With increasing frequency, evidence of global warming and climate change are making headlines around the world. Politicians, while giving lip service to the dangers that lie ahead for the planet, lack a fundamental understanding of either the dangers or the solution to the problem. They all promise a technological solution, but fail to grasp the social context which makes the problem difficult to solve. The urgency and complicated nature of a solution puts humanity at a distinct disadvantage and many scientists involved in the study of our planet concur that if we acted now, we would only be able to make a difference in what is happening by the end of the century. The problem is that the situation is growing more desperate and yet those in power are not. Why are these issues so difficult to address?
During the recent US Presidential election, politicians promoted new technologies as the solution to climate change and to decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, which is the largest contributor to pollutants damaging to our planet. What they failed to say was that technology alone cannot fix this problem because it has a social context attached. Any technical solution must also address the human element. Several historical examples highlight this basic truth.
During the oil embargo of the 1970s, oil supplies dropped, prices escalated, and President Jimmy Carter promised the nation we would break the back of foreign oil, and end our dependence. Subsidies were put in place to develop alternatives to hydrocarbons, but as soon as the crisis ended the oil companies influenced Congress to end the promotion of other forms of energy.
The current economic crisis began with oil prices once again soaring to unprecedented levels. The United States consumes almost 25% of the world’s oil (20.6 million barrels per day or roughly 456 gallons per American per year). Our nation spends almost as much per year on oil as the current bail out of financial institutions.
Think about that figure. We send about $700 billion dollars per year just to can drive our vehicles. Simple measures to reduce our oil consumption by 10% could have a dramatic effect. The problem in the US with a solution is that is must address the social context. Americans love big, gas guzzling automobiles and they equate the right to drive any vehicle they choose with their personal freedom. Without coercion or incentive from the government it is unlike the trends towards reducing oil usage will change. Unless the social issue is addressed it is not likely a solution will be reached until the last drop of gas comes from a pump somewhere in the future.
But the crisis looms also because of the power and money of the oil companies. Politicians receive millions of dollars and perks from oil companies and theirs is one of the biggest lobbies in Washington. Again, it is not the OPEC producers which give money to our politicians, but the oil companies. They have a vested interest in not developing other forms of energy to compete with oil. Politicians make OPEC the whipping boy for high gas pricings, when in reality the price and supply of oil is controlled by the number and operation of oil refineries, owned by the oil companies. Natural disasters like hurricanes caused the recent perceived or real shortage of gas, because most of those refineries are located in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the direct path of the hurricanes. Refineries play a major role in pricing by controlling supply, so no new refineries are built, and the price can continue to be high.
Internet movies, like “Who Killed the Electric Car,” provide an interesting look at what happens to development of alternate sources. The most viable electric car ever produced was stopped and destroyed, for the most part by the oil companies, who bought up the patent for battery resources, and the car companies, afraid of losing sales helped. In a bait and switch, the Bush Administration moved towards hydrogen as a resource, even though it was a much less reliable alternative, and the need for infrastructure would cause widespread use to be problematic. Electric cars did not need infrastructure, and could easily be charged at home. With the present crisis, the electric car is once again under discussion.
Dealing with the impact to the environment requires concerted action, not just by a few, but by everyone. Industrialized and developing nations must come together to reach a consensus on what can be done to avert disaster as the planet heats up, polar ice caps melt, and climate changes create havoc around the globe. Developing nations pose a major problem, especially when they are large, like China and India. Their goals do not include serious consideration for the environment, but instead to reach parity with other developed nations, like the US. The recent Olympics highlighted this issue, as China was forced to artificially create rain and closed much of their pollution prone industries weeks prior to the start of the Olympics in an effort to clean the air over Beijing.
Developed nations do no perform much better. Their disregard for the environment is reflected in the vast number of lakes and rivers that will no longer permit life, due to pollution. Their carbon foot print is huge. Even those who try to raise awareness, such as former Vice President Al Gore, who, when asked about his personal travels, ignored the contribution he was personally making to the overall problem, through use of a huge plane to fly him all over the world to promote global warming. In fact, this highlights part of the issue. Someone else is always a worse offender than we are. Personal responsibility and participation in saving the planet are minimalized or shifted to others.
In order to alter the direction of climate change, an effective strategy, based on consensus between developing and industrialized nations, is essential. This agreement must address the social factors inherent in the system. Part of the objection by the Bush Administration to the Kyoto Accord was that it did not affect developing nations such as China and India to the same degree as industrialized nations. Politicians will need to understand the real issues involved in technology and its social aspects, and adopt plans which will have long term goals. Can the damage done be reversed? Only time can tell, but climate change is certainly becoming increasing apparent, and immediate action is necessary if irreparable damage is to be averted.