and Its Discontents
“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.” So wrote poet Robert Frost. If climate change prophets are correct, both scenarios may come to pass: Global warming could cause catastrophic wildfires, as well as the onset of a new ice age. Although the ultimate effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming remain unknown, the vast majority of scientists concur that it is, in fact, already happening—and at an accelerating pace.
U.S. environmental regulation goes back to the Refuse Act of 1899, which prohibited unlicensed dumping in the nation’s waterways. Federal laws protecting the natural world proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s with the birth of the modern environmental movement. (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, exposing the dangers of the insecticide DDT, was published in 1962, and Earth Day was first observed in 1970.) From the start, environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973), as well as regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (est. 1970), faced opposition from property owners objecting to limitations on individual freedoms and from businesses claiming environmental restrictions are economically damaging. That “bad for business” argument won big in 2001, when President George W. Bush withdrew U.S. support for the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Bush had favored the treaty, however, it’s unlikely the Senate would have ratified it: In July 1997—months before the accord’s terms were finalized in Kyoto, Japan—the Senate had unanimously passed a resolution declaring the protocol “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.”
On December 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision denied Democrat Al Gore the presidency. But Gore repurposed himself as a full-time environmentalist, pursuing a passion dating back to his years in the U.S. Congress (1977–1993). While a senator, Gore wrote the best-seller Earth in the Balance (1992), which covers a range of environmental issues and urges the creation of a “Global Marshall Plan” to address them. As Bill Clinton’s vice president, Gore tried unsuccessfully to build support for the Kyoto Protocol in the Senate. In subsequent years Gore put together a slideshow presentation focusing on the danger posed by unchecked greenhouse gas emissions—it is, he said, “different from any problem we have ever faced before”—and took his show on the road to cities across the U.S. and beyond. The Academy Award–winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth captures one of Gore’s appearances in Los Angeles, supplemented with graphics, animation and offstage interviews. The film’s scope is global—examining threats ranging from the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps to flooding and worldwide desertification—but Gore takes special aim at U.S. environmental policy, including the government’s refusal to adopt the Kyoto plan.
Al Gore’s environmental activism may have earned him the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (shared with the United Nations–endorsed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), but it did nothing to sway the minds of climate-change deniers. One global-warming skeptic, Oklahoma Republican senator James Inhofe—who appears in An Inconvenient Truth denouncing climate change as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—went so far as to compare environmentalists to Third Reich propagandists. Climate-change deniers, like all conspiracy theorists, are a stubborn lot; overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming cannot persuade them that it is really happening. These naysayers include heads of state (Czech Republic president Václav Klaus) and prominent right-wing media personalities (Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh). The candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who didn’t outright deny global warming either waffled or flip-flopped about their beliefs. As Gore has pointed out, media stories often sow doubt by treating climate change as if it were a debatable hypothesis. A fall 2011 poll found that 26 percent of Americans disbelieve in global warming. The good news? That number was down six percent from the spring before.
Among the potential future scenarios Al Gore discusses in An Inconvenient Truth is one in which, seemingly paradoxically, global warming touches off a new ice age. The climatological mechanics that could conceivably cause this are complex, involving the melting of polar ice and a consequent decrease in the oceans’ salinity, leading in turn to the disruption of ocean currents and associated wind patterns now responsible for keeping large portions of the Northern Hemisphere cozy. As explained by Gore, the onset of this kind of mini–ice age would be rapid—occurring within as few as 10 years. As exploited by director Roland Emmerich’s disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow (starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal), the catastrophe plays out over a few days. One meteorologist critic lambasted the film’s depiction of the near-instantaneous climatic chaos caused by polar ice melt as “science Fiction with a capital F.” Still, the movie is good fun if your tastes run to this sort of hyperkinetic hokum. Apparently, many people’s do: The film’s worldwide gross in theaters was nearly $550 million.
