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January 27, 1998

Global Whining

by Woody Justice

The Clinton administration makes minor concessions in a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the conservative voices are immediately raised in shrill alarm. PR flacks dismiss the theory of global warming as "just theory" and suggest their own unsupported scenarios. The consensus of worldwide scientists is disparaged, and spokesmen from corporate- funded think-tanks are offered as "balanced viewpoints." We hear dire predictions of how any such measures will collapse the US economy (is it really that fragile?) and plunge our lifestyles to the Stone Age level. As Grandpa used to say, "Sounds like a lot of pissin' and moanin'."

A Mobile Register editorial (12/15/97) claimed that global warming predictions are "based on inconclusive science" and that pledges from the Kyoto conference let "developing nations off the hook." It further asks, "Why should American companies and homes bear the burden of higher energy costs while in China, for example, industries will be able to spew unlimited emissions?" The worldwide scientific community is in agreement behind the physics of global warming: increased accumulations of greenhouse gases correlate with an increase in global temperatures and result in changed weather patterns; atmospheric concentrations of such gases have increased because of human activity; and, the effects will increase for decades even if we take corrective action now. With only slightly less consensus, they consider it very probable that globally we will experience increased precipitation, melting of ice caps and glaciers, and a rise in sea level that will flood low-lying areas.

Science is a structured discipline. Its credible practitioners suggest possibilities from available data, and those hypotheses are repeatedly scrutinized and tested for falsity. When the data continue to indicate fidelity to the suggested concept, it becomes accepted as theory. In a simple experiment carried out in a test-tube, it is easy to prove theory and make it fact. However, the scale of planetary events is so large that when certainty is finally undeniable the effects will continue long after any corrective measures are instituted. The consensus among the vast majority of climate- change specialists is that this theory appears sound enough that we should not take foolish chances: if true, the consequences of human-induced global warming will be catastrophic; and even with determined action now, things may have progressed too far to spare us serious adversity.

The inescapable truth is that Americans use energy wastefully and that the U.S. has contributed significantly greater amounts of greenhouse gases than any other nation. The European Union [E.U.] also shoulders much more of the blame than developing countries. It seems fair that the people who have enjoyed a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the common environment are the ones who should endure the initial restrictions. Ethically, the US should adopt measures that align more closely with those of the EU and share their "greener" technologies with the less-developed countries to help them voluntarily reduce their emissions.

In a column on the Mobile Register editorial page on December 18th, Cal Thomas accused the mainstream media of jumping the gun on the issue and blowing it out of proportion. He scoffs at the thousands of scientists who agree on global warming, doubting their credentials and expertise in climatology ("most...are social scientists, policy experts or government functionaries.") and then quotes heavily from R. Fred Singer, a man with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, a Ph.D. in physics, and a list of government jobs prior to the one he now holds as president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP). SEPP is a conservative think-tank funded by pro-growth, free-enterprise foundations, and has been active in promoting the appearance of disagreement and dissension in the scientific community.

Thomas dismisses negative global warming concerns as unproven theory, then touts Singer's speculation (wish?) that "consequences of a greenhouse warming should be generally beneficial. One would expect severe weather to be less frequent... [I]ncreased ocean evaporation would lead to more rain -- and therefore to more ice accumulation in the polar regions." While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests possible general outcomes (and their correct refusal to make absolute statements allows their detractors to attack this legitimate conduct as vacillation), any meteorologist will verify the difficulty of predicting local weather patterns far in the future. Thomas' agenda (paranoia?) is revealed in his complaint that government mandated measures to reduce U.S. emissions serve only to "take more control over our lives, our money and our future."

Also in the Mobile Register (12/28/97), Red Cavaney offers this transparency: "technologies that would vastly improve the energy efficiency of vehicles, appliances and factories at affordable additional cost simply do not exist." One third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions comes from transportation. Mandated increases in fuel economy have not been increased since Reagan was in office, and the interim brought us more sport utility vehicles and higher horsepower ratings; the average fuel-mileage of cars is in decline, and there are more cars on American roads every year, more of them gas-guzzlers. Foreign-made resource-efficient appliances have been available for some time, but they suffer high import tariffs that protect antiquated U.S. businesses. Modern materials and technologies are ignored in favor of cheaply constructed throwaway factories and buildings: entire WalMarts and McDonalds are torn down and replaced in ten years and less.

Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, makes claims of a "huge hidden tax in the form of higher prices of goods and services across the board," and "fewer new jobs would be created...payrolls would be pared." Progressive analysts and governmental studies indicate that higher costs to the consumer will be offset by lower bills from less energy consumption. And if the U.S.'s greatness is truly defined by enterprising businessmen, one would expect them to take advantage of this situation: demand for new efficient products and new energy sources would create jobs and make whichever country acts first a world leader in that arena.

He includes the familiar complaint that the burden falls only on the U.S.: exempt are "countries such as China, India, South Korea, Brazil and Mexico... With significantly cheaper energy, businesses and agriculture in those countries would gain a competitive advantage over their American counterparts, win customers away from U.S. businesses and agriculture and enjoy U.S. businesses and jobs relocated there." So all of that is okay if it's in the name of NAFTA or GATT, but not if it means a healthier environment?

So the frantic rhetoric from industry front groups and their handful of dissenters seeks to convince us that we as Americans can't be expected to consider reducing our excesses. They predict any curbing of greenhouse gas emissions as catastrophe, but isn't it just inconvenience? So John Q. Public can't afford that new four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle that never leaves paved roads? Or that 300 horsepower, 0-to-60-in-4-seconds sportscar with its top speed of 185 mph? The price we pay is a safe and reliable car that gets 60 mpg or runs on electricity, and a country independent of foreign oil reserves.

(Is there any wonder that Americans are so selfish in today's society? Look at the role models: hostile takeovers; selling anything for a buck with little or no assurance of its quality; rampant downsizing with no sense of obligation to loyal workers or dependent communities; corporate flight to countries with no environmental or social protections, where poverty wages are the rule; soulless advertising schemes that turn people into consumers and convince them of the luxuries that are their just due; short-thinking companies that are viewed as safe investment bets because of their ruthlessness; bottomless government budgets for punishment and for defense spending, but funding cuts for public assistance and for public infrastructure.)

They seek to avoid any burden on industry, whether regulatory or financial, placing instead the burden of health and environmental costs on consumers. How much will a global agreement cost in economic disaster? A better question is how expensive will a lack of such an agreement be? Once sea level starts hurting Florida (long after Calcutta and Madagascar are inundated) how much will it cost to dike the whole peninsula? Funny how businesses will see that as a growth opportunity -- responding to a life- (and property-) threatening disaster -- but can't see the windfall in providing the products and programs designed to lessen the inconvenience

Don't confuse change with sacrifice. How about the opportunities for solar and wind- power industry to fill the gap from fewer fossil-fuel burning power generators? How about not being bent on sucking every last drop of oil from the planet? How about just not using so much energy to begin with?

Whenever a national energy strategy is discussed, it relies on more oil production and promotes more consumption. A sensible path for a secure future would reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels (reduce consumption with improved efficiency and alternative renewable sources); would have a focus that considered long-term and off-site effects (not just short-term expansion of fossil-fuel and nuclear sources); would protect the environment and global climate for future generations (leaving some resources and not producing so much pollution); and would encourage developments that make the U.S. a world leader in sustainable energy sources and energy efficiency by taking advantage of their present scarcity and the certainty of growing demand for them.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL