First, former Vice President Al Gore goes to Congress, winning converts to the cause of reversing man-made global warming, and support for his proposal to cap U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide at current levels, and begin cutting them back by 90 percent over the next 43 years. The political trend gets noticed:
As Gore concedes, he is more salesman than scientist. But most scientists acknowledge that he is absolutely right on the fundamentals: Humans are artificially warming the world, the risks of inaction are great, the time frame for action is growing short and meaningful cuts in emissions will happen only if the United States takes the lead. An increasing number of business leaders and politicians outside Washington are moving his way.
Congress is paying attention to this shift. Representative Henry Waxman of California has signed up 127 co-sponsors for a very tough bill he proposed last week that seeks to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by midcentury, which is close to what Gore wants. When you consider that Gore and President Bill Clinton could not find five senators willing to ratify the far more modest 1997 Kyoto treaty – which called for a mere 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels, with no further reductions scheduled after 2012 – you get some idea of how far the debate has come.
But then, project-by-project, in states across the country, viable ways to actually achieve these kinds of cuts get blocked. From today’s LA Times:
In a blustery stretch of desert two hours east of Los Angeles, where many of the world’s first power-producing windmills were built, a plan for more turbines has triggered a backlash that echoes a national debate over the merits of wind energy.
A proposal to build about 50 windmills next to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument has aroused passions in a region already dotted with 3,000 windmills, with opponents charging that the wind energy industry has neither delivered the promised power nor spared the environment.
The industry, which was born in California, now has projects in 40 states and $8 billion in investments over the last two years, according to the American Wind Energy Assn.
Supporters say wind power has come of age and will help slow global warming, while critics contend that it has delivered only a quarter of its promised energy, proved lethal to wildlife and, in the view of many residents, blighted the landscape.
Around the country, Internet blogs and anti-wind energy websites hum with angry postings about projects on picturesque ridgelines, seascapes and farmlands from New England to Texas.
Politicians and celebrities have weighed in. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his Nantucket Island neighbors have so far successfully fought installation of offshore turbines.
Their opposition, in turn, has prompted criticism that rich liberals are all for alternative power providing it doesn’t mar their views.
So, are we serious about global warming or not? Wind power is not perfect. But locations like San Gorgonio Pass, where the wind blows constantly, are inherently scarce. We don’t have the luxury of ruling these sites off-limits, even when there is some other environmental impact. Local politics should not drive how the pros and cons are weighed.
If we were serious about global warming, there would be a national policy to encourage development of wind projects in locations where there is the highest potential to exploit it for baseline power. Perhaps we should require environmental impact reports for each site — with the burden of proof being shifted to advocates of the no-build option.
I know that Gore and Waxman probably see the coming battles to be about conservation, green industries, solar power incentives, etc. And certainly that’s going to be part of it. But a properly located wind energy site is one of the few alternative-energy methods now available that is even close to being cost-competitive with burning fossil fuels. Shouldn’t we be looking there first?
Also, why isn’t there more discussion of hydro power? According to this site, there are 80,000 dams in the U.S. Only 2,400 of them generate electricity. Wikipedia’s entry on hydroelectricity articulate the case against the energy source. But what about installing turbines in existing dams? If the dams are already built, what’s the incremental environmental damage from doing that?
Gore needs to shift his salesmanship toward selling solutions. Rep. Waxman is following the old Clean Air Act model of setting high standards and forcing local areas to meet them or else face lawsuits and federal sanctions. That’s great if your purpose is to grandstand against enemies of the environment. But I’d prefer we try to depoliticize this issue, acknowledge (which Gore does) that it won’t be easy, and stop creating binds for ourselves by simultaneously pursuing two competing environmental goals. In San Gorgonio, in Cape Cod and elsewhere, we need to make tough choices.
If’ we’re really serious.