The Coming Storm: Energy Independence and the Safety of Our Planet
In April of 2005, Elizabeth Kolbert did a series of articles for The New Yorker about climate change. In one of those articles, she tells a very interesting story about some of the effects we’re already seeing from global warming.
About fifteen years ago, in the furthest reaches of Alaska, the people of a small, thousand-year-old, oceanfront hunting village noticed something odd. The ice that surrounded and protected the village, which is only twenty feet above sea level, began to grow slushy and weak. Soon, it began to freeze much later in the fall and melt much earlier in the spring.
As the ice continued to melt away at an alarming pace during the 1990s, the village began to lose the protection it offered and became more vulnerable to storm surges. In 1997, the town completely lost a hundred-twenty-five-foot-wide strip of land at its northern edge. In 2001, a storm with twelve-foot waves destroyed dozens of homes. And finally, in the summer of 2002, with the storms intensifying, the ice melting, and the land shrinking all around them, the residents of Shishmaref were forced to move their entire town miles inland — abandoning their homes forever.
The story of the Village That Disappeared is by no means isolated. And it is by no means over.
All across the world, in every kind of environment and region known to man, increasingly dangerous weather patterns and devastating storms are abruptly putting an end to the long-running debate over whether or not climate change is real. Not only is it real, it’s here, and its effects are giving rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon: the man-made natural disaster.
For decades, we’ve been warned by legions of scientists and mountains of evidence that this was coming — that we couldn’t just keep burning fossil fuels and contribute to the changing atmosphere without consequence. And yet, for decades, far too many have ignored the warnings, either dismissing the science as a hoax or believing that it was the concern of enviros looking to save polar bears and rainforests.
But today, we’re seeing that climate change is about more than a few unseasonably mild winters or hot summers. It’s about the chain of natural catastrophes and devastating weather patterns that global warming is beginning to set off around the world — the frequency and intensity of which are breaking records thousands of years old.
In Washington, issues come and go with the political winds. And they are generally covered through that prism: Who’s up and who’s down? Which party benefits? Which party loses?
But in these superficial exchanges, we often lose sight of the real and lasting meaning of the decisions we make and those we defer.
The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much we’re contributing to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere and how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe.
Just think about some of the trends we’ve seen.
Since 1980, we’ve experienced nineteen of the twenty hottest years on record — with 2005 being the hottest ever.
These high temperatures are drying up already dry land, causing unprecedented drought that’s ruining crops, devastating farmers and spreading famine to already poor parts of the world. Over the last four decades, the percentage of the Earth’s surface suffering drought has more than doubled. In the United States, the drought we experienced in 2002 was the worst in forty years. And in Africa, more rivers are beginning to dry up, threatening the water supply across the continent.
As more land becomes parched, more forests are starting to burn. Across Indonesia, throughout Alaska, and in the Western United States, wildfires have raged in recent years like never before. A new record was set in 2002, as more than 7 million acres burned from Oregon down to Arizona.
And while the situation on the land may look ugly, what’s going on in the oceans is even worse. Hurricanes and typhoons thrive in warm water, and as the temperature has risen, so has the intensity of these storms. In the last thirty-five years, the percentage of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled, and the wind speed and duration of these storms has jumped 50%. A hurricane showed up in the South Atlantic recently when scientists said it could never happen. Last year, Japan set a new record when it suffered its tenth typhoon and the United States set a record for the most tornadoes we’ve ever had. And at one point, Hurricane Wilma was the most powerful storm ever measured.
These are all frightening situations, but perhaps none more so than what is beginning to occur at the North and South Poles. There, a satellite image from space or a trip to the region shows indisputable evidence that the polar ice caps are melting. But it’s not just a slow, steady thaw that’s been occurring over centuries, it’s a rapidly accelerating meltdown that may eventually dump enough water into the ocean to annihilate coastal regions across the globe.
In 1996, a melting Greenland dumped about 22 cubic miles of water into the sea. Today, just ten years later, it’s melting twice as fast. In real terms, this means that every single month, Greenland is dumping into the ocean an amount of water 54 times greater than the city of Los Angeles uses in an entire year. All in all, Greenland has enough ice to raise the global sea level 23 feet, making a New Orleans out of nearly every coastal city imaginable.
Indeed, the Alaskan village of Shishmaref could be just the beginning.
And yet, despite all the ominous harbingers of things to come, we do not have to stand by helplessly and accept this future. In fact, we can’t afford to. Climate change may be unleashing the forces of nature, but we can’t forget that this has been accelerated by man and can be slowed by man too.
By now, the culprit of this climate change is a familiar one, as is the solution. Last September, when I gave my first speech on energy, I talked about how our dependence on oil is hurting our economy, decimating our auto industry, and costing us millions of jobs. A few months ago, I discussed how the oil we import is jeopardizing our national security by keeping us tied to the world’s most dangerous and unstable regimes. And when it comes to climate change, it’s the fossil fuels we insist on burning — particularly oil — that are the single greatest cause of global warming and the damaging weather patterns that have been its result.
