Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Global Warming?

In the past few months, numerous scientific reports have been released documenting the phenomena of global warming. Despite their reputable authors, these reports have recieved criticism from opponents skeptical about human contributions to climate change. Regardless of whether or not global warming is taking place, there are plenty of reasons to curb the use of fossil fuels, namely petroleum, and increase the use of alternative energies like ethanol. So, forget about the validity of global warming for a minute and consider some of the other consequences of our oil "addiction."
Currently, with only 5% of the world's population, the United States uses more than 20 million barrels of oil each day, approximately one-fourth of the world's production. Over half of that amount is imported and roughly 25% comes from the Persian Gulf. According to Milton Copulus, president of the National Resource Defense Council, the true price of these imports when factoring in direct and indirect economic costs, disruptions in oil supply, and military expenditures, currently cost our nation $825.1 billion annually, which if paid at the pump would raise gas prices by $5.04!
The situation will worsen by 2025, when our level of consumption will have risen to nearly 30 million barrels of oil per day, with imports making up as much as 70% of that amount. Over this same period, developing nations around the globe, most notably China and India, will also be increasing their own oil use and world demand will rise from its 2004 level of 84 million barrels a day to 111 million barrels (EIA AEO 4). Supplies are predicted to remain tight, which will increase competition, and considering political situations in oil producing nations like Iran and Venezuela, our dependence on oil makes us extremely vulnerable.
Then there's the pollution. Again, forget about global warming for a minute. According to the EIA, in 2004 the transportation sector produced 33% of the annual U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, which is around a quarter of the entire world's CO2 emissions. 60% of that amount came from burning motor gasoline. Vehicle emissions also produced carbon monoxide pollution, nitrogen oxides, hydrofluorocarbons, as well as other particulate matter that helps to form smog and according to the American Lung Association, 150 million Americans live in urban ares with unhealthy levels of air pollution. This condition is responsible for an estimated 4,000 premature deaths each year and a rise in asthma among children and the elderly.
Finally, to combat the decline of domestic oil production, protected lands and waters are being threatened with oil drilling and the inevitable pollution that follows. For example, in Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a critical breeding ground for millions of animals and the final 5% of the state's coastline not open to drilling operations, is in jeopardy. Current surveying techniques like 3-D seismic imaging will require an intensive grid-work of roads. Oil spills will contaminate ground water. Trash will increase the populations of predators like foxes and gulls, which in turn will threaten other species' populations. And oil reserves, which are spread over a large region, dramatically increasing the area of impact, will have only a minor effect on reducing dependence on foreign oil, cut the trade deficit by just 15 billion dollars and produce less than 90,000 jobs.

On the other hand, investing in alternative and renewable energies, such as ethanol, will reduce dependence on oil, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and clean up not only the environment, but the image of the U.S. around the world. The authors of "Winning the Oil Endgame," which is a detailed plan of how to eliminate oil dependence by 2050, estimate that by 2025, approximately 9.5 quadrillion BTU per year of ethanol could be provided without a major impact on the current agricultural system. That is the equivalent of 4.6 million barrels of oil a day and would require only an investment cost of $36 dollars per barrel, much cheaper than the current $55 to $60 price of a barrel of oil.
For starters, by 2012, an annual production of 5 billion gallons of ethanol—only 1.8 times larger than production in 2003—would displace 1.6 billion barrels of oil, cut $34 billion from the trade deficit, create 214,000 new jobs, generate $5 billion of new investment, boost farm income by $39 billion, and save the budget $11 billion in farm subsidies.
Another part of the authors' plan includes increasing the efficiency of oil use in the transportation sector by making cars from carbon composite fiber and new steel alloys, all of which are already in existence and much lighter and stronger than materials currently used. Such a move could revitalize the U.S. auto manufacturing industry, giving it back the market edge of previous years.
By any account, it is hard to deny the often negative effects of global industrialization on the Earth's environments. And given the evidence presented, dependence on fossil fuels ought to be a thing of the past. But, rather than hinge the entire argument on the merits of global warming, I challenge anyone who reads this to think of in terms of finding a more sustainable way of life that will preserve the resources of the natural world for our posterity.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the world belongs to the living, and the dead have neither rights nor power over it. Therefore, a man can only use what can be replenished during his lifetime or he creates a debt to be paid by future generations. If this principle can be thought of as "generational tyranny," then we commit a grave injustice by not doing all that is possible to make the world a healthier place for everyone.

(For a complete Works Cited list, please visit and check out my essays in issues 1, 4, and 5.)