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Thursday, April 12, 2001

OUR PLANET EARTH

From ridiculous to sublime: the arguments of a fossil fool


Last month, the White House announced that U.S. President George W. Bush would not support the Kyoto Protocol because it "is not in the United States' economic best interests." The protocol is aimed at reducing human emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, that contribute to global warming and climate change. Governments, corporations and individuals worldwide reacted quickly to the news, most criticizing Bush's shortsightedness.

In this column, I too took Bush to task for kowtowing to fossil-fuel lobbyists. What intrigued me most, however, were opinions voiced in support of unrestrained fossil-fuel use. These ranged from the reasonable to the fantastic, and got me wondering what it would be like to meet a lobbyist espousing these views.

The following interview is the result of that reverie. Any similarities to persons living or dead are purely coincidental, not to mention very, very scary.

What is your position on greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide suffers from a bad image. Carbon is essential for all plants and animals. Without it there would be no life on Earth. Simply put, carbon is natural. Carbon is life.

Carbon may be essential for life, but Arctic Sea ice is shrinking over 34,000 sq. km each year, and glaciers worldwide are melting at an alarming rate. Moreover, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached 380 ppm by volume, up from preindustrial levels of 260 ppmv. Don't these warning signs warrant caution?

No one has conclusively linked rising greenhouse-gas levels to melting glaciers. Until scientists find a smoking gun, there is no reason to jeopardize economic growth. Don't you Americans preach the concept of "innocent until proven guilty"?

A majority of the world's scientists are convinced.

Even if they eventually convince us that carbon dioxide is in fact causing global warming, it's senseless to crack down on industry and the energy sector. As you mentioned, the costs of global warming, if it occurs, could be astronomical. It is essential that we build robust economies now so that we can deal with the costs of warming in the future. That's where fossil fuels come in.

Explain.

We all know carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The more fossil fuels we use, the more carbon we emit and the greater the chances of global warming. Nevertheless, fossil fuels are the easiest way to generate energy, and energy feeds economic growth. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more energy we produce, and the stronger our economies become. Strong economies are our best weapon for dealing with the destruction caused by climate change.

Your logic seems circular.

That's the beauty of it. While we burn more and more fossil fuels, we are ensuring that we are in a better position to deal with the effects of warming.

Doesn't it make more sense to subsidize and promote benign, alternative sources of energy generation, such as solar, wind, tidal, biomass and geothermal power? That way we can boost those economic sectors while phasing out the costs and liabilities of fossil fuels. Coal and oil damage health and environment at every stage, from the destruction caused by mining, drilling and spills to the air, water and soil pollution caused by burning these fuels.

What you call costs and liabilities, we in the fossil-fuel industry call "GNP boosters." Don't forget, every oil spill and every case of lung disease demands goods and services, from oil skimmers to surgery and medication. All of these cost money, boosting gross national product. And as everyone knows, rising GNP equals a better quality of life. One man's spill is another man's overtime.

But developing alternatives could stimulate a multitrillion-dollar market.

Of course, alternative energy sources make some sense, but they don't have a chance of catching on. They're produced by industries that have no political power -- in short, they don't exist on politicians' radar. Why would any politician support technologies produced by people who don't support the status quo? That would be like voting for a heart transplant and being the only available donor.

But alternative sources of energy could provide clean power and economic stimulus in decades to come. Why not make a gradual switch to alternatives now, before greenhouse-gas emissions cause irreparable harm to our global ecosystems?

It's a nice dream -- solar, wind, water and geothermal. They're the cleanest, safest forms of energy generation. But money is power, and fossil-fuel advocates have the money. The alternative energy sector will need piles of cash just to lobby for the subsidies needed to level the playing field with coal and oil.

So we are consigned to a fossil-fuel future?

As things stand today, the only viable alternative that can produce large amounts of energy is nuclear power, but that would be folly.

Why?

Nuclear is not now, and never will be, an answer to our energy needs. Sure, it's short on carbon dioxide, but it's long on deadly wastes. You can encase radioactive junk in concrete, bury it or dump it at sea, but it will still be lethal for centuries.

No benign alternatives, no nuclear, where does that leave us?

George W. Bush knows. Where we are is best. Business as usual was good enough for his daddy, and it's good enough for him. That's what's missing in the world today, tradition. Fossil fuels represent tradition. The status quo didn't need newfangled alternatives before, and we don't need them now.

Thanks very much for your time.

But don't you want to hear about how fossil fuels keep families together, prevent moral decay, and cure acne? Hello? Hello?

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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