Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Let’s Turn Down The Heat On Discussions Of Global Warming

Even if the alleged threat of global warming is a nefarious plot by power-hungry, mad scientists to trick us into giving up our cars, we will benefit from changing our energy-intensive ways.

Despite consensus within the scientific community that global warming constitutes a serious threat to the human race and that human activity is contributing to the warming trend, there are some people who insist that there is nothing to be concerned about and no reason to alter our behavior.

For some reason discussions of global warming tend to get a bit heated. Several possible explanations for this angry tone come to mind. The long-standing antagonism between environmentalists and industry may be one factor. The tension between science and religion may be another. Some people may be concerned that addressing global warming threatens our love affair with the automobile - fearing that sooner or later the government is going to take our cars away or require us to drive cars powered by carrot juice that won’t even come close to going zero to sixty in a matter of seconds. A final possibility is that we may be witnessing the "Springerization" of America. Heated exchanges of opinion score much higher ratings for talk radio and television programs than calm, reasoned discussions. Repeated exposure to loud, angry shouting matches may have desensitized us and created a mind-set that prefers heat to light when discussing the issues of the day.

Whatever the explanation, global warming seems to have become one of those issues, like abortion or gay marriage, where no one is allowed to remain neutral. There seems to be very little middle ground. You either accept global warming as a serious threat, or dismiss it entirely.

I am not a scientist, but I do my best to understand the scientific aspects of important issues. When "four out of five dentists" recommended sugarless gum "for their patients who chew gum," I didn’t switch to sugarless gum, I quit chewing gum. (I also found myself wondering what was wrong with that fifth dentist.) In the same spirit, if four out of five scientists are concerned about global warming, I am willing to share their concerns.

Global warming seems to be an issue where we would be wise to err on the side of caution. If the grim scenario envisioned by the scientific community comes to pass, the consequences will be severe. We should be doing everything we can to minimize the damage.

The good news for those who are not alarmed by the threat of global warming is that even if the scientific community is wrong about the seriousness of the threat or the fact that human activity is contributing to the problem, we will still benefit from the actions we should take. In the process of reducing our "carbon footprints" we will save money on gas for our cars and on our utility bills. We will lessen the inflationary impact of increases in the price of oil. We will send less money to OPEC.

America has had a long and smoggy relationship with the automobile. That love affair is a bit rocky at present. As the price of oil rises, the cost of driving is going up. By subsidizing the oil industry and keeping taxes on gasoline relatively low, the government has helped to keep gas prices down. For a long time now, we have paid much less for gas than drivers in Japan or Europe. With each new spike in the price of oil the ability of the government to cushion the effects gets more difficult.

I am personally opposed to corporate welfare and I believe the subsidies to oil companies should be eliminated. That would, however, lead to additional increases in the cost of gasoline. I also believe that the benefits-received principle of taxation should be utilized whenever possible. Excise taxes on gasoline should be levied by state governments and by the federal government at a level that provides all of the money needed to maintain our streets, highways, and bridges. This too would lead to a rise in gas prices. The combined effect of these two actions would result in a fair market price for gasoline. That price would be substantially higher than it is now.

If we want to abandon our commitment to a market economy, the government could keep gas prices artificially low by regulating oil company profits or by nationalizing the oil industry. Even if the government were to take either of these highly unlikely steps, it would offer only a temporary respite. In the long run, the price of gas is rising, and will continue to do so, for reasons that are beyond our government’s control.

Oil is a finite resource. While the amount of oil on the market at any given time may fluctuate, the amount of oil left in the ground (the total supply) can only go down. The demand for oil is rising as China and India and other smaller countries around the globe join the Industrial Revolution. Anyone who understands the law of supply and demand, knows that when supply goes down and demand goes up, prices rise.

The law of supply and demand is not subject to repeal by Congress. Our economy is going to be impacted by rising oil prices. By acting aggressively to reduce our oil consumption, we will be less susceptible to inflationary pressures as the scenario described above continues to unfold.

Calls to reduce our dependence on foreign oil have been a staple of political rhetoric since the the first OPEC oil crisis in the early 1970s. There are good reasons to move beyond vague, empty promises. Not all of the petrodollars flowing to OPEC are being used to build lavish palaces. A fair percentage is being spent on weapons.

We would be wise to remember Lenin’s remark that we (capitalists) would sell them (communists) the rope they will use to hang us. It’s not just communists who might use weapons we have sold or financed against us. Reducing or eliminating the transfer of huge sums of money to the kings and dictators running the countries that sell us much of the oil we consume would be a wise move.

Energy independence is an important goal. We need to stop talking about it and take action.
With or without the threat of global warming, there are absolute benefits to minimizing our consumption of oil. By finding cleaner ways to power our cars, driving less, and driving fuel efficient cars, we will save ourselves a lot of money and have cleaner air to breathe.

The second major prescription for individual action to combat global warming is to use less energy to light, heat, and cool our homes. We are being asked to insulate our homes more effectively, to turn our thermostats up a little in the summer and down a little in the winter, and to purchase energy efficient appliances.

What if we do all this and it turns out that scientists have sounded a false alarm with regard to global warming? We will have saved a considerable amount of money on our utility bills. Those of us who have gone so far as to install solar panels or other devices to generate electricity for our homes will not even have utility bills.

