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Of Worsening Oil Spills and Stalled Senate Bills

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Einstein, who had a particular knack for coming up with enduring and timeless ideas, may find application in our country's energy landscape today.

Looking out yonder, we see a devastating oil spill and possibly one of the worst and most costly ecological disasters in our country's history, mountains being destroyed by explosives and the resulting toxic sludge getting dumped into our waterways, communities and people being poisoned by coal ash and coal waste, and carbon pollution exacerbating heat waves, warming our oceans, and increasing ocean acidity until building blocks of our underwater life are killed off—and these are just some of the things we are seeing here in the U.S.

Looking beyond the U.S., we see unfriendly regimes getting stronger and richer from our reliance on foreign oil, we see China boosting its share of the renewables market in its quest for global economic leadership and to meet its growing thirst for energy.

So we ask: While our government leaders talk about a transition to a clean-energy economy, why then are we still considering the same old approaches? Is it not Einstein's definition of insanity?

Those who protested the Obama administration's recent announcement of expansion of offshore drilling didn't need yet another catastrophe to teach them that lesson which is so hard for our country to learn: Fossil fuels simply cannot pave the way to a clean-energy future.

Even more basic and on a wholly economic level, fossil fuels cannot pave the way to any future at all. If you haven't read Paul Krugman's opus on this, get there now. 

What's worse than sheer resistance to progress, we seem intent on learning lessons the hard way.

We didn't need to learn today that oil may be leaking at five times the rate that officials originally thought from the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana coast. Or that rescue teams discovered a new leak late yesterday and are now turning to extreme measures to attempt to contain the devastation. After efforts failed to seal off the source of the spill, rescue crews attempted another form of containment: They began a series of controlled fires, setting the slick ablaze in an effort to burn it off before it reaches shore.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, rescue teams back on shore are bracing for the oil slick to hit the coast as early as tonight, laying down thousands of meters of booms meant to block the oil from progressing into fragile habitats and contemplating other possible measures, including firing cannons to scare birds away from the coastline and use shrimping boats to skim oil off the surface of shallow coastal waters.

And today, President Obama called the Department of Defense and U.S. Navy in to help with containment of the spill.

I can only hope that amid this insane catastrophe, our country learns that there is a better way. There are, in fact, many better ways. Tested and true, clean energy sources—among them, my own personal favorite: energy efficiency—are available and bountiful. Instead of finding ways to prop up and bail out the coal industry and drill more oil, our governments, both state and national, should be investing in these and channeling our resources to develop and distribute them.

And of course, perhaps the worst lesson to learn the hard way is the lesson of climate change. While the industry-funded denialists continue to spread their message to make sure the American public and American government keep lining their pockets, the scientific evidence of climate change is mounting. Even worse, evidence of climate change's impending domino effect of destruction is at hand.

I refer to yet another scientific report on climate change indicators—this time, specifically in the United States alone. This EPA report, released this week, is the product of research by scientists from five federal agencies, especially from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center. Here again is a compelling reason to listen to these agencies, which have long been our government stalwarts of sound science.

Among 24 key indicators of climate change in the U.S., here are some particularly noteworthy findings, taken directly from the report:

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing. Between 1990 and 2008, there has been about a 14 percent increase in emissions in the United States.

Average temperatures in the U.S. are rising. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental United States have occurred since 1990.

  • Tropical cyclone intensity here has increased in recent decades. Six of the 10 most active U.S. hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.
  • U.S. sea levels are rising. From 1993 to 2008, sea level rose twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Our Alaskan glaciers are melting. Loss of glacier volume appears to have accelerated over the last decade.
  • The frequency of heat waves has risen steadily since the 1960s. The percentage of the U.S. population impacted by heat waves has also increased.

It seems all of today's news would make for the perfect storm for a new direction and approach in national energy policy, but it also leaves many of us wondering, just how bad does the storm have to get until we change our ways?

I don't believe that it is too much to hope for that our nation's leaders, namely those in the Senate, work quickly to introduce legislation that allows our nation to bypass learning these lessons the hard way yet again.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.