07/19/2010 08:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If The Cap Holds: The Long Term Political Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill

With the latest "solution" to the runaway oil well continuing to work, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of this environmental nightmare. If not now, then by the end of the summer, the media will focus principally on the clean-up from this nation's worst environmental catastrophe since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Both the oil leak and its clean-up are major events that will have significant political impact. One impact has been increasing mistrust of large institutions like BP and the U.S. government. Another impact has been the collective realization that technology will not protect us from the environmental impact of extracting and burning fossil fuels. We need to develop a more aggressive approach to energy and climate policy and accelerate the transition to a green energy economy. Are we capable of doing that?

Policy formulation in the American democracy has always been a matter of gradually fielding imperfect solutions, while we learn and slowly improve our approach. Energy policy is no exception, but due to the amount of money at stake the policy process has been subject to relentless streams of propaganda and disinformation. This preference for fantasy over facts predates President Jimmy Carter's declaration that the energy crisis was the "moral equivalent of war." The latest manifestation of the power of the fossil fuel interests to define the terms of the energy debate has been the public's skepticism of climate science. It is true that scientists themselves share some of the blame for this skepticism. While the facts of global warming are clear, the specific impacts of these facts are in the future and must be articulated as probability statements. Some scientists have projected impacts with the same certainty with which they analyzed the records of the past. Nevertheless, the energy interests have exploited these mistakes to try to undermine factual science. As an optimist, I do see signs that the skepticism about climate science is receding.

Recently, the National Research Council issued a major report on global warming that adds to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence on human induced climate change. According to the report:

"Emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have ushered in a new epoch where human activities will largely determine the evolution of Earth's climate. Because carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is long lived, it can effectively lock the Earth and future generations into a range of impacts, some of which could become very severe. Therefore, emissions reductions choices made today matter in determining impacts experienced not just over the next few decades, but in the coming centuries and millennia."

This is not news. But this report, and the imprint of the National Academies, comprised of America's most eminent scholars and scientists, provides additional evidence of the scientific consensus on global warming as well as the public policy dilemma posed by the climate crisis. For some of us, there is something profoundly distressing about the fact that we are still trying to establish the fundamental facts of this crisis to segments of the American public.

As I've mentioned before, the climate problem is difficult for our political system to process. It is invisible, it occurs on a global scale, and its impacts are largely in the future. American politics tends to be local, present-minded and respond best when impacts are obvious and visible. The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, of course is a case in point. It's visible, obvious, local all over the place, and its impact is immediate. And it has occupied a central place in our political dialogue since it began about three months ago.

The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe and the climate problem are not separate problems, but pieces of a single problem-- the impact of our modern economy's intense addiction to fossil fuels. Our way of life, economic well-being and even political stability depend on vast and relatively inexpensive supplies of energy. That is why we are drilling for oil in places that we should not be drilling. That is why we rip the top off of mountains to get at the coal that lies within them. The need to transition off of fossil fuels to other sources of energy grows every day, and as much as the public resists the idea, public opinion data indicate that they understand. No one knows how to get from here to there without economic and political dislocation, but in communities all over America, people are working to figure it out.

In Washington, there is a continued push (by some) to accelerate the transition by putting a price on carbon and making renewable energy more competitive with fossil fuels. There is also a modest, but real effort (at long last) to invest in the basic R & D of solar energy. While the level of effort in our nation's capital does not match the dimensions of the crisis, there is plenty of activity in other places. Scientists and engineers are working in laboratories all over the world on renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. We see China's government investing in renewable energy. Simultaneously, China is also building coal-fired power plants at a ferocious rate. The need to meet the very real immediate need for energy for economic development moves all other considerations to the side.

I also hear my scientific colleagues wondering if pluralistic and messy democracies like ours are as effective as centralized and totalitarian regimes like China at mobilizing resources to address this profound energy and climate crisis. I sometimes think that many people become scientists because they are attracted to the certainty of the scientific method and science's beauty and precision. The flip side is that many scientists are repelled by the value-driven irrationality of the political process. The question of democracy's efficacy remains, but I would never bet on the capacity of a top-down fear-driven, rationally planned political or economic system to out mobilize a ground-up, community-based entrepreneurial one. American crisis response always looks like a two-minute drill at the end of a foot ball game. Two minutes of grace and motion following 58 minutes (more like three hours) of slogging in the mud. You're always tempted to ask: "Why didn't they just do that at the start of the game?"

Politics and policy, like the two-minute drill, seem to respond best when our backs are to the wall. Some folks look at the gridlock in Washington over climate and energy and hang their heads in despair. They believe that the broad public and American leadership do not perceive the crisis in front of us. My view is that these observers are looking in the wrong place. The real action is taking place at the local level in communities all over America. The real change is taking place in the hearts and minds of the American people. They will miss their gas guzzling SUVs, but they know that the era of fossil fuels is starting (and I mean just starting) to end. That is a major shift in the perceptions of the American people. The change is grudging and halting, but it is there just the same. It is the most significant impact of the Gulf oil catastrophe. And it will gradually have a major impact on our politics and public policy.