April is indeed the cruelest month for environmental activists. Every year around Earth Day, newspapers, magazines, TV shows and Web sites run their annual "green" edition, inevitably filled with "easy tips for saving the planet," like changing light bulbs and re-using plastic bags. It's excruciating every year for serious envirowonks to see complex and challenging policy questions distilled down to "tips" that, let's be brutally honest here, are not saving the planet.
I suppose these tips have their place, and have served a legitimate purpose. In the absence of any governmental policies, voluntary activities by individuals helped the long process of building awareness of the climate problem and increased familiarity with some of the pieces that someday may contribute to a solution. But voluntary action by a few individuals cannot substitute for a real national energy policy, or climate policy.
Despite the preoccupation with paper or plastic, with respect to averting the coming climate disasters, only two things really matter: (1) electric companies must burn less coal, and (2) cars must burn less gasoline. It will take some combination of substituting other fuels and of just driving less and using less electricity. And our federal government needs to set out a plan to make that happen. Everything else is just busy work in the meantime.
Well, meaningful changes in energy or climate policy have not been a realistic option for the past eight years, so enviros have been asking people to bicycle, unplug idle appliances, try the CFLs, etc., in anticipation of the day, someday, when a serious push to change government policy could be attempted.
Well guess what? That "someday" has arrived. By some inconceivable quirk of fate, we find ourselves today with a president who not only understands the urgency of the climate problem but is committed, against all conventional political wisdom, to taking swift and meaningful action to address the threats of climate change. He's being advised by accomplished scientists and savvy policymakers. And he's not only taking action on climate change, he's making sustainability the cornerstone of his whole plan to turn around the economy.
Last week, in response to a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency declared that greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare. The finding sets the stage for the EPA to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and power plants, whether or not Congress takes action to limit carbon emissions.
The coal and oil industries were ready with their response. Surprise: they don't like it. And they have built up a massive army of lawyers, lobbyists, front groups and spin doctors to convince you and the Congress not to like it either.
These are the big boys. Check out Fortune magazine's latest list of the largest American corporations. Seven of the top 10 are companies that sell oil, cars or power plants. Including the new No. 1 company (sorry Wal-Mart), Exxon Mobil, which took in $443 billion last year, making $45 billion in profits. That's $5 million per hour in profits. To put it mildly, they have a good thing going, and they are not about to let a bunch of scientists and activists take it away from them without a fight.
We've seen this before. In 1993, just one month into the first Clinton/Gore term, in an effort to begin a transition to more sustainable energy sources, the administration proposed a "BTU tax" on fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and gasoline. The administration estimated that gas and electricity costs for a typical family would eventually increase about 4.5 percent. Had that bill passed Congress, we'd be well on our way to averting the looming climate disasters. But it didn't, the threat has become more dire and fixing the problem now will likely be more expensive, and more disruptive.
The Clinton proposal never even came to a vote. An onslaught of lobbying, full-page ads from oil companies and an industry-orchestrated public outcry killed the bill in the Senate. The fossil industry spanked that new president so thoroughly, our federal government hasn't seriously debated the subject for 16 years. And the coal and oil companies have been gearing up for this next battle ever since. The tactics they employed then will seem primitive compared to what they have in store now for Obama and company. They will be coming with the long knives. If they succeed as well this year as they did in 1993, who knows how long it will be before another president or Congress tries to go up against the coal and oil lobby.
If Obama cared only about being re-elected, he clearly would not be taking on this battle. The very states likely to be big swing states in 2012 are the states he risks alienating with a strong climate policy. Limit use of coal? Lose votes in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Push the auto companies to make more fuel efficient cars? Lose votes in Michigan. Raise the cost of electricity or gasoline even a little bit? Lose votes everywhere.
In 2000, candidate George Bush promised to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants. A few months after being elected, he simply reversed himself, saying he changed his mind. He didn't pay any political price for that. Obama probably wouldn't either.
It would be very easy for Obama to say, given the current economic crisis, we're going to put this issue on the back burner, and maybe take another look next year, or in the second term. But on this issue, it appears that Obama is following the advice of his climate scientists, and not of his political advisors. He is way out on a limb, and he needs a huge public show of support for these policies.
OK. Ready for your one hard thing that you must do to save the planet? Here it is:
1. Actively support the Obama administration's efforts to limit carbon emissions.
That's it. That's all you need to do. But really do it. Talk to your friends, relatives and neighbors about it. E-mail your congressman about it. Tell him you want action on climate this year, even if it means paying a little more for gas or electricity. Write your local newspaper. Join a climate organization. Wear a button. Put it on your Facebook. Twitter it, goddammit, whatever that means. Do all that, and you can leave the old light bulbs in place, give your kids the bottled water, and drive your SUV to the end of your driveway to pick up the mail. Just do everything you can to help the administration pass its climate program this year.
Happy Earth Day.