We can be pretty sure that the new government will fix the economy in a few years or it will fix itself, but the outlook for the Earth at the birth of spring 2009 is grim in the extreme.
A leading scientist with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued another warning last month that the world was heating much faster than previous models had indicated, partly because China and India, even more than the United States, have been generating electricity at a faster and faster clip and accelerating carbon dioxide's escape into the atmosphere. He said there was a growing risk that rapid climate change could speed the release of carbon dioxide from forests and from melting permafrost in the Arctic, where the eons have trapped billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane. Then it will get really dicey for mankind.
President Obama's chief climate-change coordinator gave the world some reason to cheer — and the gathering of scientific diplomats at Berlin this week did just that, lustily — when he said the United States was ending its isolation from the rest of the world on the climate and would be “powerfully, fervently engaged” in the fresh talks to reduce carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases.
Friday, the president ordered higher car and truck fuel-economy standards for 2011 models. He has told the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider — read that “repeal” — its ban on states adopting even higher emission standards on their own, and with the Bush bureaucrats banished from the EPA it will shortly declare carbon dioxide a poison harmful to the public. The U.S. Supreme Court had already found it so and directed the EPA to establish CO2 ceilings under the Clean Air Act, but Bush's EPA sandbagged until he could get out of office.
If he can get it past the Arkansas congressional delegation and senators and representatives from coal-producing states and coal-burning utilities, President Obama will put a cap-and-trade system into place to begin to drive down coal consumption and greenhouse emissions or at least slow the mad rush to cataclysm.
Which raises this question: How are we doing on that score down here in our own little corner of the burning planet?
Not so well. Arkansas is simpatico with George W. Bush although even he began to go a little soft on the global warming in his final days. In other words, bring it on.
The state government, which has done exactly as the energy companies have bidden for 80 years, is helping utilities rush a new coal plant on line so that it can be belching another 4 to 6 million tons of CO2 into the heavens before the federal government can put the lid on. No matter that the Supreme Court and nearly every scientist who doesn't have a diploma from a Bible college say that the vast excess of CO2 is harmful, the state Public Service Commission and Department of Environmental Quality abide by the gospel of George W. Bush. If it's a problem for the future let the grandkids deal with it. We have our own troubles, and profits to make.
James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned last month that plants like the Turk facility near Hope are “factories of death.” He testified in England that a plant only slightly larger than Turk would be responsible in its lifetime for the extermination of about 400 species.
But the utilities and the state regulators who serve them look at it another way: A little place like Arkansas can't solve a problem of biblical scale so why put ourselves out just to be a tiny part of the solution?
That must be how lawmakers look at it, too. The legislature, lobbied heavily by the gas and electric companies, has stymied a little package of bills recommended by the Governor's Commission on Global Warming that might bring about some fuel conservation and shrink Arkansas's carbon footprint just a little. Even baby steps are too much.
One bill would encourage —encourage, not order — electric utilities to devise conservation programs and do their dead-level best to reduce kilowatt usage by 1 percent by 2013 and gas companies to try to conserve a mere three-fourths of 1 percent. They could capitalize the costs of their efficiency programs and earn on them. Another bill would encourage government at every level, from schools to the Capitol, to retrofit their facilities to reduce energy consumption. Another would lower barriers to creating a renewable energy market and help people upgrade to renewable sources. All have been buried in House committees.
They are modeled after far bolder measures taken in California after the great oil price shocks of the early 1970s and the cycle of inflation and recession that followed. While the average American burns 12,000 kilowatt hours a year — an Arkansan even more — a Californian burns less than 7,000. A California family spends $800 a year less on energy than it would have without all the conservation measures taken since 1975. It's been good for the climate, too. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita have fallen by 30 percent. They saved a couple dozen power plants like Turk.
The legislature promises that it will not throw us into that briar patch, not unless the utilities are willing.