America, This Is Our Wake-up Call

From the moment the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, the news has moved in one direction -- from bad to worse to unthinkable. Eleven workers missing and now presumed dead. First some leaking oil, then a major spill, and now what could be the worst environmental disaster in our history.

This week, I flew over the Gulf with reporters and Sierra Club activists and saw for myself the beginnings of a devastation that will be inescapable for the Gulf Coast. Can it get worse? I'm afraid it could. If the oil reaches the powerful Gulf currents, it could be carried to Florida and up the Atlantic seaboard.

Local Sierra Club volunteers (more than 2,000 of them so far!) will do what they can to help. So will the local and national governments. Even BP, assuming we don't let them shirk their responsibility, will have to contribute, though they could never write a check big enough to cover all that's been lost. We probably won't even know the full extent of the damage for decades.

I don't care how much money the oil industry pumps into lobbying ($169 million in 2009) or how many slick PR campaigns they underwrite -- this disaster should make clear to every American that the price for prolonging our dependence on oil is just too high. And that's all we're doing -- prolonging. Sooner or later, we will make the transition to clean energy. We won't have a choice.

But what if we move too slowly?

Economically, our nation would be left behind by others that were quicker to embrace the future. Environmentally, we would see more horrific disasters like the one in the Gulf, as we take greater and greater risks to feed our oil and coal addiction. Perhaps most frighteningly, we might find it too late to stop runaway climate change -- a truly global catastrophe. Why risk all that when the solutions are right in front of us?

People often don't start taking care of themselves until after a wake-up call like a non-fatal heart attack. Many a smoker who simply couldn't quit has found that a grim diagnosis becomes a sudden boost to will power.

This is our wake-up call. We need to stop the expansion of offshore drilling, immediately. We need to eliminate subsidies and giveaways to companies like BP, which made more than $5.5 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2010 alone. We need our leaders to deliver a plan to get us off oil by promoting clean-energy solutions. Solutions like efficiency and clean cars already exist, we just need the political will to implement them.

Yes, it's been bad news, and I'm afraid there will be more. But this catastrophe should also be a turning point for our nation. Already, Americans are recognizing the hollowness of cries to drill, drill, drill. Now it's time to build on that epiphany and make the case, once and for all, that dirty fuels like coal and oil belong in our past, not our future.