THE BUSH administration and Republicans in Congress have served notice that oil -- drilling for it, pumping it, burning more of it, keeping it cheap so we can afford more of it -- will be the chief imperative of their energy policies.
What did we expect? We've just elected a couple of oil men president and vice president. The petroleum industry has a valid claim to the political spoils. The people have spoken -- or rather five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled, which, while not the same thing, still trumps Al Gore's clear victory in the popular vote.
Meanwhile, evidence mounts that the Earth is about to get 10 degrees hotter. This confluence of political and climatic events has all the makings of a policy disaster. If President Bush's tax cut is everything bad they say about it, it will be a trivial event compared with the other mistake we are about to make. It will be a horse race whether consequences will be more ravishing to the Earth's climate or to its economy.
As for climate change, it requires colossal stupidity to ignore evidence it is already happening and the burning of fossil fuels has something to do with it. There's nothing as reliable as a DNA test to prove that emissions alone are causing climate change, but we do know they foul the air because on smoggy days we can look out the window and see it.
A simple four-cylinder motorcar parked running in a closed garage is an experiment most Americans can easily perform themselves. No, don't sit in the car until you pass out. Just come back and check in a few minutes and you'll get a nauseating whiff of what is happening to the Earth's atmosphere as millions of exhausts, power plants, furnaces and smokestacks belch stuff into its finite space at an ever increasing rate.
By some estimates, it took an average temperature change of less than 10 degrees to produce the last ice age. This variation was enough to cover a good part of the Earth in ice 10,000 feet deep. Ice covered Europe as far south as Kiev. What are now the cities of New York, Cincinnati and St. Louis were buried under ice.
Now Earth could be facing a similar and much more sudden temperature change in the opposite direction. What is left of its glaciers is melting fast. If this continues it could put much of the globe's low-lying land areas, whole nations, vast tracts of Florida, under water in the lifetimes of our grandchildren. Soon we'll have to rent a movie to see the very snows of Kilimanjaro because it has lost 82 percent of its ice cap since 1912, a yard's thickness of it in the past year alone. Ice at the North Pole is now 40 percent thinner than in 1950. Aggravating this process, vast tundras may soon defrost and decay, pumping more greenhouse gases into air already thick with man-made emissions.
The fatalist approach, I suppose, is to turn up the air conditioning and keep burning all the coal, oil and gas we need to keep comfortable. When most of the beaches disappear under the assault of rising salt water, we could build ugly levies that would block the view and devalue some of the nation's most expensive oceanfront real estate.
We know that getting hysterical about something rarely helps. But we may have reached a point where getting hysterical is the only prudent course if that's what it takes to get the attention of at least the one nation which, with only 5 percent of the world's population, produces one-fourth of all its emissions. That would be the United States.
If the Republican answer to this threat is any guide, we're in trouble. Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, who may soon be choking on tundra gas, introduced a 300-page energy bill that sends a loud pump-more, burn-more message. He's chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and besides opening up the Arctic reserves, he'd shower the industry with tax breaks to promote oil and gas production.
Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, called it "a very good start." I supposed it is -- in the direction of disaster
Reno is a columnist for Newsday.
© 2001 Contra Costa Newspapers Inc