As U.S. legislators debate reform to save money on health care, Brazil has bigger things in mind. Namely, saving the planet. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wants to propose reducing the deforestation rate in Brazil's Amazon rain forests by 80 percent by 2020, he told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday. Lula plans to unveil a more complete package in December at the global climate talks in Copenhagen. On the same day, Brazil's environment minister told Reuters the fast-growing country is considering capping its carbon emissions at 2005 levels.
If the carbon cap were to take effect, it would be an incredibly bold move. In the U.S., it would also be impossible. Special interest groups aligned with coal and steel state congressmen would shoot it down in a heartbeat. Even under a president who has stated that the environment and global warming are huge priorities for the most powerful country on Earth, the U.S. is looking more and more like an environmental laggard that can't make progress on what could well be the pivotal issue of the next 50 years.
Brazil is following in the footsteps of China, another newly minted economic powerhouse, which is pushing hard to green itself and the world. Either this year or next, China will surpass the U.S. in total wind power generation. China is also set to surge past the U.S. in solar power developments, not to mention the fact that Beijing is already building the smart electricity distribution grid that the U.S. is only beginning to plan.
So what does the U.S. need to do to regain leadership in the increasingly important race to green the world? At this point, radical surgery is likely necessary. Start with rewriting the U.S. Constitution to change the Senate. The Founding Fathers certainly intended the Senate to serve as a check on the efforts of the more politically exposed House of Representatives and the Executive Branch. But I wonder whether they would have agreed to a situation in which states holding less than 1 percent of the U.S. population (Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota) could hold the entire legislative process hostage.
The demographic shifts that have led to higher and higher populations in the Blue States and on the coasts make this uneven representation even more of a farce -- and an enormous barrier to policies that would do great good for many but cause pain to a few. A higher national gasoline tax, a more robust cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions or a straight carbon tax, reduced subsidies for petroleum production and reduced subsidies for ethanol could all be possible with a Senate that was not so woefully slanted and ungovernable.
Failing a new Constitution (no, I am not entirely serious in my previous suggestion, but this is a commentary), the U.S. should be, at a minimum, matching the environmental commitments of Brazil and China. This would be a minimal way to stay abreast of these rising powers that still have economies dwarfed by ours. Over the longer haul, the green policies proposed by Brazil are politically sound and economically advantageous.
For example, capping carbon emissions would encourage a switch to greener renewable resources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Coal-fired power plants are among the top producers of environmental mercury, for example, which scientists are finding in shockingly high numbers of U.S. watersheds. Carbon caps would also encourage a switch to greener vehicles that consume less fuel or run on electricity. Either option would help reduce the U.S. dependency on politically unstable regimes.
Would such caps cause some economic hardship? Perhaps, but remember how Detroit screamed that new seat belt laws would cause economic chaos and possibly bankrupt the car industry? This turned out to be false and those laws have, to date, saved millions of lives.
No one knows what the true impact of global warming and climate change will be, or if a warmer earth will mean millions more deaths per year from rampant disease or natural disasters. But the economic logic of increasing our energy efficiency and minimizing the longer-term economic costs of carbon-emitting behaviors is hard to assail. Lula gets it. So should we.
Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brazil got the Olympics. Will they best us in the global warming fight too?