The Awakening

May 7th, 2007 by Hilary

Recently the New York Times released a poll that it conducted with CBS News. In that poll, 90% of Democrats, 80% of Independents, and 60% of Republicans all said that immediate action was required to curb the warming of the atmosphere and deal with climate change impacts. Only 1% said no steps were needed.

This poll, if representative of America, would suggest that we have arrived at a place of awakening. In part this is a relief. It is a relief that we no longer have to explain the science and numbers surrounding climate change to the masses. The public has become informed, and now there is a need for solutions.

Interestingly, when it came to solving the recognized warming crisis, the responses were more mixed. Respondents were willing to have higher gasoline prices to reduce our foreign oil dependence but not as a mechanism for reducing our consumption. And they were prepared to pay more for electricity generated by renewable sources like solar or wind energy, but not to pay even $1 more at the gasoline pump. On the other hand, the respondents overwhelmingly said that a higher priority should be placed on conserving energy than increasing production of petroleum, coal, and natural gas (68% for conserving energy, 21% increasing production). Nearly half, however, did not have faith in their fellow citizens that they would take actions to conserve gas or reduce heat-trapping gasses by changing driving habits. Finally, 92% supported requiring automobile manufacturers to make more fuel efficient cars.

Given political and social will is behind many of the solutions to our climate crisis, these numbers make finding a solution a little easier. First, the responses suggest that a solution to cutting CO2 emissions at least initially is finding alternative energy sources. If our use of alternative energy sources like solar and wind increased, we could significantly decrease our use of fossil fuels.

There have already been significant gains in securing alternative energy sources like wind power. A recent joint report released just two days ago projects that the renewable energy the United States can generate is around 635 gigawatts (GW) by 2025. The report projects that wind power can account for 248 GW, solar energy 164 GW, hydro, ocean and tidal energy 23 GW, geothermal energy 100 GW, and biomass and biofuels 100 GW. The conclusion is that renewable energy can meet the nation’s energy needs.

This was not the most critical element of the report, however. Instead, the critical point the report makes is that unless steps are taken at the policy level the opportunities these renewable energy solutions present for reducing greenhouse gases will be lost. The report concludes that “if we don’t change policy we cannot expect a substantial difference in the outcome.”

Renewable Electricity Standards

Fortunately, 21 states and the District of Columbia have taken the lead and adopted standards at the policy level. These states have adopted renewable electricity standards, which scientists project will reduce CO2 emissions by 108 million metric tons by 2020 – the same amount as taking 17.7 million cars off the road. The effect this leadership at the local level will have is to likely produce more than 46,000 megawatts of clean, renewable power. This translates into enough energy to power 28.5 million typical homes.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts at the state level, what is necessary is acceptance at the national level. This would eliminate the uncertainty of government policy on renewables, creating the research-push and market-pull policies necessary for growing this industry.

Steady, long-term policy support is crucial to sustain this growth and attract investment. A national renewable portfolio standard and a long-term extension of the renewable energy production tax credit are measures that can be adopted now and would unleash billions of dollars in new projects and manufacturing plants, create tens of thousands of jobs and generate revenue for farmers and rural communities, while jump-starting cost-effective action against global warming.- Randall Swisher, Executive Director American Wind Energy Assoc.

Other countries have already begun embracing renewables. Denmark has set a goal of 29 % renewable electricity output by 2010, France 21%, Finland 35%, Portugal 45.6%, Spain 30.3%, and Austria 78.1%. The Swedish government has set a goal of 60% renewable energy by 2010, and also announced the oil phase-out in Sweden with the intention to become the first country to break its dependence on fossil fuels by 2020.

Second, and maybe more important than alternative energy sources, the responses suggest Americans support conserving energy as a means to reducing CO2 emissions. Reducing our energy consumption would go a long way to reducing greenhouse gases. Other countries have come up with creative ways to make substantial commitments to cut consumption. Switzerland is planning to cut its energy consumption by more than half to become a 2000 Watt society by 2050. Presently, Switzerland uses around 5000 watts per capita. Europe as a whole is at about 6,000 watts per capita. Whereas Africa is at about 500 watts per capita. Under the 2000 Watt Society, the Swiss nation would move as a whole towards a 2000 watts per person goal. And the Swiss Council says it can do this not by cutting back on the Swiss standard of living, but by dramatically improving the energy efficiency of all aspects of life. Similarly, the United Kingdom is working towards a zero energy building standard for all new housing by 2016. To encourage this, an exemption from Stamp Dusty Land Tax is planned. Here, in Washington State Washington State, we have already seen the “zero-energy” home, but we have no local or national commitment to it.

The poll results also show a significant desire to increase fuel efficiency of cars. Obviously, this solution itself would significantly decrease our CO2 emissions. Our nation’s transportation accounted for over 1959.8 CO2 emissions in 2004. Only four nations in the world produce more CO2 than that produced by the cars that drive in the United States. The technology exists today for creating more fuel-efficient vehicles. If we implemented this technology in vehicles now, not only would we reduce our dependence on oil exports and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from cars by more than 40 percent, but we would save our pocket books as well. This is important given the poll results show a significant reluctance to giving up ones car.

Overall, these numbers do not bring us a clear solution to the global warming crisis. They do bring us hope that the larger population will mobilize and demand a solution. The question is whether it will be fast enough. As Martin Luther King observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Unlike past movements, like the Civil Rights Movement, the movement to end global warming does not have the opportunity for patience and drawn out resistance. Time is running out.

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