RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Everything, it seems, is bigger in Texas: the land, the sky, the hair, the cars, the highways.
(Soundbite of song, "Miles and Miles of Texas")
Mr. RAY BENSON (Singer, Asleep at the Wheel): (Singing) I saw miles and miles of Texas…
MONTAGNE: And greenhouse gas emissions. Texas puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other states. The primary culprits are vehicles and power plants. If Texas were an independent country, it would be the seventh largest CO2 polluter in the world.
(Soundbite of song, "Miles and Miles of Texas")
Mr. BENSON: (Singing) Gonna live here 'til I die.
MONTAGNE: As part of our series, Climate Connection, we have the first of three reports today exploring the Lone Star State's love affair of consumption and the first stirrings of change.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: We begin our carbon crawl across Texas on the showroom floor of the Chevrolet dealership near Houston where a salesman is showing off a gleaming 14-mile per gallon, two-and-a-half-ton gargantua.
Unidentified Man (Salesman): You're looking at a 2008 Suburban. This is the LTV model. It's top of the line.
BURNETT: Climate activists say that giant SUVs like the Chevy Suburban, once marketed as the national car of Texas, are part of the problem. But first, you have to agree there's a problem. And gauging from interviews across the nation's most carbonated state, a lot of Texans are skeptical about climate change.
Carroll Smith is owner of Monument Chevrolet.
Mr. CARROLL SMITH (President, Monument Chevrolet): This is such a mega problem. And I hear some of the reports even here that scientists disagree on. And when I hear them, I'm thinking, well, gosh, I'm not a scientist. I'm just a car dealer. And so how could I know more than they do.
BURNETT: Texas is the nation's biggest energy hog because it has a lot of industry, a lot of people, a lot of air-conditioning, a lot of miles and a lot of big cars, which is sort of a fetish down here.
Tangi Spencer is a movie caterer in Dallas.
Ms. TANGI SPENCER (Movie Caterer): Here it's, you know, the bigger the truck, the better; the bigger the gas guzzler you are, the better off you are.
BURNETT: In a sermon one Sunday, Reverend Raymond Bailey, pastor of Seventh & James Baptist Church in Waco, suggested that the members of his flock consider reducing so many trips in their cars.
Reverend RAYMOND BAILEY (Pastor, Seventh & James Baptist Church): After church, I had a couple of parishioners who are generally very socially responsible, wonderful people. They said to me now, preacher, don't mess with our cars. I'm not going to give up my car. And that's just I guess human nature. We are willing to call for sacrifice on the part of others, but not on self. And this global warming is a very good example of that.
BURNETT: A group of students at Abilene Christian University in west Texas is encountering the same reaction as they circulate a petition supporting a carbon-neutral campus.
Beth McIlhaney, a 21-year-old education major, says it's a challenge to get young people to care about climate change at her conservative university.
Ms. BETH McILHANEY (Student, Abilene Christian University): It's actually really hard, especially in Texas, to kind of get this issue - make it, like, actually real because they are just going to slough it off, just laughing it off, I mean, like, are you hippie or something.
BURNETT: With attitudes like these, no wonder the state government refuses to do anything about global warming. Currently, 35 states have climate action plans in place or under consideration. Republican governors of California, Florida and New York, to name three, have launched strong initiatives to cut carbon dioxide emissions, but not Texas.
For the record, even President and former Texas Governor George W. Bush has acknowledged the human role in climate change. But in Texas, the state's Republican leadership are global warming skeptics. Governor Rick Perry recently quipped that the largest source of carbon dioxide is Al Gore's mouth.
State Senator Kirk Watson is the Democrat representing Austin. Earlier this year, Watson proposed a bill that would have merely set up a task force to study climate change. Though it passed the Senate, it died in the House.
State Senator KIRK WATSON (Democrat, Austin): So the environment up there was a real negative environment toward making any progress or even really being able to talk openly.
BURNETT: When Watson's bill was brought before a committee, a who's who of carbon commandos signed up to oppose it, including the Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Gulf Coast Lignite Coal Coalition, the Texas Chemical Council and the Texas Automobile Dealers Association.
Andrew Dessler, a Texas A&M University climatologist who testified at that same hearing, says he was astonished at the boldness of the carbon lobbyists.
Dr. ANDREW DESSLER (Climatologist, Texas A&M University): They came and they say, look, we don't oppose studying it, but we opposed this bill because once you start studying it, you're going to do something about it. And so, you know, they're going to fight you every step along the road, tooth and nail. They don't even want to talk about it, which seems just crazy.
BURNETT: Crazy or good business?
Bill Peacock testified against climate change bills for an influential conservative think tank in Austin called the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Mr. WILLIAM PEACOCK (Vice President for Administration; Director, Center for Economic Freedom, Texas Public Policy Foundation): I think not having a government-mandated climate action plan puts us out in front of the rest of the world. Companies are free to respond to the marketplace. And so yes, I'm very pleased that the Texas legislature decided to take some more time to look at this issue without passing anything.
BURNETT: But the ground may be shifting. Earlier this year, the state's largest utility, TXU, dropped its plans to build eight coal-fired plants, in part, because of a popular uprising over their impact on air quality and the atmosphere.
Tom Smith is head of the Austin office of the consumer group Public Citizen.
Mr. TOM SMITH (Director, Public Citizen Texas): Texas has had its head in the hot burning sands for quite some time. But now it's getting a little bit too hot, and we're starting to take a look around to see what we can do about it.
BURNETT: One Texas family has begun to rethink its freewheeling lifestyle. The Spencers live in a gated golf course community near Dallas in a spacious home with two refrigerators and four vehicles, one for each family member. Last spring, they were part of a thought-provoking experiment. The BBC asked the Spencers and an English family to swap lives for a week as a graphic way to compare how differently Americans and Europeans consume energy.
Tangi Spencer, a caterer who we heard from earlier in this report, says the experience gave them some perspective.
Ms. SPENCER: We are so wasteful, it's not even funny. I mean, everything goes in the trash. It's a drive-thru, drive-by society. And people eat in their cars. They do everything in their cars.
BURNETT: As a result of the energy swap, the Spencers have learned a few things. Now, they recycle. The next vehicle they bought gets better gas mileage. And they're trying to save electricity at home.
Ms. SPENCER: We've replaced a lot of our light bulbs with the energy-efficient light bulbs. The family that stayed in our home for that week actually counted how many light bulbs we had, 174 light bulbs in our house. I can't - It made us feel a little guilty.
BURNETT: The Spencers aren't the only ones reconsidering their carbon footprint. In the absence of leadership from governments in Austin or Washington to reduce CO2 emissions, Texas mayors are stepping forward to challenge the state's hydrocarbon addiction.
John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
MONTAGNE: Tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you can hear about how some mayors in Texas are taking emissions control into their own hands. And at npr.org/climateconnections, you can see videos of climate science in action. That's from public television's "Wild Chronicles."