Oratory is not enough. It often takes a national crisis to persuade Americans to make sacrifices

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It's a good bet that whoever wins in November will be greener than George W. Bush. The next president is likely to launch the nation on the path toward reducing dangerous CO2 emissions. But any legislation emerging from Congress will probably be no more than a directional signal, a declaration of intent or a down payment—a start, but at best a modest beginning. To go further, to truly tackle the greenhouse effect, will require the one thing from voters that few politicians dare to ask for and fewer achieve: massive public sacrifice.

It takes a very great leader to extract sacrifice from the voters who elected him (or her). Almost always, there is some precipitating event, some calamity, that enables a call to arms. War presidents have seized on provocations (Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor) or hyped or made up one (the sinking of the Maine, the attacks on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin). During the early days of the cold war, Harry Truman managed to persuade Congress to pay for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe by exaggerating the Soviet threat to invade the West. (Sometimes, said his Secretary of State Dean Acheson, it is necessary to make things "clearer than the truth.") Advocates of invading Iraq managed to confuse voters into believing that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved with the 9/11 attacks.

But what event will suffice to wake up voters to global warming? Al Gore and his PowerPoint presentations and affecting movie raised the consciousness of opinion makers and many citizens. But scary movies are not enough to make ordinary taxpayers willing to pay higher taxes for fuel, drive much smaller cars and otherwise watch their energy consumption (though Europeans seem to be able to do all the above). If we wait until the water starts lapping over Manhattan to really do something to affect climate change, it will be too late.

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