Global Warming vs. Our Economic Health

Last week, I was struck by a curious coincidence. On the day the Bush administration condemned the rest of the world for global warming agreements, the Environmental Protection Agency issued another insistent warning on smog for coastal Maine.

While the president worries that curbs on greenhouse gases will harm the economy, our growing dependence on fossil fuels is already a major contributor to costly public health problems. Even if the greenhouse effect were a figment of rabid environmentalists' imaginations, there are immediate reasons to be concerned about the ways we use energy.

The message from the EPA was blunt and unsettling. Air quality was "predicted to be unhealthy along coastal Maine due to elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone, commonly called smog. Anyone can be affected by ozone, but groups particularly sensitive include children and adults who are active outdoors, and people with respiratory disease such as asthma. Sensitive people who experience effects at lower concentrations are likely to experience more serious effects at higher concentrations. Still, even the healthiest people may find it difficult to breathe when ozone levels are very high."

It went on to suggest that: "All people, especially children, should limit strenuous outdoor activity during the afternoon and early evening hours, when ozone levels are highest."

Those who anticipate long-term climate change point out that more than half of the threat derives from carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. But regardless of the climatic effects of fossil fuel combustion, immediate damage is being done. Ground-level ozone also forms during the warm weather when pollution from vehicles, industry and power plants bakes in hot sun.

The American Lung Association points out that 100 million Americans live in communities where ozone concentrations regularly exceed federal standards. Though the causes of asthma are poorly understood, there is little doubt that high concentrations of smog exacerbate the condition. With asthma ranking as one of our fastest-growing chronic health problems, smog itself is heavily implicated in our escalating health costs.

Many tourists come to coastal Maine both for recreational activities and to escape the air quality experienced in many Northeastern cities. How surprised they -- and we -- are to learn that even Acadia National Park can hardly escape the consequences of deteriorating air quality. Prevailing upper-air patterns make coastal Maine the end of the tailpipe for a toxic brew emanating from the Northeastern metropolises.

Those who worry that attention to greenhouse gas emissions will hurt the economy suffer from a rather truncated notion of economic development. Modes of transit and energy production that may enhance auto and energy industry profits are increasingly imposing health costs and limiting recreational opportunities for the rest of us.

The EPA bulletin did suggest a series of constructive responses. Taking public transportation and fueling our cars at night caught my attention. Yet public transportation is hardly an option for most Mount Desert Island residents most of the time. Nor can most tourists get here except by cars or airplanes. The Maine Department of Transportation is currently surveying tourists to see how many would come to coastal Maine via trains if other coastal transportation options were available once they arrived. Should it receive a favorable answer, it will then explore the economic feasibility question.

Yet the question of consumer sentiment cannot easily be disentangled from that of economic and political power. The transportation habits and even preferences of both tourists and year-round residents are shaped in part by the inordinate subsidies enjoyed by the auto. Highways receive $33 billion a year in federal funds, airports $14 billion, and Amtrak less than $400 million. In historic terms gas is still cheap, reflecting neither the Pentagon expenditures needed to maintain foreign oil supplies nor the health damage it causes. Is it any wonder that most tourists arrive by car or plane and spend much of their time in cars?

There are alternatives that would ease transit problems, allow more visitors to come to Maine, reduce the health problems associated with smog, and address the problems of greenhouse emissions. Modern efficient intercity rail systems would be a step in the right direction. A first-class, high-speed rail system with modern tracks, locomotives and comfortable cars could be financed for about $2 billion a year over 20 years. If a national rail service were accompanied by expansion of existing shuttle bus systems and bike paths, both tourist travel and business commutes would become easier and more enjoyable.

Changes in our transit policy that would reduce greenhouse gases are not threats to our economy. When costs are properly assessed, such changes are economically sensible even in the short term. In addition, they can be achieved primarily by redirecting existing subsidies. When President Bush charges that strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions are a threat to the economy, he clearly equates the economy with the most well-entrenched and politically favored players.

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