You’d think by now we’d get the point on energy dependence. Never has the failure to take on a single challenge so detrimentally affected nearly every aspect of our well-being as a nation. And never have the possible solutions had the potential to do so much good for so many generations to come.
Of course, many Americans have gotten this point, and it’s true that the call for energy independence is now coming from an amazingly diverse coalition of interests. From farmers and businesses, military leaders and CIA officials, scientists and Evangelical Christians, auto executives and unions, and politicians of almost every political persuasion, people are realizing that an oil future is not a secure future for this country.
And yet, when it comes to finding a way to end our dependence on fossil fuels, the greatest vacuum in leadership, the biggest failure of imagination, and the most stubborn refusal to admit the need for change is coming from the very people who are running the country.
By now, the Bush Administration’s record on climate change is almost legendary. This is the administration that commissioned government experts and scientists to do a study on global warming, only to omit the part from the final report that said it was caused by humans. This is the administration that didn’t try to improve the Kyoto Treaty by trying to include oil guzzlers like China and India, but walked away from the entire global effort to stem climate change. And just recently, this is the administration that tried to silence a NASA scientist for letting the rest of us know that yes, climate change is a pretty big deal.
Meanwhile, it’s pretty tough to make any real progress on this issue in Congress when the Chairman of the committee in charge of the environment thinks that, in the face of literally thousands of scientists and studies that say otherwise, global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” And you know it’s bad when the star witness at his global warming hearing is a science fiction writer.
Now, after the President’s last State of the Union, when he told us that America was addicted to oil, there was a brief moment of hope that he’d finally do something on energy.
I was among the hopeful. But then I saw the plan.
His funding for renewable fuels is at the same level it was the day he took office. He refuses to call for even a modest increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars. And his latest budget funds less then half of the energy bill he himself signed into law — leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in under-funded energy proposals.
This is not a serious effort. Saying that America is addicted to oil without following a real plan for energy independence is like admitting alcoholism and then skipping out on the 12-step program. It’s not enough to identify the challenge — we have to meet it.
See, there’s a reason that some have compared the quest for energy independence to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon landing. Like those historic efforts, moving away from an oil economy is a major challenge that will require a sustained national commitment.
During World War II, we had an entire country working around the clock to produce enough planes and tanks to beat the Axis powers. In the middle of the Cold War, we built a national highway system so we had a quick way to transport military equipment across the country. When we wanted to pull ahead of the Russians into space, we poured millions into a national education initiative that graduated thousands of new scientists and engineers.
America now finds itself at a similar crossroads. As gas prices keep rising, the Middle East grows ever more unstable, and the ice caps continue to melt, we face a now-or-never, once-in-a-generation opportunity to set this country on a different course.
Such a course is not only possible, it’s already being pursued in other places around the world. Countries like Japan are creating jobs and slowing oil consumption by churning out and buying millions of fuel-efficient cars. Brazil, a nation that once relied on foreign countries to import 80% of its crude oil, will now be entirely self-sufficient in a few years thanks to its investment in biofuels.
So why can’t we do this? Why can’t we make energy security one of the great American projects of the 21st century?
The answer is, with the right leadership, we can. We can do it by partnering with business, not fighting it. We can do it with technology we already have on the shelf. And we can do it by investing in the clean, cheap, renewable fuels that American farmers grow right here at home.
To deal directly with climate change, something we failed to do in the last energy bill, we should use a market-based strategy that gradually reduces harmful emissions in the most economical way. John McCain and Joe Lieberman are continuing to build support for legislation based on this approach, and Senators Bingaman and Domenici are also pursuing proposals that will cut carbon emissions. Right here in Chicago, the Chicago Climate Exchange is already running a legally binding greenhouse gas trading system.
The idea here is simple: if you’re a business that can’t yet meet the lower cap we’ll put on harmful carbon emissions, you can either purchase credits from other companies that have achieved more than their emissions goal, or you can temporarily purchase a permit from the government, the money from which will go towards investments in clean energy technology. As Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense has said, “Once you put a value on carbon reductions, you make winners out of innovators.”
Any strategy for reducing carbon emissions must also deal with coal, which is actually the most abundant source of energy in this country. To keep using this fossil fuel, I believe we need to invest in the kind of advanced coal technology that will keep our air cleaner while still keeping our coal mines in business. Over the next two decades, power companies are expected to build dozens of new coal-fired power plants, and countries like India and China will build hundreds. If they use obsolete technology, these plants will emit over 60 billion tons of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere. We need to act now and make the United States a leader in puting in place the standards and incentives that will ensure that these plants use available technology to capture carbon dioxide and dispose of it safely underground.
But of course, one of the biggest contributors to our climate troubles and our energy dependence is oil, and so any plan for the future must drastically reduce our addiction to this dirty, dangerous, and ultimately finite source of energy.
