Opposition won’t impress anybody. Only positive suggestions based on reality are of any potential value. This clarion call for leadership is prompted by the news that Caterpillar and the National Mining Association are at odds over global warming. Or at least over the need for a market-based approach to emissions control and hence over amelioration of global warming.

I had hoped to steer clear of the issue of mining and global warming. It is such a squishy subject, enlightened more by passion than reason. But my editor demands a piece, citing the compelling logic that it is news and I am duty bound to provide perspective. Before I set out my opinion on the minutia of the topic, let me clear the air by confessing my sins. I grew up where it was almost always sunny and warm and I like the sun. I will never appreciate rainy days like my colleagues who hail from the north of Scotland. To me the thought of a warmer place is a pleasant thought. I concur with the farmers of Iowa who welcome global warming on the basis that it will give them two crops a year like they get in California. I view with equanimity changes in global climate—it has all happened before. Just pass through any roadside cutting with the sediments from the vast floods of yore exposed to the casual glance. Two major extinctions are fact: one to set the stage for the dinosaurs and one, some 250 million years later to end them off. There have been others, so geology marches its course if another comes. I am not plagued by illusions of human inevitability and superiority. We are just another species, and in all likelihood will go the way of most species—straight to extinction.

That is a gloomy prospect, I know. And it is a difficult one to embrace when I watch grandkids playing on the grass, swinging on the tire strung from a high branch, and fighting over the newest GameBoy.

But I know that one of the most endearing human characteristics is the desire to survive. And we have the intellect and power to fight to survive. Sadly this sometimes takes the form of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing. But for all that our most basic instinct is survival. And to those who are foremost in the fight over global warming, it is a fight over survival tactics. We can readily pass over the squabbles about the Hummer, the Mini Cooper, the hybrid, organic versus genetically altered, and emissions caps and trading mechanisms, if we see this as but a side-show in the bigger battle over a philosophy of survival.

Thus I must view the difference of opinion that characterizes the Caterpillar versus National Mining Association debate as a mere side show in a much greater fight to survive. We must admire the courage and verve of Caterpillar’s Chairman and CEO Jim Owens in supporting calls for a market-based approach to develop future clean technologies to reduce emissions and sustain the environment. We must admire his intentions in stating clearly “reducing greenhouse gas emissions can—and should—provide more economic opportunities than risks for industry and the economy.”

But then we turn to the statement by the National Mining Association President and CEO Kraig R. Naasz who says with equal conviction and force: “NMA is convinced that a real and sustained commitment to development of carbon management technologies can achieve meaningful improvements in energy efficiency and emissions of greenhouse gases—domestically and internationally—at less cost to our economy and energy security than will arbitrary caps on emissions.”

Jim Owens appears to acknowledge that government has to act to protect the commons for the good of society—if everybody grazes their sheep on the grass in the town square, soon enough there is no grass, and no sheep, and nobody has a warm woolen sweater. Naasz is a believer in the ur-power of the free market place. I have no idea personally what a “real and sustained commitment” is, but assuming it happens, Naasz assures us there will be “less cost to the economy”. I confess he sounds just like those folk in the 1970s who said we would ruin our economy by passing the Clean Air Act. I just do not believe him. Maybe we should award him the 2007 Club of Rome award—you remember those pessimists who predicted we would run out of everything before now.

I am a Libertarian in spirit for I believe that less government is good. I believe, however, that government should do what we cannot do alone and that includes restraining the evil and wicked, protecting us from common enemies, succoring the weak and afflicted for the common good and decency of society, and setting goals and objectives which involve compromises we would never reach individually. Thus I must throw my vote for some form of government cap on emissions and the establishment of a free-market system for divvying them up. We do that with the national budget and the tax system all the time. It is not a new idea. And conservatives and liberals alike manage to benefit.

Of course we should debate most vigorously the need for caps, the magnitude of the caps, and the market system for the caps. So maybe the news item about dueling CEO is good news: debate is alive and well on a topic that is at once obscure, complex, visceral, emotional, and at the core of our future survival as a nations, as a civilization, and as a species.