During a stretch of years in the late 1960s and 1970s, the young environmental movement, rippling with exuberant grassroots power and loaded with powerful arguments, pushed through a series of bedrock federal laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Act amendments, the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Automobile Fuel Efficiency and Conservation Act. The sensitivities and perceptions of millions of Americans toward their environment shifted to demanding action. Reflecting on these accomplishments inspires pride but also disappointment. Our society is still coasting on those advances and, with some exceptions, now has a twenty-five-year record of failure.
Considering what we knew then about energy production, air and water contamination, and dwindling forests, how is it that so many solutions remain unused? In many cases, we are failing to advance – turning the Texas-Mexico border into a toxic sewer in the name of trade, wantonly allowing our national forests to be cut, allowing fuel efficiency improvements to stall, destroying precious habitat, letting people drink contaminated water and breathe polluted air. Today, even more than in the 1970s, we know what our environment needs and we know how to meet those needs. We know how to provide cleaner, more efficient energy, how to clean the air and water, and how to protect crucial habitat that allows us to survive.
Our government’s approach to global warming illustrates how decades of inaction compound environmental problems. We’ve known for some time that human beings have the capacity to slowly but surely chew our way toward the creation of significant holes in the planet’s biosphere, its forests and oceans, and associated creatures. But there are two potential impacts that we know humans will have on life that involve so many feedback consequences-of which we have a still primitive understanding-that we cannot predict their directions, implications or precise magnitudes with much precision at all. The first is human-caused global warming; the second, the widespread release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.
In June 2001, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures, are, in fact, rising.” Furthermore, the NAS wrote, “national policy decisions made now and in the longer-term future will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations and ecosystems later in this century.”
What is much more difficult to predict is how this warming, even if we manage to stabilize levels of greenhouse gases, will interact with the extremely complex forces that cause weather patterns. For some, including President Bush, this uncertainty surrounding the exact effects of global warming is reason to dally, to avoid making even the modest changes that the Kyoto agreement stipulates. But there are many clear arguments for these changes besides global warming mitigation.
Even a modest increase in average fuel efficiency could dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, our ground-level air pollution, and greenhouse gases. The temporary cost of raising CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards to forty miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and light trucks would be more than offset by the savings in fuel cost in the first 50,000 miles driven. The forty miles per gallon standard carries a projected savings of more than ninety billion gallons of gasoline by 2010. That standard, however, currently looms as a mirage. General Motors, followed by the rest of the world’s automakers, has exploited the loophole exempting light trucks from fuel efficiency standards to generate an explosion of gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles over the past dozen years. Thus, true average fuel efficiency dropped back to 1980 levels during the Clinton administration, costing many times more oil than is held in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and adding significantly to global warming. Many engineers can demonstrate as well how SUV fuel efficiency can be raised to 35 miles per gallon with simple and inexpensive modifications, apart from hybrid technology.
Minimizing carbon emissions can be shown to produce healthy ripple effects throughout the economy. Thus, arguments for fundamental changes in the way we derive and use energy should be made on all fronts to build the support needed to confront human-caused global warming.
The Union of Concerned Scientists calculates that achieving a 20 percent reliance on renewable energy sources (up from 6 percent now) by 2020 would save a total of 20.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or nearly 50,000 coal-bed methane wells producing strong for ten years — a huge carbon emissions savings. A recent study by researchers at Stanford University showed that in 24 percent of locations where wind was measured, wind speed in the United States is fast enough to provide power at the same current cost of coal and natural gas generators. According to the World Watch Institute in 2002, Denmark, Germany, and Spain together installed 78 percent of the wind-power added worldwide, leaving the United States lagging far behind. Though the U.S. Department of Energy’s renewable energy program cites “real potential of cutting solar prices by half,” the United States continues to progress very slowly on solar development compared to Europe and Japan. What we’ve known about the potentials of wind, solar efficiency, and other non-fossil fuel energy for thirty years is being applied on a schedule far too slow, given the urgency of global warming and the danger of resource wars.