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Elections and Energy Policy

Election Day 2012. Over the past half century, the energy policies of successive United States presidents and congresses have (1) flooded Saudi Arabia and other foreign “friends” with petrodollars used to finance terrorists, (2) accelerated global warming by subsidizing fossil fuel use, and (3) encouraged a fantasy that Americans have a birthright to unending cheap, safe and plentiful fossil fuel energy. We vote today for the president who begins his term on January 20, 2013. There is more hope for change this time around because Mother Nature votes, and even presidents and congresses eventually pay attention.

American environmentalism has two dominant themes, and government has paid attention to only one: the idea that our environment should be cleansed of specific threats to human health. Under President Richard M. Nixon, the federal government enacted laws intended to protect the nation’s land, air and water from pollutants and created the EPA to advance those goals. Federal and state laws have successfully reduced direct harms like industry’s dumping toxic chemicals into rivers, and there are no more rivers burning with floating chemicals.

Government has done almost nothing on environmentalists’ second theme: that the goal of perpetual growth in the nation’s consumption and material production is unrealistic. Over a century ago, conservationists such as Sierra Club founder John Muir pointed out the inherent tension between conservationists’ goals and economic expansion. Decades later, an MIT group published “The Limits of Growth” warning, with support from detailed computer models, that economic growth necessarily has limits, whether chosen by man or enforced by nature.

President Nixon pushed environmentalists’ first goal, guarding public health against specific, limited pollutants, but in 1971 his “New Economic Policy” stopped oil and gas price increases and hurt environmentalists’ second goal. Federal controls on energy prices lasted for almost a decade, and consumers responded by buying heavier vehicles, driving more, and emitting more climate-changing greenhouse gases. Enforced low gasoline prices were popular with American voters, and Nixon won reelection easily in 1972. Succeeding presidents and congresses have consistently promised to keep energy prices low; no serious candidate has asked Americans to pay the full costs – to the environment, to armed forces, to our security – of the energy we consume.

American energy policy has contributed to the warmer seas and warmer air that made Hurricane Sandy as large and as destructive as it has been. Politicians in the storm’s direct line of fire like New York Mayor Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Christie acknowledge that climate change exists and should be a factor in government decisions. The 2012 presidential election follows a long campaign silence about global warming-climate change, but there is always hope for the future, and the man sworn in January 20th could lead us into confronting the results of high energy consumption and doing something about it.

Michael J. Graetz, who has taught law at Yale and Columbia, discusses the issues powerfully in his 2011 MIT Press book, “The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America’s Environment, Security, and Independence.”

 
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  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) Wednesday - 07 / 11 / 2012
    Well, the last four years have shown America's green house gasses decline. They have also shown an explosion in Chinese and Indian greenhouse gas creation. We have yet to convince the rest of the world to give up economic improvement in order to improve our quality of life in the terms of climate stabilization and we are not doing proactive carbon capture (e.g. http://news.cnet.com/Seeding-the-ocean-to-capture-carbon/2100-11395_3-6182861.html) either. Even worse, many of those who should be leading the way by example are instead leading the way on the other end. Until we have people moving back into sub-1000 square foot living spaces, choosing high mileage cars over status vehicles, and similar things. Even asking people to just drive the speed limits results in open scoffing from many environmentalists, as I learned when discussing that point with some of the guys from the WEC.

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