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Marston: Texas is on the wrong side of global warming

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

This summer may go down as global warming's tipping point, not just nationally, but right here in Texas, as well. The increased likelihood of more Ritas and Katrinas, the scorching record heat across the country, and the mounting evidence of a warmer climate have captured America's attention like never before.

Although years of polling showed that a majority of Americans care about this looming problem, the issue was stuck in an awkward phase between awareness and action. Politicians and polluters followed their strategy memos to the letter and promoted the false notion that the science wasn't settled. Despite being vastly outnumbered by nearly all credible scientists around the world, so-called experts who claimed global warming is a hoax got equal billing in the press.

This year has been different. Week after week has brought study after study concluding that not only is global warming already happening, but it's happening more quickly than climate scientists had predicted. Global warming skeptics have been overwhelmed by the facts.

And despite our state's reputation as a laggard on environmental issues, global warming has hit the mainstream in Texas. Two years ago, there was nary a mention of global warming in Texas media. This summer, it's been hard to go a week without seeing or hearing it in the news. My organization's analysis of global warming's likely impact on Texas generated more exposure than any report we've published since 2000.

But when will heightened awareness translate to meaningful action here? We're still No. 1 among all the states when it comes to emissions of carbon dioxide - the most plentiful greenhouse gas. Our state's electric utilities are the largest single industrial source of carbon dioxide emissions in the country. And there appears to be no plan to slow down. Our biggest and most greenhouse-gas-polluting utility - TXU Energy - has proposed 11 coal power plants that would increase its carbon dioxide emissions from 55 million tons to 133 million tons a year. Instead of leading Texas' fight against global warming, Gov. Rick Perry signed an executive order to fast-track these dirty plants. He even stood alongside TXU executives when they announced their building blitz.

In other states, awareness has already translated to action. The California legislature is poised to pass a bill that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions there by 30 million tons. But reducing emissions is a national challenge - good deeds done in one state can be wiped out by reckless decisions elsewhere. And you don't have to be a mathematician to see that California's 30 million ton reduction would be nullified two times over by TXU's 78 million ton increase.

When it comes to global warming, a single company is forcing Texas to choose between becoming part of a national solution or significantly adding to the problem. And TXU has the governor in its corner, putting Texas at odds with forward-thinking leaders of other states - Republicans and Democrats alike.

All of the other Texas gubernatorial candidates have publicly denounced TXU's plans, calling for cleaner alternatives that would meet Texas' energy needs without hamstringing America's nascent fight against global warming. Given the breadth of their political affiliations, their unanimous opposition illustrates a certain amount of nonpartisan support for cleaner, wiser decisions about Texas' energy policy. But that call to action has so far gone unanswered by our leaders.

We hope our governor, whoever he or she may be after November, will revisit the fast-track permitting process and allow science and available technology to play a role in determining whether these power plants should be built.

We may have reached global warming's tipping point this summer. But it might be fall before we learn whether our leaders in Texas will act responsibly, or make the fight against this looming crisis harder for everybody.

Marston, of Austin, is regional director of Environmental Defense.

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