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Idealism Won't Curtail Global Warming, Warns Carol Browner

April 2006

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Carol Browner came to the Graduate School of Business armed with data and statistics to illustrate the rapid warming of the earth's atmosphere and advice for MBA students to avoid overly idealistic solutions and look for nonpartisan, business-friendly ways to address the looming crisis.

Delivering the School's 2006 von Gugelberg Memorial Lecture on the Environment, Browner said that some 36 cubic miles of Antarctic ice were melting into the sea each year, and—in just one sign of the secondary effects of climate change—21 million acres of Canadian forests had been infected by a beetle that thrives in a warmer environment. Lest there be any doubt about where all these warming emissions are coming from, she reminded the audience that the United States—with just 5 percent of the world's population—produced 20 percent of all global emissions.

But Browner, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, did not advocate an extremist approach calling on all businesses and individuals to change their practices overnight.

Even the most ardent environmental activists would not be effective, she said, unless they came up with practical and comprehensive ways to address the problem that would recognize the needs of businesses and the hard-to-break habits of individuals.

For instance, she said she favored tough emissions laws over attempts to replace cars altogether.

"It's easy to think we are going to give up cars, but realistically, we are not going to," said Browner. "I say, let's think differently about cars. Let's call on Detroit to make a cleaner, fuel-efficient car."

Browner said that many of the solutions to global warming would come out of the same practices effectively used in the United States to address past environmental crises—such as the emissions credit trading programs that had been successful in reducing acid rain decades ago.

She called for increased research in science and technology to develop cleaner-burning fuels and other substitutes to the most-polluting substances. When chlorofluorocarbons were proven to be destroying the earth's protective ozone layer, Browner reminded the audience, "We used good old American ingenuity and came up with a substitute."

Finally, she said, legislation would be key to achieving any lasting change and only nationwide laws would be truly effective. "If I am a business and I pay for a scrubber to reduce my emissions, I want to know that my competitors are required to do the same," said Browner. Although more than 100 million Americans now live in areas where at least one of their political leaders has publicly acknowledged the need to combat global warming, Browner said the best way to get businesses on board would be through a single federal program. "For any company that operates in multiple states, complying with different regional programs is a nightmare."

In another nod to business, Browner called for doing cost-benefit analyses of new laws. But regardless of cost, she said it would ultimately be big business, far more than individuals, that would have the main responsibility for reversing climate change.

"Not all problems that we address in society need to focus on individual action," Browner said in response to one student's question about the role of laws in changing individuals' behavior. "Regulations need to be imposed on the biggest source of emissions."

While calling for a systematic and thoughtful review of the best policies and technologies, Browner also sounded an alarm, calling global warming the biggest environmental crisis the world has ever faced, one creating changes that, if not addressed soon, will be irreversible.

"If we fail to act we'll become the first generation that has left to the next generation a problem that can't really be resolved," she said. "No generation has yet left a permanently altered planet. There is not a single engineer in the world who could reverse the rise in the sea level once it starts to happen."

For that reason, Brown said, one of the biggest obstacles to an effective solution is the crowd of persistent naysayers who continue to insist that climate change is not a scientifically proven phenomenon. She said their arguments are no more rational than the assertions of past generations that AIDS was not a problem or the world was not round.

—Andrea Orr