Utility companies are well aware of the threat of extinction. They can build wind farms and huge banks of solar panels, but it is quite possible to create energy from these sources without the involvement of utility companies. Homes have already been built, and in other cases retrofitted, with devices that generate electricity using renewable, non-polluting sources. A growing number of homeowners have been able to "go off the grid" entirely. In some cases homeowners are even able to sell unused electricity back to utility companies.

This trend is not going to be reversed. As the demand for solar panels and other products providing clean, renewable energy continues to grow, prices will drop, profits will increase, and it will become more and more cost-effective for homeowners to switch to these options.

While coal is still relatively abundant, it is, like oil, a finite resource. In the long run the price of coal can only go up.

We can argue about how long our supply of coal will last, but sooner or later we will have to switch to renewable sources of energy. There are environmental and economic benefits to doing that sooner rather than later. We may disagree about how much damage is done to the environment by burning coal, but nobody is arguing that burning coal is good for the environment. The sooner we switch to clean sources of energy, the better.

Another key argument made by those who oppose taking action to combat the effects of global warming is that we will damage our economy in the process of acting to counter the threat. Will our economy suffer? Yes and no. Whenever major changes take place in an economy there is some disruption. Some jobs are lost. Some new jobs are created.

This process is already underway at present. Research and development into green products is beginning to produce results. Concerned consumers are already helping to increase demand for the new products that are being developed and introduced in response to global warming.

To cite one example, electric cars are already on the market. They will continue to improve in terms of range and ease of use. Automobile manufacturers who continue to crank out gas guzzlers have been losing market share for some time now. The market share of automakers who produce electric cars, hybrids, and fuel efficient vehicles is expanding and will continue to expand. Those auto manufacturers who don’t transition fast enough may ultimately go out of business.

The revolutions in transportation and communication have accelerated the globalization of the economy. With or without a response to the threat of global warming, some industries are going to shrink, while others are going to expand. Serious efforts to combat global warming might speed up the process, but the end result will be the same.

The business community has already joined the fight to reduce carbon emissions. The full weight of entrepreneurial activity, inventors, and venture capitalists is on the side of new technologies. The smart money is no longer being invested in typewriters or telegraph lines. Gas guzzling cars and coal-burning utility plants will eventually go the way of the typewriter and the telegraph, but companies utilizing old technologies will do everything they can to drag out the process of changing over to new technologies.

Coal companies, large utility companies, and oil companies, in particular, want to keep their gravy trains running for as long as possible. They don’t want to leave any coal or oil in the ground. The slower we move in the direction of renewable energy, electric cars, etc., the more profit they stand to make. The key battles in their efforts to maintain profitability will be fought in the halls of government.

Utilities and oil companies wield considerable influence within the political arena. Their profits are threatened by most of the actions we need to take to counter the effects of global warming. They will not go down without a fight.

It would be nice if governments at all levels were willing to take the lead in addressing global warming, but the pressure these industries exert make governments reluctant to act. The primary concern of most politicians is staying in office. They will remain comfortably in the pockets of oil and utility companies unless and until they get the feeling that they are losing more votes by supporting those interests than can be offset by the votes they can purchase with the campaign contributions they are getting from them.

A button I have left over from the 1960s says "If the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow." Responding to the threat of global warming is a cause where this may need to be the case. We can drive less. We can drive 55 miles per hour on highways even if the posted limit is higher. We can buy electric cars or hybrids. At the very least, we can buy the most fuel-efficient cars possible.

We can switch to compact florescent light bulbs. We can buy energy-efficient appliances. We can plant trees. We can turn our thermostats up a bit in the summer and down a bit in the winter.
The "power of one" is a popular concept these days. The power of a hundred million, or two hundred million, is even greater. Let those who doubt the scientific community go on doubting. If enough of us who are concerned take action, we can begin to turn things around without the help of the government.

At some point we will manage to elect a Congress and a president who will join, or perhaps even lead, our efforts. The government plays a huge role in our economy. (Larger than it should, but that’s another matter.) It is important that they join our efforts as soon as possible.

There is a lot governments could do to reduce carbon emissions short of passing legislation. Government contracts for calculators were a major factor in creating a level of demand that led to mass production and, in turn, to drastic reductions in the price of calculators. Government contracts for solar panels, electric cars, etc. would have the same effect.

If governments joined concerned individuals in making fuel efficiency a top priority when buying cars, the government wouldn’t need to mandate fuel efficiency. The market would take care of that. If governments at all levels simply joined consumers by purchasing only compact florescent light bulbs, the demand for conventional light bulbs would plummet and companies would stop producing them.

As mentioned above with regard to individual consumers, the government could save a lot of money by becoming more energy efficient. That would enable them to reduce taxes, which as any good Republican will tell you, is a great way to win votes.

Even if the scientific community is wrong about global warming, taking the actions listed above will give us cleaner air to breathe and save us a lot of money on transportation and utility bills. We have little to lose and much to gain by moving in the direction of non-polluting, renewable sources of energy.

The dire predictions of Karl Marx have proven to be less than accurate, but his rhetoric was quite energetic, so I will close by paraphrasing him: Concerned citizens of the world conserve. We have nothing to lose but high gas prices, soaring utility bills, and polluted air. We have a world to save!

© 2008 Gary Winston Apple

Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this essay for non-commercial use, provided the copyright notice is included in the copy.

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