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i was really excited to read tom friedman’s editorial calling for a change in american energy policies the other day in the nytimes. [for those of you who haven't figured out a way yet to sneak onto times select, i've put a transcript of the article at stinkpot.afraid.org_colon_8080_slash_friedman_dot_html, at least until i get an angry letter from the nytimes.]

although the article is a bit all over the place, i’m still relieved that prominent thinkers like friedman are starting to recognize that america needs to rethink its fossil-fuel-based energy economy. oil is growing scarcer as china and india continue to strengthen, meaning we’ll increasingly have to stuff even more money into the pockets often hostile petrol-regimes. coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel – fumes from burning it cause acid rain and a disproportionate percentage of greenhouse gases.

nonetheless, we’re just so dependent on these fuels. oil for instance, puts gas in our cars, provides reagents for making plastics, and serves as a building block for commercial fertilizers. coal is used to generate electricity in over half this country’s power plants. without these things, the american economy would grind to a halt. which is why, as friedman points out, the daunting process of breaking free from fossil-fuel energy sources should be seen not as a potential burden, but as a national opportunity – a chance for our nation to reassert its greatness in science and engineering [cue national anthem].

still, i don’t think it’s unduly cynical of me not to expect any real energy policy changes in the near future, for several reasons:

1) lobbying power. oil companies are rich and as the abramoff case so well illustrates, money buys influence. renewable energy companies (which are still in their infancy) aren’t nearly as well off. and since it’s tricky to turn a profit selling nothing, you can imagine that the conservationists are having an even harder time getting heard.

2) infrastructure and cost. oil companies have spent billions setting up the current oil distribution networks – think of all those oil wells, oil tankers, oil refineries, gas stations, etc. it won’t be easy to convince oil companies to take an absurdly profitable industry and adopt a still unpaid for and unproven set of technologies. high costs are also the reason why natural gas, which is cleaner than coal and more abundant than oil, is having a hard time taking off – it costs a crapload of money to ship and refine natural gas. similarly, coal and the electricity it produces is very cheap, since coal is so abundant here in the US. in fact, i believe the US has the largest coal reserves in the world.

3) renewable technology is not yet cost-effective. for instance, you’d have to drive a hybrid car for quite some time (8 years) to make back the added cost of a hybrid engine. and, from what i’ve been reading here (highly recommended reading, btw), it appears that solar panels and wind turbines are usually not profitable without government subsidy.

4) the whole global warming thing. you see articles like this or that all the time nowadays and figure that global warming* must be going on. yet, after actually hearing a columbia prof. of paleoclimatology talk last year, i take these predictions with a grain of salt. the gist of his lecture was that yes, the earth is heating up. [greenpeace 1, bushies 0]. but, this kind of thing does happen fairly regularly in history – every couple tens of thousands of years or so. [greenpeace 1, bushies 1]. the latest episode of heating, however, has been the fastest measured (going off of ancient ice core readings, which date back something like 200,000 years!) he ultimately concluded that although humanity probably has contributed to recent climate events, some natural climate cycle is also likely to have played a strong role. given nature’s involvement and the extent to which the climate has already changed, he gloomily predicted that even if mankind was somehow able to immediately end greenhouse gas emissions, global warming would probably proceed anyway. and, if that wasn’t enough of a kick in the balls, he reminded anyone who drove a hybrid car that the amount of pollution they reduced annually by having a more efficient car was more than compensated for by the pollution they caused by taking just one trans-continental airline flight.

(that paleoclimatologist gave a really awesome talk. in spite of this, the first question during the Q&A came from some some halfwit asking about “the day after tomorrow.”)

* i’ve always though global warming was a terrible name for the phenomenon. they should’ve branded it “global climate instability” ‘cuz not everywhere is getting warmer – some places are predicted to get cooler!

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