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July 14, 2008

While We Debate Drilling, Climate Change Continues to Loom


In the middle of the week came a hiccup to the summer’s discussion on energy – oh yes, there is still global warming to consider.


The hiccup wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was the Bush Administration, repudiating fuel economy standards as a way to address climate change, just as it’s done basically since it first flip-flopped on the issue soon after the 2001 inauguration. But the rejection of the advice from some of the most experienced voices at the EPA was a reminder that energy isn’t as simple as finding stuff to burn.


Ultimately, it will be on the shoulders of John McCain or Barack Obama to address these questions. As both issues became more obvious, there was inaction at the top. Then again, what else did we expect from a president who named as his first Energy Secretary a guy who twice in the Senate introduced bills to abolish the Department of Energy?


So far this summer, the answer to the energy issue has been distilled down into whether to drill in the Alaska wilderness or off the Gulf Coast. Since both combined would put a very little dent in the nation’s energy needs, the conversation will have to get a great deal more adult before something worthwhile is produced.


Not only does that mean figuring out how to provide energy for both transportation and home heating (not to mention industry), it means doing so in a way that will minimize the impact we have on the world’s climate patterns.


That would have been a difficult enough road to navigate given time enough for planning, but unfortunately both problems will have to be addressed when both are approaching crisis levels.


The approaching winter is expected to provide a good deal of sticker shock when it comes to home heating bills, and the price for electricity – according to every estimate – is projected to just keep rising. With home budgets already squeezed by the price of gasoline and the rising cost of food, not to mention mortgages and credit card debt, it could be that the true economic reckoning for this will come some time in the near future.


This comes at a time when James Hansen, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, told Congress that if there isn’t a fundamental shift in Washington’s attitude in the next year a tipping point could be reached. After that time, there may not be much point in doing anything about it, he said.


Hansen’s forecast is outside the mainstream of climate scientists, many of whom are said to privately worry whether such dire pronouncements don’t prevent the kind of attitude shift necessary to address the problem. Unfortunately, recent history on the issue is that Hansen regularly says things outside the mainstream, and it is usually the mainstream that eventually embraces his conclusions.


What this means is developing a plan, a roadmap, a strategy – a something that takes along lines more complicated than whether they can turn a profit. Whatever solution is struck upon needs to make economic sense in a way that the profits aren’t dwarfed by costs created indirectly. That is, maintaining America’s reliance on cheap energy while mortgaging climate patterns we depend on for food.


Although the topic of energy and global warming are very closely intertwined in many respects, finding ways to tie up the loose ends requires nuance and deliberation. Each day that Washington remains squarely focused on whether to drill or not to drill is time spent squabbling over details while the window for sound planning closes.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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