The Peddling of An Addiction

090608_windmill_2 Since energy from the sun and wind comes to us for free and is accessible to anyone willing to invest the capital to capture it, why do we continue to feed our addiction to expensive oil and dirty coal, which are overheating our planet and cooling our economy?

Americans deserve safer energy choices. Most now know that we must end our dangerous dependence on Middle East oil, controlled by dictators who hold America in disdain. But few Americans have grasped the concept that we are running out of time to avoid a climate catastrophe.

A rapid buildup of carbon dioxide released by the burning of oil, coal and natural gas is blocking heat from escaping the atmosphere, causing a rapid overheating of the polar regions. Some of the world’s top climate scientists have recently issued warnings that we are on the verge of unleashing several dangerous feedbacks that will snowball into even greater warming at an accelerating pace. If ever there was a time to act, it’s now.

Energy choices should be judged on whether they pollute the air with carbon dioxide, mercury and other toxic chemicals. Such choices also should be based on whether the energy can be domestically produced by tapping abundant supplies, provide good local jobs, and offer consumers reasonably priced power. On all accounts, a national energy policy should be advancing renewable energy supplies and better energy efficiency over dirty fossil fuels.

Instead, America’s energy policy continues to invest heavily in oil and coal while not taking into account the huge costs of pollution. The root cause of this crisis is not a lack of available alternative energy solutions but rather the absence of political leadership. The White House and Congress have been limited-access highways where money matters most. For decades, enormous tax breaks and direct subsidies have flowed through influential lobbyists to the powerful coal and oil interests that they represent. Bold attempts to change that formula have been beaten back repeatedly. Meanwhile, the oil industry wants Congress to give it full possession of all remnant U.S. reserves—no matter how small they may be in the face of exploding world oil demand or how much damage is done to fragile ecosystems—with no promise to deliver that oil to U. S. markets anytime soon.

To hide the truth, oil and coal interests are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertisements designed to mislead and manipulate American voters. Dishonest messages claim that coal is clean, that alternative energy supplies will only be available to us in the distant future, that we have 45 years of oil and gas reserves left, that big oil is investing in alternative energy research and development, and that the oil oligopolies are not making excessive profits on gasoline by overcharging consumers.

In their brief moments spent in voting booths across America, voters elect people who will set the course for our shared future. The passing parade of elected officials reflects the changing moods of their constituents over time. After all, politicians of every station must reflect the majority opinions of their voting districts or they will be put out of office.

In 1971, shortly after the first Earth Day, I went to work at the Pennsylvania legislature. It was a time when voters were angry and wanted the air and water cleaned up. Lawmakers were anxious to oblige and they passed good environmental laws. When voters later forgot their responsibility for protecting the environment and their children’s future, the candidates turned their ears back to corporate lobbyists and lavished subsidies on polluters.

Near the Pennsylvania state capitol building stands a statue of Boise Penrose, a once-powerful political boss and U.S. senator who defined politics as "the art of taking money from the rich, and votes from the poor, all under the pretext of protecting one from another." Today, perhaps for the first time, Penrose’s political equation may change as contributions from the rich and powerful are somewhat diminished in the face of millions of small gifts coming through web-based fundraising. This is a hopeful sign. Each of us should donate to the candidates of our choice and make our voices count in the voting booths across America.

Thomas Jefferson predicted "one day, America will get the government that she deserves." This upcoming election gives Americans the long-overdue opportunity to demand that candidates on both sides of the aisle set a new energy course, recharging the nation’s economy while stopping climate change. You and I must urge every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, to stand up for a new energy path that is clean, renewable and affordable.

Published: September 6, 2008