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US Going Green?

Louisa Schaefer
July 26, 2007

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits California on Thursday to get a glimpse at the state's progress in "going green," Germans said what he sees could change European views of US climate policy.

California Governor Schwarzenegger in front of American flag
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's climate policy is among the strictest in the USImage: AP

Despite fond memories of nature-filled vacations in beautiful American national parks, at a bar over a beer, Germans tend to snicker that the US is a wasteful society filled with people oblivious to the notion of recycling, who own gas-guzzling, emissions-spitting SUV's.

"People here in Germany and in the European Union have some reservations about the US and climate protection because the country refused to endorse the Kyoto Protocol and therefore limit CO2 emissions," said Mojib Latif of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University in Germany.

Germany on track

Green power: car being fueled with alternative gas
Could fuel for the future come from a US-EU partnership?Image: AP

"Germany, on the other hand, has cut its emissions since 1990 by about 20 percent and is basically on Kyoto track," said Latif, a scientist who has written on the influence of human activity on climate change and has worked extensively in the US.

But it's not just in Germany and the rest of the EU that America's environmental reputation has taken a beating.

A 37-nation survey published in June as part of the "Global Attitudes Project" of the Washington-based Pew Center showed that there is a "general increase in the percentage of people citing pollution and environmental problems as a top global threat."

Rich Morin, one of the authors of the study, said that: "In 34 of the 37 countries we surveyed, the United States was named by a majority or large plurality as the country that has done the most to damage the world's air, water and natural spaces."

Morin added that: "It is telling that fully a third of Americans agree that we do the most damage -- a degree of candor not usually found in Americans."

But when looking for ways to minimize the damage done, it may not be Washington, however, to which people turn, but the Golden State of California, which could brighten the US's blemished appearance.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Farmer in New Jersey in front of barn with solar panels on roof
Solar energy is gaining up adherents in the USAImage: AP

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made headlines around the world when he signed a bill to commit California to cutting its CO2 emissions, which are blamed for global warming, by 25 percent by 2020.

As the California-based Website green-technology.org wrote, "Governor Schwarzenegger has asked the state to 'lead by example,' demonstrating that sustainability is achievable, desirable and economically sensible."

"Green" businesses and Web sites are cropping up in the state as a result. While "merely" a US state (though the country's most populated), it ranks among the world's 10 largest economies.

According to the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, the Golden State's gross domestic product in 2006 reached slightly more than $1.7 trillion (1.2 trillion euros).

While California is often viewed as "way out there" -- geographically and psychologically -- by Americans in many other parts of the US, the hope is that "green" ideas will trickle into the plans instituted in other US states.

Environmental alarms

Homes in Britain under water due to floods
Flooding in Great Britain is one of the latest environmental disastersImage: AP

Experts said a number of factors have come together to focus Americans' attention on the climate. In addition to an earnest wish to save the planet, climate change has been a central topic in the media and extreme weather has prompted a feeling among many that change is necessary.

Then again, it could just be the power of the buck as "going green" could make good business sense.

"Green" business practices are becoming so popular, that US colleges and universities are beginning to offer sustainability or "green" Masters of Business Administration (MBA) programs, and companies, including even Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are analyzing ways to increase profits by cutting down on waste and lowering energy costs.

"It's important that you make money when trying to help the environment," said Latif. "Once people, not just in the US, but everywhere, realize that this is really a big market, things will change and the climate will benefit."

All that wind and sunshine

Factory where solar panels are made in Freiburg, Germany
German solar cells are particularly adept at absorbing the sun's raysImage: AP

The scientist added that he sees money is to be made in renewable energies such as solar, geo-thermal, wind and water, all of which are abundantly available in California.

Germans respect the US's ability to forge territory when it comes to research and development.

"The first step has been that the US has recognized the climate problem," he said. "Now, the task is finding ways for Europe and the US to work together in developing better technology, which the US is so good at anyway."

Furthermore, Morin said that the Pew study showed that environmental problems were one of the few threats in which people said their own country should take the lead dealing with the issue.

"This signals great impatience on the part of people everywhere to do something on this issue," he said. "I would not wait for the US; it's easy to find excuses for action rather than find solutions."

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