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High Gas Prices: A Wedge Issue
by Michael J. Willett
If there was ever any doubt about the fact that America’s political and corporate leaders lack the courage to face up to the coming catastrophe of global warming, it has been removed by recent events. While campaigning in Indiana, Hillary Clinton joined John McCain in calling for a suspension of the federal gasoline tax in order to lower the price at the pump, which is rapidly approaching the $4 per gallon level. If there is any issue that is sure to unite Republicans and Democrats, it is the supposedly inalienable right of the public to cheap gas, no matter how much we consume and no matter how little we produce.
One would think that, at a time when oil is now well above $100 per barrel, a country with three percent of the world’s oil reserves, but 20 percent of the world’s oil consumption, would be in the midst of an all-out campaign to conserve. Not a chance. Instead, our “best and brightest” advocate a policy designed to encourage increased consumption. It will be futile, of course. Unless Hillary and McCain have a secret plan to repeal the law of supply and demand, prices will continue to rise. And faster, if we consume more.
Of course, it is not merely the economics that renders the proposed tax suspension mind-bogglingly stupid. The gasoline tax finances road and infrastructure maintenance. At a time when infrastructure neglect is already resulting in collapsed bridges and leaking water mains, our leaders propose that we devote even fewer resources to this area. And, of course, road and infrastructure produces jobs that will be lost when the tax revenues disappear. But no logic has a chance of prevailing at a time when the highest priority is pandering for votes.
At the same time that the politicians dreamed up their “solution” to high gas prices, General Motors finally decided to jump on the hybrid vehicle bandwagon. Has GM come up with competition for the gas-sipping Toyota Prius? Not quite. In a continuation of the type of wisdom that has produced closed factories and billions of dollars in losses, GM has decided to install hybrid technology in its largest SUVs, the Chevrolet Tahoe and the GMC Yukon. Instead of buying a conventional Tahoe that gets 19 miles per gallon on the highway, you can purchase (at a price in excess of $50,000), a hybrid SUV that gets 20 miles per gallon. It’s not much of a difference, but it makes it possible for GM to claim to the gullible public that it has produced a “green” SUV. At the same time, it gives GM a chance to turn an even bigger profit on each SUV. Nothing ever changes for the American automakers, who don’t want to sell vehicles the public wants. Instead, they’ll sell you their choice of vehicle, which is inevitably a giant gas guzzler.
I read a review of the new hybrid SUVs (the reviewer couldn’t even coax 20 miles per gallon from the weighty vehicle) on the same day that I walked through the lot of an automobile dealer, looking for a vehicle that would give me 50 miles per gallon. There were none. Only the Prius topped the 40 mark. Why is this important? It goes back to an article that I read after it was quoted in the Elizabeth Kolbert book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe. The article was published by two Princeton University professors, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, in Science Magazine in August 2004. In the article, entitled “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies,” the authors examined the measures that would be needed to limit atmospheric CO2 to a concentration of 500 parts per million, or roughly double the preindustrial concentration of 280 ppm. To achieve the desired concentration, it would be necessary for emissions to be held at the present level of seven billion tons of carbon per year for 50 years, even though they are now on course to more than double. The article identified individual measures, referred to as “wedges,” that would have to be taken to stabilize CO2 emissions. Each wedge represented a savings of a billion tons of carbon emissions. Thus, considering the expected rate of growth, seven “wedges” would be needed just to stabilize emissions at their current levels.
None of the wedges is easily achievable, and certainly not without dramatic governmental action. For example, one wedge would require that the fuel economy for two billion cars be increased from 30 to 60 miles per gallon (current fuel economy in the US is well below the 30 miles per gallon level). Another wedge would require that the average number of miles driven yearly by those two billion vehicles be cut in half, from 10,000 miles to 5000. Other wedges called for substantial changes in the way power is generated. For example, much greater use could be made of wind power. In order to save a billion tons of carbon emissions, however, a million wind turbines would be needed. In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Ms. Kolbert estimated that the million turbines would cover a land area roughly equal in size to the State of New York. Another wedge could be achieved by doubling the output of the world’s nuclear power plants, but such a measure would obviously create other problems.
The point is that none of this is easy, and it will require massive amounts of governmental regulation in order to avoid an environmental disaster. We need seven wedges, and we can’t get halfway to one. For the world to have a chance, per capita fossil fuel consumption will have to be greatly reduced. Suburban sprawl will have to be reversed and we will have to be riding buses from our city apartments to our city jobs. For the public to buy into the program, strong, committed leadership will be required. So far, it’s absent. A politician who bleats like a stuck pig when gasoline prices rise to the level where they actually start to affect human behavior isn’t up to the job. A corporation whose idea of “green” is a $50,000 SUV that tops out at 20 miles per gallon is an environmental criminal. Is this the best that we can do?
Michael J. Willett
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