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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Well, it only took about a month of cold weather: the huddled, shivering masses this cold winter are whispering that maybe global warming really is just a bunch of hot air. Crank those thermostats back up; let the car warm up in the driveway for as long as we want; we can’t collectively stop old man winter after all! But wait…

Global climate change, not global warming, is the more accurate term for the effects of increased carbon dioxide and other human-created additions to the atmosphere. Even more significantly, the effects will not be a slow steady increase in temperature over time. They will be exactly what we’re seeing, wild, unpredictable weather, increased storm intensity, and disruptions to ocean currents. One snowy winter does not mean global warming is all a bunch of hogwash.
Still, many Americans insist that we’re putting ourselves at economic risk by taking steps to avoid global warming. What if they’re right that global warming isn’t real? Is it an economic burden to try to fight global warming?

Cars and trucks using gasoline and coal burning power plants are responsible for the vast majority of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. To replace these, the argument goes that these fossil fuels must be replaced with renewable, efficient energy sources, but that this will come at too great a cost, putting the U.S. at a distinct economic disadvantage.

During the last great oil crisis of the 1970’s, several nations chose to limit their dependence on fossil fuels. Through a combination of general conservation, taxes on gasoline, and diversification into nuclear power plants and other alternatives, those nations were able to level off and even cut their dependence on oil. In his book, A Thousand Barrels a Second, Peter Tertzakian creates an oil dependency factor to indicate how tied a nation’s GDP is to its oil consumption. The “dependency factor” for a nation like France, which aggressively worked from the 1970’s onward to untie itself from oil dependency, is 16. For Japan, it’s 0. For the U.S., the dependency factor is 45! The impact on the U.S. economy every time oil goes up a $1 a barrel is significant and painful. For Japan, it’s not even a blip.

Every investment we make in another wind turbine, in greater fuel economy, in hybrid technology, translates into oil we do not have to buy from unstable foreign governments. The economic rewards Japan is reaping by having developed hybrid technology first, and not only selling hybrid cars to U.S. consumers but also licensing hybrid technology to U.S. car manufacturers, is huge. Solar panels are being built in China and other nations that jumped on renewable technology.

We’re losing our technological edge in this area and are being hurt by it in two ways: 1) we must pay to import the technology, while 2) we’re still importing more oil at astronomical prices. The U.S. is economically disadvantaged by not doing everything in its power to untie itself from fossil fuel dependency.

Domestically produced coal is no solution, either, for power generation. Forget carbon dioxide, coal burning puts huge amounts of other pollutants into the air, causing a litany of undesirable effects, from acid rain to asthma. The real economic costs of continuing to rely on coal are astronomical.

The U.S., for its own non-altruistic economic survival, needs to stop arguing about theory and start weaning itself off the fossil fuel sauce now. The fact that we may prevent global warming by the effort will certainly be one of the most pleasant by-products of energy production ever known.