biology professor Robert Twilley. "It is possible to assess Louisiana's vulnerability to a rapidly changing climate, even though extracting state-specific information from global climate model projections entails significant uncertainty," the Twilley report states.

In simpler terms, we still don't know what we can know. Proper climate models and computer simulations must contend with countless variables. Furthermore, where global warming is concerned, it's often difficult to determine just where science ends and politics begin. Adding to the urgency is the specter of a ticking clock: by the time scientists develop more complete impact studies, will our course be irreversible?

"I wish we could agree on the reality and then argue about what we should do about it," Lieberman said shortly before his bill was defeated last fall. "I want to predict, respectfully, that we are going to look back at those scientific arguments and put them in the same category as the scientific studies that were introduced Š by the chemical industry that said chlorofluorocarbons did not put a hole in the ozone layer, all of which we know now were just plain bunk." Lieberman's prediction may prove true, and the McCain-Lieberman Act may one day prove to be a hedge against the environmental consequences of global warming. Meanwhile, we urge Sens. Breaux and Landrieu to support the Act because it will lead to something we can all agree on right now: a cleaner and more energy-efficient Louisiana.

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