Carbon footprint, Was my pride,
Then it washed out, On the tide.
Al Gore did his best. So did the nation’s environmental community. They convinced a majority of Americans that climate change was both real and serious. Back then small cars enjoyed a spurt, curly light bulbs grew hip (and amazingly have held on), windmills found a big new fan base, and many folks set their heating thermostat cooler and their cooling thermostat hotter.
But that was then. Now, arrayed winningly against Gore et al, are money, apathy, and comfort. Government still subsidizes the oil, coal, and gas industries, providing cash, which in turn helps them lobby the government itself to leave them alone. As you may have heard, there are now more fossil-fuel lobbyists in Washington than congressmen, and as some wags have observed, if they were all laid end to end, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Their job is easier than you might think. Americans are loathe to give up SUVs, flat-screen TVs, freezers, clothes dryers, thirsty electronic gadgets, frigid air conditioning, and ubiquitous lighting. Nor are we so sure that our wasteful personal energy habits are responsible for the equally personal fate of drowning souls in India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Fiji, or New Orleans.
OK, shrinking glaciers appear to be the real McCoy and we can respect that. But in truth, how many of us are ever going to see a glacier anyway? They seem a cheap price to pay for our continued comfort. And if we can write off glaciers, maybe we can also swallow hard and set up other “energy sacrifice zones.” The Gulf of Mexico looks like a top choice just now, as was Alaska’s Prince William Sound before it. Alaska has a couple other hot prospects too up in the Arctic Ocean. Bristol Bay and the Chuckchi Sea are just reclining there waiting to be assaulted by the Interior Department’s new drilling regimen. West Virginia and Kentucky have already received last rites.
Most of our other environmental sacrifices happen to be abroad, though the biggest of all is not that far away. The Alberta Tar Sands site has gained some renown as the largest industrial project in human history. Also the dirtiest. To help increase production, the U.S. is dickering to allow a new pipeline to carry that oily gunk from Edmonton south to our underused refineries in Oklahoma. The messy process of cleaning it into fuel on a more modest scale is already accelerating climate change.
So also is the production of ethanol, which is hugely expensive besides. That’s why Congress subsidizes it so generously. Otherwise corn state senators would take their political baseball and go home. Just like coal state senators are threatening to do as we clamp down on their product.
This world debate over warming has even erupted among “scientists.” Climate scholars on the one hand are pretty unanimous as to the deadly human influence on warming. Meteorologists, conversely, are divided. Curiously the climate guys tend to work for universities; the weathermen for TV stations.
So even though some wind farms continue to sprout, along with a solar cluster here and there, and even though many families and firms have slashed prior usage, the total improvement remains small. Public support has dwindled, cap and trade appears now to be at least partially a gimmick, some states have taken to opposing the emissions plans of other states, and President Obama is focusing federal energy money on nuclear, ethanol, and “clean” coal. It’s enough to make Mother Nature weep.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.