While some climate-change deniers merely assert—against preponderant evidence—that the human role in global warming cannot be proved, others go beyond skepticism and see nefarious motives behind those urging responsible climate policy. According to one denier, Christopher C. Horner, global-warming “hysteria” provides a “bottomless well of excuses for governmental intervention and authority,” and environmentalists are communists in disguise (“green on the outside, red to the core”). Another, Steven Milloy, uses his website JunkScience.com to inveigh against not just “global-warming fairies” but also government policies ranging from the ban on DDT (in effect in the U.S. since 1972) to subsidies for renewable energy resources to efficiency standards for light bulbs (the last a bête noire of the political right, though one of its own, George W. Bush, signed the law mandating those standards). For Horner, Milloy and others, environmental regulations constitute an assault on capitalism itself. It’s a reactionary view that conservatives of past decades didn’t exactly share: Republican president Richard M. Nixon signed major pieces of environmental legislation into law, and President Ronald Reagan—ostensible hero of anti-tree-hugging conservatives—was an enthusiastic backer of the Montreal Protocol, which phased out CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and other ozone layer–depleting chemicals.
Although proposed solutions differ, everyone—left, right and center—agrees that U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a big problem, especially as worldwide demand for petroleum grows and political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere periodically threatens oil supplies, sending gas prices soaring. The majority of Americans probably don’t realize, however, that U.S. reliance on foreign oil has decreased since 2005, and by 2010 imports accounted for less than half the petroleum imported to the U.S. But as politicians argue over how to increase domestic energy production—should extracting natural gas from shale through hydraulic fracturing (i.e., “fracking”) be allowed? Should offshore drilling (including deepwater drilling) be expanded?—the issue of global warming gets dangerously obscured. After all, the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change, which means ensuring Americans’ access to a dependable supply of cheap gas and oil will only make the problem worse. Nobody likes high prices at the pump, but scarcity is much likelier than abundance to encourage conservation, spur the development of renewable energy technologies and help us find a cure for what George W. Bush called our “addiction to oil.”
When it comes to climate-change skeptics, Sarah Palin is America’s sweetheart. Or is she (a climate-change skeptic, that is)? The 2008 vice presidential candidate and former Alaska governor appears to have flip-flopped on the issue. Before joining the national Republican ticket, Palin seemed to accept scientific consensus, stating, “climatologists tell us that the current rate of warming is unprecedented within the time of human civilization.” But she has subsequently denied human agency in the alarming rise in temperatures, declaring it a natural process. Palin has, however, been consistent about what the U.S. needs to do to free itself from dependence on foreign oil—a position neatly encapsulated by one of her campaign mantras, “Drill, baby, drill!” She has long favored opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a pristine wilderness of nearly 20 million acres—to oil and gas companies. And she persisted in advocating the expansion of deepwater drilling even during 2010’s devastating Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Palin’s plan for energy independence is, it should be noted, highly questionable: U.S. oil reserves, for instance, would supply us with enough energy to keep the country running for less than three years, even if we extracted every drop.
Americans love their cars with a passion the rest of the world is rapidly coming to share. The U.S. still has more passenger vehicles—250 million, give or take—on its roads than any country in the world. But that number is holding steady and even declining slightly as other countries’ totals zoom forward. China has lately been adding between nine and 10 million private cars each year; the size of its fleet is projected to surpass that of the U.S. by 2030. Growth in the number of cars in India—now about a million each year—is expected to explode as the century progresses. India should reach the top spot, with about 611 million cars, by 2050. Even with better fuel efficiency and stricter international emissions standards, these figures bode ill for the earth’s atmosphere. And burgeoning private-car ownership also ramps up the pressure on world petroleum supplies. The U.S. is hardly the only nation dependent on outside oil sources: China now imports about a third of its oil. India, with fewer domestic reserves, imports a staggering 70 percent. As more and more drivers take to the road, one can’t help but wonder where we’re all headed.