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Mares: Global Warming Challenge

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One member of my book club is Dr. Asim Zia, who teaches Public Policy at the University of Vermont. And he's just written a book about the politics of such predicted tumultuous change.

When I complained to him that I felt as if I were watching some slow-motion home horror movie in which those who don't believe in science refused to change their minds, he smiled. He said roughly 30% of us are deniers. About 30% are believers . And those numbers haven't changed much for a while, but there is movement in the middle.

This is complicated stuff, he continued. It's a kind of three-dimensional chess game. Even among those who believe climate change is a problem, there are battles between developed and developing worlds, between scientists and politicians, between those who advocate for centralized decision-making and those who favor decentralization.

Dr. Zia says this is a perfect example of the "tragedy of the commons" in which the theory holds that when everyone has access to a common good, their individual self interest drives them to get the maximum out of it. In our headlong devotion to economic growth we dump millions of tons of greenhouse gases into that finite common space. It's like over-fishing the seas.

Big problems demand big solutions. Some think, Dr. Zia among them, that we need an international trade tax, because the free trade system contributes to climate change as the ever greater production of more goods and services leads to more greenhouse gas emissions - twenty percent of which come from deforestation.

We also need a global carbon tax. Some complain, it's not politically feasible, but I'd argue that's only because we've let the fossil fuel and transportation lobbies hijack the discourse.

Taxes are sticks, Dr. Zia says, and they can change behavior. For example, tobacco taxes have been successful in reducing tobacco use in this country. Similarly, gasoline taxes have been successful in Europe in improving the fuel economy of cars.

The public policy challenge is to effectively communicate to the public the risk of mass human migration, more floods and droughts five times worse than the Dust Bowl, and the sheer chaos that can be expected with an ever-warmer world - without creating social paralysis or even greater denial .

Much depends upon how we frame the issue. It's both a matter of inter national and national security - and a moral issue of obligations to our fellow creatures.

Despite all this, Dr. Zia is still a guarded optimist. He says attitudes are changing, especially with the young; we seem to be more adaptive in our thinking; and lots of technological options are emerging to address it. Climate change now comes up in every discussion about our recent extreme weather patterns.

Dr. Zia would also like to sequester 25-30 trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel and persuade the countries that own them not to mine or extract that resource.

When I rolled my eyes, he looked at me and said, "You didn't really think this would be easy, now did you?"