Climate change: Heat wave a reminder of the urgency of climate change and the need for Maryland — and the nation — to take action now

Organizers could scarcely have chosen a more appropriate day to call attention to the threat Maryland faces from climate change. It is of course impossible to prove that the heat wave we're currently experiencing is the result of global warming, but late-May temperatures in the upper-90s are the kind of thing we can expect more of if we don't address society's continued dependence on fossils fuels and the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

U.S. strategy on climate change is uncertain at best. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with its effort to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, but House Republicans (and even some Congressional Democrats, including those from oil-producing states) are bent on thwarting it. Delay, denial, obfuscation, whatever tactics are required, opponents appear to ready to go the mattresses to protect their financial stake in the status quo.

That leaves efforts on the state level as critical as ever. Maryland may not be the only producer of greenhouse gases, but between the number of cars on Maryland's roads and the coal-fired power plants producing electricity for our homes, we do more than our share.

Tuesday's event by Environment Maryland, staged at the 2003 site of Tropical Storm Isabel flooding in Fells Point, was meant to call attention specifically to the state's 2009 pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020. Advocates say Maryland is already behind the pace and worry that state agency plans for achieving those reductions — expected to be released later this summer — won't go far enough.

That's a legitimate concern. The threat posed by climate change is real and growing, but public acceptance has not been so certain. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently pulled his state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the carbon trading pact in which Maryland participates. Gov. Martin O'Malley last week chided the Republican (who is his frequent foil on national policy) for calling RGGI gimmicky and ineffective.

Indeed, according to a report released Tuesday by Environment Maryland, carbon trading is one of the only areas in which Maryland is on target for its 2020 goals. In most others, progress is lackluster — particularly in areas like transportation technology and utilities regulation.

Has RGGI significantly decreased carbon emissions on a global scale? No, it has not. But that's not a reason to abandon the concept any more than it's time to shut down local police stations because cops aren't preventing all crime from happening around the planet.

Until Congress and the White House agree to a sensible energy policy that puts the nation — and helps set the world — on a path toward addressing climate change, then states and local governments can only do what they can. Better baby steps than no steps at all.

As a coastal state, Maryland sits on the brink of man-made disaster. A drastic rise in global temperatures is predicted to bring coastal flooding that would literally reshape the state's geography and wipe out valuable wetlands.

What environmentalists seek is not to harm the economy but to put Maryland at the vanguard of the 21st century economy that is far less dependent on fossil fuels. What's needed are policies that promote public transportation, renewable power, fuel efficiency and conservation, smart growth and recycling.

Without that, Maryland can look forward to more severe weather and disastrous flooding that could cost the economy billions of dollars. With less than a decade left to meet that goal, the O'Malley administration had better be ready to hit the ground running.