A change in climate?

If the U.S. has learned anything from the environmental movement, it's that the sooner tough choices are made to curb pollutants, the easier it is on all involved. Regulate waste disposal at Hooker Chemical three decades ago and you wouldn't have Love Canal. Pregnant women might still be able to eat freshwater fish in this country today if the nation had kept mercury, much of it coming from coal-fired power, out of the food chain decades ago.

With the climate change threat, inaction could be the greatest danger the nation faces. Act now, and the needed reductions in greenhouse gases might be achieved without a painful transition or great sacrifice. Indeed, the benefits of moving away from fossil fuels are so numerous — from new jobs and global economic competitiveness to the positive health effects and potential to offer the U.S. energy independence — that even Washington's partisan gridlock ought not be a serious impediment.

Yet, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the battle lines that divided this country on matters of the environment are still a roadblock to progress. There is simply too much money involved for the general public interest to trump big energy companies, with their lobbyists and campaign contributions. Climate change legislation requires the same sort of robust, grass-roots support that has always characterized efforts to save the planet from ecological catastrophe.

Next week, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman are expected to unveil their latest attempt at a bipartisan climate change bill. The measure is likely to contain some form of financial disincentive for greenhouse gas pollution similar to the cap-and-trade approach that the House of Representatives has already endorsed. In return, the legislation will probably contain elements to appease business interests, such as expanding nuclear power and gas and oil production.

It is imperative that President Barack Obama take a leadership role in this effort. The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill represents the best chance for overdue U.S. action on climate change and therefore the best hope for global progress on the issue.

All indications are that the White House is working behind the scenes to help build some consensus on what is a highly complex issue. Last week, Mr. Obama said he wanted it to be the next thing on the Senate's agenda after reforming how Wall Street is regulated.

Meanwhile, Congress needs to be reminded of what failure to address man-made climate change would mean for this country and the world. The most immediate consequence is that it could leave the regulation of greenhouse gases to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is poised to make rules that the public may find far less palatable that what might emerge from Congress.

But worse, it could lead to inaction. At stake is far more than the lives of polar bears and penguins. Rising temperatures could lead to flooding, droughts, loss of farmland, increasingly violent weather events, disease, political instability and the deaths of millions of people, particularly in developing nations.

These are not the forecasts of placard-carrying doomsayers on the streets but the mainstream of climate science. The burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases has so enhanced the natural greenhouse effect that changes are already in progress. Rising sea levels could consume most of the vital wetlands on Maryland's Eastern Shore within a century or less, according to a 2009 EPA report.

But even the most skeptical must concede that the U.S. can't continue its dependence on foreign sources of energy, regardless of the consequences to the planet. It is simply not sustainable, and a reliance on oil from politically unstable and often dangerous countries in the Middle East and elsewhere inevitably hurts national and world security.

Climate change is not only the greatest environmental threat of our time, it is one of our greatest opportunities to promote peace and prosperity for this country. Perhaps Earth Day 2010 will one day be remembered as a turning point in climate change policy. The bipartisan stirrings within the Senate have at least given us hope.

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