We can do this by focusing on two things: the cars we drive and the fuels we use.
The President’s energy proposal would reduce our oil imports by 4.5 million barrels per day by 2025. Not only can we do better than that, we must do better than that if we hope to make a real dent in our oil dependency. With technology we have on the shelves right now and fuels we can grow right here in America, by 2025 we can reduce our oil imports by over 7.5. million barrels per day — an amount greater than all the oil we are expected to import from the entire Middle East.
For years, we’ve hesitated to raise fuel economy standards as a nation in part because of a very legitimate concern — the impact it would have on Detroit. The auto industry is right when they argue that transitioning to more hybrid and fuel-efficient cars would require massive investment at a time when they’re struggling under the weight of rising health care costs, sagging profits, and stiff competition.
But it’s precisely because of that competition that they don’t have a choice. China now has a higher fuel economy standard than we do, and Japan’s Toyota is doubling production of the popular Prius to sell 100,000 in the U.S. this year.
There is now no doubt that fuel-efficient cars represent the future of the auto industry. If American car companies hope to be a part of that future — if they hope to survive — they must start building more of these cars. This isn’t just about energy — this is about the ability to create millions of new jobs and save an entire American industry.
But that’s not to say we should leave the industry to face the transition costs on its own. Yes, we should raise fuel economy standards by 3% a year over the next fifteen years, starting in 2008. With the technology they already have, this should be an achievable goal for automakers. But we can help them get there.
Right now, one of the biggest costs facing auto manufacturers isn’t the cars they make, it’s the health care they provide. Health care costs make up $1,500 of the price of every GM car that’s made — more than the cost of steel. Retiree health care alone cost the Big 3 automakers nearly $6.7 billion just last year.
I believe we should make the auto companies a deal that could solve this problem. It’s a piece of legislation I introduced called “Health Care for Hybrids,” and it would allow the federal government to pick up part of the tab for the auto companies’ retiree health care costs. In exchange, the auto companies would then use some of that savings to build and invest in more fuel-efficient cars. It’s a win-win proposal for the industry — their retirees will be taken care of, they’ll save money on health care, and they’ll be free to invest in the kind of fuel-efficient cars that are the key to their competitive future.
But building cars that use less oil is only one side of the equation. The other involves replacing the oil we use with the home-grown biofuels that will finally slow the warming of the planet. In fact, one study shows that using cellulosic ethanol fuel instead of oil can reduce harmful emissions by up to 75%.
Already, there are hundreds of fueling stations that use a blend of ethanol and gasoline known as E85, and there are millions of cars on the road with the flexible-fuel tanks necessary to use this fuel — including my own right here in Illinois.
But the challenge we face with these biofuels is getting them out of the labs, out of the farms, and onto the wider commercial market.
The federal government can help in a few ways here, and recently, I introduced the American Fuels Act with Senator Dick Lugar to get us started.
First, this legislation would reduce the risk of investing in renewable fuels by providing loan guarantees and venture capital to those entrepreneurs with the best plans to develop and sell biofuels on a commercial market.
Second, it would let the private sector know that there will always be a market for renewable fuels by creating an alternative diesel standard in this country that would blend millions of more gallons of renewable fuels into the petroleum supply each year.
Third, it would help make sure that every single new car in America is a flexible-fuel vehicle within a decade. Currently it costs manufacturers just $100 to add these tanks to each car. But we can do them one better. If they install flexible-fuel tanks in their cars before the decade’s up, we will provide them a $100 tax credit to do it — so there’s no excuse for delay. And we’d also give consumers a bargain by offering a 35 cents tax credit for every gallon of E85 they use.
Fourth, this legislation calls for a Director of Energy Security to oversee all of our efforts. Like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the National Intelligence Director, this person would be an advisor to the National Security Council and have the full authority to coordinate America’s energy policy across all levels of government. He or she would approve all major budget decisions and provide a full report to Congress and the country every year detailing the progress we’re making toward energy independence.
Finally, while it’s not in the bill, we should also make sure that every single automobile the government purchases is a flexible-fuel vehicle — starting today. When it becomes possible in the coming years, we should also make sure that every government car is the type of hybrid that you can plug-in to an outlet and recharge.
As the last few residents of Shishmaref pack up their homes and leave their tiny seaside village behind, I can’t help but think that right now, history is testing our generation.
Will we let this happen all over the world? Will we stand by while drought and famine, storms and floods overtake our planet? Or will we look back at today and say that this was the moment when we took a stand? That this was the moment when we began to turn things around?
The climate changes we are experiencing are already causing us harm. But in the end, it will not be us who deal with its most devastating effects. It will be our children, and our grandchildren.
I have two daughters, aged three and seven. And I can’t help but think that they are the reason I wanted to make a difference in this country in the first place — to give them a better, more hopeful world to raise their children.
This is our generation’s chance to give them that world. It’s a chance that will not last much longer, but if we work together and seize this moment, we can change the course of this nation forever. I hope we can start today. Thank you.